Monday, October 19, 2009

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

For the first hour of Michael Powell's epic The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, I felt slightly uncomfortable at its overt Britishness. Released in 1943, the film contains a number of moments that play up the fading nobility of the Empire, putting positive spins on the country's involvement in the Boer War and the First World War. But once the characters reach the end of WWI, Powell shifts gears, and the first hour is revealed to be a protracted, lush setup to quite possibly his funniest and most satiric film.

Nominally a reference to the satirical comic strip of Colonel Blimp, a comment upon the reactionary jingoism prominent in British attitudes in the '30s and '40s, Powell's film keeps only an approximation of the character's appearance but uses and subverts the characteristics David Low's over-the-top creation to inform the protagonist Clive Candy. We meet Candy as an old general enjoying a bath, when a young officer barges in and "captures" the residents of the mansion as a training exercise. When informed, Candy is furious. "War starts at midnight!" he fumes, but the lad responds that he simply tried to prepare for actual warfare with the Germans. Candy wants to hear none of it and scuffles with the boy.

Powell then jumps back to Candy's own youth as a rising officer, and slowly he and Emeric Pressburger peel away at the silly old man clinging to absurdly dated notions of the "propriety" of war until we're left with a virile young idealist, a hopeless romantic who does not feel entitled to a sense of nobility in his old age but earns it instead. Candy's flashbacks begin with the Boer War, on leave after being award the Victoria Cross. He received a letter from one Edith Hunter, an English schoolteacher in Berlin who writes to the military complaining of anti-English propaganda in Germany over the war. The two meet and, though his superiors understandably refuse to allow this low-ranking officer to meddle in international politics, Candy decides to help out anyway. Unfortunately, his idea of foreign relations involves pranking the German propagandist until he manages to offend the entire German officer corps, to the point that they must draw lots to determine who shall duel him.

To avoid setting off a potential scandal, the two sides agree to announce that the duel concerns a dispute between Candy and his opponent, Theodor Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook), over Edith. The duel occurs off-screen, and Powell cuts to a hospital in Berlin where the two recuperate and quickly become friends. Combined with Edith, who must stay with them to keep up appearances, they form a fascinating trio. Edith is fiery and intelligent: when she meets the old-fashioned Candy, she winds up launching into a diatribe about how women are constantly belittled in society, refuting his increasingly meek suggestions of homemaking and governing boarding houses as "jobs" for women. Her spirited and well-organized arguments put the first cracks in Candy's boisterous, cocky facade, which totally crumbles in the face of the well-mannered and kind German officer Theo. When the two recover, Theo, whose English is still rusty, comes to Candy and asks if they are really friends. When Candy agrees, Theo challenges him to a duel for Edith's hand in marriage, failing to grasp that Edith is Clive's "fiancée" only for PR reasons. Candy ecstatically congratulates the two and sets off home, only to realize upon returning how much he actually did love Edith.

Candy is so desperate to find some approximation of Edith that he takes out her sister as soon as he returns to England, only to find her personality reflects nothing of his love. Being away from his more down-to-earth friends brings back the pomposity in Candy, and Powell marks the passage of time between the Boer War and WWI with a wicked montage exhibiting the various kills he makes on international hunts, each with their own little plaque marking the date as if they were significant achievements.

By the time Candy, now a Brigadier General, sees the end of World War I, he's more or less the boisterous, nationalistic codger we met at the start of the film: when the shells stop falling and news of the armistice reaches the trenches, Candy turns proudly to his aide Murdoch and says that the Allied victory is proof that "might is right," that their side won without resorting to the atrocities of the Germans (mustard gas, torture, etc.). The problem is, not five minutes before, he asked a German POW about his old friend Theo and, after he left with no information, another soldier implies that they will extract the news from the POW one way or another. Candy has retained all of his youthful idealism and patriotism, but he's also retained all of his ideas about how things "should" be, and we start to see the lovable romantic slowly fade due to his unwillingness to change, something not helped by his wife Barbara (also played by Kerr), physically and mentally Edith's duplicate, in a romantic gesture makes him swear not to change his ways until the house they live in is flooded into a lake.

