August 22, 2006
Life and Death of Colonel BlimpReviewer: Craig Phillips
Rating (out of 5): ****½
The Life and Death of Col Blimp is not my favorite of Michael Powell’s films, but to me, this is like saying one Van Gogh is not quite as good as another – each film, each work, is a masterpiece in its own way, from a director who never made a weak film. And in Colonel Blimp, there is much to delight, much to revel in. What also occurred to me while watching the Criterion DVD is how a filmmaker who in many ways worked in a world, a time, a place so foreign to Americans in my generation, can still captivate so completely. With this particular film it takes a bit more time to become involved, but as with all of Powell's films is well worth the effort.
What it has, too, is an absolutely magisterial performance at its center – that of Roger Livesey, who literally gave the performance of a lifetime as the film follows his Clive Candy over the course of 40 years, from his days as a young soldier to his last days as part of the old guard – as he ages, Livesey is never less than convincing throughout. Unlike a lot of more recent performances in which actors age through makeup and overacting, Livesey is extraordinary, making you forget he’s not actually aging. He would act in non-Powell films but it's his work in Matter of Life and Death, I Know Where I'm Going and particularly Blimp that he will forever (I hope) be remembered. (The DVD features a slight but insightful documentary about the film in which Stephen Fry does a rather keen and affectionate impression of Livesey)
The film somehow manages to be both a satire of and a salute to the old guard, and Powell intended it to honor the "new guard" - but as it was shot and released during the height of WWII, 1943, the film was received with quite a bit of controversy in England, for what was perceived as a critique of the modern soldier fighting for Britain’s defense. Ironic, in perspective, because the film was about this division. It’s also fascinating for being one of the few films to cover the perspective of that generation of soldier from one world war to the next. There's an intriguing take on this from James Chapman if you're interested in reading more. But Candy is ultimately defeated by his own stubborn refusal to see that the enemy in WWII is not playing by the same "rules of the game" that he'd been used to. He met his best friend Theo, the German - and the film is really about their relationship much more so than of the women in the story - when the two of them dueled after WWI, following a stubborn honor code. Later it is Theo, who has seen the Nazis behavior firsthand, who scolds Candy for not understanding how things have changed:
Theo: "Clive! If you let yourself be defeated by them, just because you are too fair to hit back the same way they hit at you, there won't be any methods but Nazi methods! If you preach the Rules of the Game while they use every foul and filthy trick against you, they will laugh at you! They'll think you're weak, decadent! And if you lose there won't be a return match next year, perhaps not even for a hundred years! "
It really is one of the best films ever made about male friendship – in this case the relationship between Livesey’s Candy and Anton Walbrook’s Theo. Both men share a fondness for redheads, especially redheads who look like Deborah Kerr (who plays three roles in the film, an almost Vertigo-like), share love for same woman, but what lasts throughout the lifetime is their own friendship.
This may be Emeric Pressburger’s best script in his many terrific collaborations with Powell – he considered it his favorite and its easy to see why. For its sweep and scope, it covers not just a span of years, but a life lived in three full acts, separated by the different women but brought together by Livesey's Candy's own transformation - depicted at the end not in a literal death but symbolic in a superb finale.
The film, as you'd expect from Powell, looks terrific, too, and the DVD really captures the color and nuances of Powell's distinct looks for each sequence. From the overhead shot of the duel between Candy and Theo to the eerie later scene set during a wartime blackout in which Theo is driven by Kerr's "Johnny," her face gradually revealed to him, the film is a master class in film composition. Then I'd recommend rewatching it again with the audio commentary to hear insight into the way the film was composed. (The cinematographer was Georges Périnal, who would later shoot Saint Joan and the underrated Carol Reed film The Fallen Idol.) On the commentary track, Martin Scorsese (who else?) reveals quite a few interesting tidbits - including a revelation (to me anyway) about how American technicolor films looked different than British technicolor, because each country used a different process for developing the film stock - and how cinephiles can actually distinguish them. Scorsese adds a lot, but most of the film's commentary is devoted to Powell himself, forming a tale of two extremes: Scorsese who talks at the speed of sound, while Powell sounds quite dottering in his old age, and yet, if you have the patience to listen to him slowly ...finish... his...sentences... you will be justly rewarded with many wonderful insights into his process. It’s a gift, really, one for the time capsule, to have this man's voice recorded for filmmakers and historians everywhere.