Talk Cinema's Ron Falzone Discusses The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, directed by The Archers

There are many filmmakers I love, but only a few that I hold in awe.  At the top of my list are the great Japanese minimalist Yasujiro Ozu, and the extraordinary British maximalist team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

Powell and Pressburger created a series of remarkable films throughout the forties and into the fifties.  All were known for their pictorial elegance, depth of interesting topics, and, at times, a cheeky sense of humor that more than once got them into hot water with the powers-that-be.

Known jointly as The Archers, their determination that all of their films be listed as “Written and Directed by Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell” did not hide the fact that Powell was the sole director and Pressburger the sole writer.  Regardless of credit, their output of classic films during this period is mindboggling.  The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, A Matter of Life and Death, I Know Where I’m Going, Tales of Hoffman, Small Back Room, A Canterbury Tale, Gone to Earth and The Battle of the River Plate are only part of the list.  Precious few of these could be called genre films. The Archers were never bound by any kind of rules, let alone generic ones.

Two of their earliest works, 49th Parallel and One of Our Aircraft is Missing, give clues to the democracy of their interests as well as leading, ironically, to their greatest film, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.  Both of these earlier movies are about combatants forced to make their way across enemy territory in order to survive.  In One of Our Aircraft is Missing, a downed RAF crew must make its way across occupied Holland. 49th Parallel tells the identical story only this time it is a crew of mostly committed Nazi submariners who must make it across Canada to neutral America. 

Released in England in 1941, 49th Parallel was a clarion call to America to get involved in the war.  Upon seeing this movie, Churchill immediately decided that The Archers were the perfect filmmakers to sell his war goals.  He would quickly come to wonder why he ever thought that.  If Holland and Canada were the inhospitable territories that had to be traversed in those earlier films, in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp the tricky landscape our hero must get across is England in the first half of the 20th Century.

Clearly running counter to Churchill’s expectations, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp had the audacity to call out Britain’s willing dismissal of honor in the face of war as well as make one of its most sympathetic characters a…gasp… German officer.  What is so remarkable is that The Archers managed to do this with intelligence, humor and extraordinary warmth, and then wrap it up in a glorious Technicolor package shot by the great Georges Perinál.  Hailing from a time when the British cinema was finally coming into its own, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is one of that industry’s highwater marks, an imperishable work of art and a wholly unique experience.

Prior to the war, Colonel Blimp was a popular British newspaper cartoon character.  A blustery old fuddy-duddy mired in past glories, the colonel was a device used to ridicule the antiquated notions of war that everyone in the 1930’s feared was their future.  When Powell and Pressburger first proposed a film with the name “Colonel Blimp” in the title, Churchill not unreasonably assumed that it would be a love letter to the modern military.  The Archers had something else in mind.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp begins in a steam room with General Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey) lying like a bloated corpse on a marble slab.  Two minutes after meeting him we are all thinking the same thing:  Am I going to have to spend three hours with this guy?  When that time has passed, though, your response to this Blimp will be as far from your expectations as possible.  The same goes for Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorf (Anton Walbrook), the German officer with whom Clive must duel but instead forms a lifelong bond of unbreakable though sorely tested friendship.

There is nothing in this movie that turns out as predicted.  The Archers make sure of this by constantly playing with our expectations and sympathies.  The duel, given a long and detailed set-up, surprisingly happens off-camera.  Clive has three important women in his life – his first love, his wife and his yeoman.  All three are played by Deborah Kerr without comment or irony.  There are two reunions between Clive and Theo that we expect to be joyous affairs.  One becomes a painful encounter after World War I.  The second, an even darker one, happens when Theo finds himself escaping the Nazis to an England that has no use for an “enemy alien.”

The Archers are clearly after much bigger game than the story of an unlikely friendship.   At its heart, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is about obsolescence, about what is lost in the headlong rush to modernity.  The tradition and honor at the core of both Clive and Theo had come to be seen lamentably as antiquated, even silly, with the dawn of mechanized slaughter. For Powell and Pressburger, the fundamental irony here is that those most equipped to understand the price of war – committed veteran soldiers – are the first to be discounted when a new war comes along. 

With The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, The Archers were asking, “How can we jettison our moral compass then claim our victory is moral?”  It is the kind of question that needs to be asked during wartime but, with this one precious exception, never is.