Livesey and Walbrook give defining roles as Candy and Theo: I actually wondered who played the old Candy at the beginning until the film wound on and the brash, fresh-faced youth slowly transformed through makeup and his own craft into that bloviating fool in his ivory tower, then ultimately showing that man's lasting beauty and nobility -- at one point, Theo remarks that before he met Clive, he didn't know Englishmen could be so romantic. In that sense, Livesey's more cartoonish role has more layers than Halbrook's even as the latter adds the sort of depth you'd rarely expect to find invested into an enemy combatant in the middle of a war. Upon fleeing to England, this man, who has no real reason to care for the country other than it being a haven from the Nazis, pleads his case to a board that will place him in an internment camp if they deem him a risk. It is one of the most heartbreaking speeches I can recall ever hearing in a film, not a stirring condemnation of Nazi principles or a declaration of the glory of England but a devastating account of loss and regret, a reminiscence of his country's spiral around the drain brought on by external and internal forces, and a sense of hopelessness allieved only when he decides to leave his homeland for the home of his dearest friend.

Anyone who's ever seen one of Michael Powell's features knows his mastery of Technicolor, and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp ranks among his most beautiful pictures, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. But where those two used color to gradually build a mood of horror, Blimp builds into a sweeping romantic epic. Red of course plays a large part in Powell's color palette, from Kerr's ginger hair to a miraculously intact café that is so full of red it's practically bleeding. When one of Kerr's characters is not on-screen, however, the colors fade to military drab, emphasizing not only Candy's hardened, reactionary mindset but the loneliness he feels without Edith or someone who reminds him of her. When he's got someone to bring out his charm, he becomes not a caricature of outdated British nobility but a shining example of a core set of values that make Britain great, no matter what lesser ethos to which they might be applied (imperialism, jingoism).

It's somewhat surprising, then, to hear how virulently Churchill and the War Office tried to suppress the film. They pointed to Walbrook's Theo as a too-sympathetic depiction of a German officer, and indeed he demonstrates far more pathos and ready humanity than the more symbolic Candy -- at the end of World War I, Theo openly fears for Germany's future, and Pressburger's script makes plain the role of the Allies and their list of reparations in the shaping of Hitler's eventual rise to power. But Theo represents a good German, one who flees the Nazis to England, where he was a prisoner of war once and almost becomes one again until Candy comes to vouch for his friend.

Churchill might have thought himself, a veteran of the Boer War and a proudly militaristic leader, the target of Powell's satire, and that might be true to some extent. But The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is, and I don't mean this as a criticism, a piece of propaganda. Yes, it balances many of its two-dimensionally pro-British sentiments with examples of contradictory behavior, but that is only because Powell and Pressburger are stripping away the emptiness and the hatred of propaganda until they're left with something that British citizens can truly be proud of as they deal with the constant threat of German invasion. Perhaps the War Office hated it so because it contains a very real sadness concerning war that one doesn't find in propaganda, not an outright rejection of the need for a country to defend itself but a quiet reflection here and there on the ever-growing scale of conflict. When the two are reunited, Theo and Clive talk of the current war, and Clive puffs out his chest by drawing parallels to German techniques in the current war and WWI, rhetorically asking, "Who won the last one?" Theo replies, "We lost it, but you lost something too" and tears down Clive's outdated sense of the honor of war, saying, "This is not a gentleman's war. This time you're fighting for your very existence." One could read a sense of nostalgia for a more falsely noble and sexist time in this, but I think that Theo succinctly captures the madness of it all in a simple statement: "Do you remember, Clive, we used to say: 'Our army is fighting for our homes, our women, And our children'? Now the women are fighting beside the men. The children are trained to shoot. Whats left is the "home." But what is the 'home' without women And children?"

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