Saturday, October 2, 2010

#87 - The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

BACK-STORY: “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” was released in 1943 and was directed by the legendary team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (The Archers). They also directed the respected “49th Parallel”. It was the most expensive British movie made up until then. The movie was shot in vibrant Technicolor. It is about as British as you can get. Although the movie is usually said to be inspired by the comic strip character, in fact the idea came from a scene cut from The Archers’ previous film (“One of Our Aircraft is Missing”). A character says “You don’t know what it’s like to be old”. Film editor and future great director David Lean suggested a movie be constructed around that line.

Interestingly, Churchill tried to stop the film and did not allow the British military to cooperate. He felt it perpetuated the stereotype of Blimp-like British officers. Some suggest he was standing up for his peer group. The film went through anyway, but did not do well mainly because the British public in 1943 was not keen on the sympathetic German character that appears in the film.

OPENING SCENE: The film opens with a motorcycle messenger arriving at headquarters. The orders are to prepare for a pre-invasion practice. The commander decides to pre-empt the defense by attacking early. The cheating leader captures the elderly Gen. Candy (Robert Livesey) at a steam-bath to make the point that the enemy does not play by the rules (a theme that will return later). Candy blubbers that “the war starts at midnight!” The young officer (a younger version of Candy) insults Candy for being old and orthodox. Candy punches him and they fall in the pool.

SUMMARY: The movie flashes back to 1902. Clive Candy has just returned from the Boer War with a Victoria’s Cross. He goes off to Berlin to confront a spy who is spreading lies about British atrocities in South Africa. He meets Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr), whose letter had encouraged him to come to Berlin to confront the scoundrel. At a restaurant, Candy punches the villain and insults the German army resulting in a duel with a German officer named Theodor Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook). But first the diplomats have to negotiate the rules of the duel using a handbook in a scene which reveals the ridiculous formality of dueling. We are all set up for a rousing sword fight when the movie inexplicably cuts away. Boo!! (Oops, bravo – leave it to our imagination. Genius!)

this is a s far as we get

Theo, Edith, and Clive

Candy ends up in a hospital along with Theodor. They become friends, naturally. Edith hangs out with them and Theodor falls in love with her. Candy gives his hearty approval, but later realizes he is in love with her. Too late. Time passes by (1903-1914) by way of the interesting technique of showing the accumulation of big game animal heads on the wall of Candy’s study.

Next we are in 1918 Flanders. Candy is a general, but we do not know what he has been doing thus far in the war. He arrives at headquarters in appropriately nasty weather. The sound stages are nicely done, but still fake looking. In a dugout, Candy looks the other way while his men mistreat German prisoners to get information. This contradicts his “fight fairly” philosophy.

Candy and his driver in WWI

We flash forward to Candy’s country estate after the war. He is married to Barbara, a woman with a remarkable resemblance to Edith (maybe because she is also played by Kerr). This comes off as a bit creepy. He and Mrs. Candy go to visit Theo in a prison camp, but Theo shuns them. Later, Theo apologizes and dines with them. They assure Theo that England will deal fairly with Germany. On his trip home, Theo gloats that the British are wimps and implies that Germany will come back because of British naivete. This emotion is out of character for him. It should have been played with head shaking, not lip curling.

The years pass by way of a flipping photo album. Barbara has passed away. How? Who cares, apparently. It is now 1935 and Theo is trying to enter England as a political refugee. (Edith has died, ditto.) Apparently when he gloated about the comeback of Germany, he thought it would be done by sophisticates like him, not by Nazis. Candy arrives to vouch for him and takes him home. Theo can’t help but notice that the portrait of Barbara (on the wall near his trophy heads – get it?) looks like his Edith. They now realize why Edith/Barbara would disappear every other week – just kidding. He is doubly amused by the fact that Candy’s driver Angela Cannon (who he picked from 700 potentials) looks like Edith and Barbara. She is also played by Kerr (who was chosen from 700 actresses to play Cannon).

General Candy of the Home Guard
Candy has a radio speech gig, but it is cancelled at the last minute because the powers that be find out his theme is going to be that England should fight fair. (Apparently he has forgotten his role in the prisoner interrogation.) Theo had tried to warn him by pointing out that England “lost” the Great War (huh?) because it behaved like gentlemen and allowed Germany to rise again. He is forced into retirement, but returns to command part of the Home Guard. He should have stayed retired .

FINAL SCENE: We come full circle to the opening. Candy humiliates himself in the Turkish bath and realizes that time has passed him by.  There is no room for good sports in this war.  He, Theo, and Angela salute a group of the Home Guard as it marches by. Clive and Theo then have wild sex with Edith/Barbara/Angela.


Action - 3

Acting - 8

Accuracy - 7

Realism – 5

Plot – 6

Overall – 5

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Some women might like this movie. (Not if they look like Deborah Kerr). Possibly even some non-British women. Kerr is a great actress and her characters are strong, although you have to wonder if Barbara knew about Edith when she married a man 20 years older than her. Discuss the creepiness factor with your significant other after viewing. The story is interesting and no need to worry about any graphic violence, or any other action, for that matter.

CRITIQUE: This movie has caused me some soul-searching. As a war movie lover, I have assumed that I know a good war movie when I see one. Granted, I did not go to film school, but I am intelligent and have seen many war movies. So why don’t I “get” this movie? I actually read a critic saying this is the greatest British movie ever made. If I believe he is right, I need to stop reviewing war films because I am embarrassing myself. Fortunately, I have high enough self-esteem to feel I can represent the layman war movie lover and speak to the average viewer. So here goes.

This movie is not a “masterpiece”. At least it would certainly not seem so to an American audience. I doubt many Englishmen under age 50 would argue that it is. It’s not really a war movie. It is more of a social satire. It is a period piece. Blimp represents the snobby, uppercrust British officer class. Our officer class has not been traditionally from the nobility, so most would not recognize Blimp as a stereotype. In fact, you need to be British to get a lot of the cultural references (and to understand some of the slang). Most Americans will not “get” this movie.  I could not get ten minutes into this film before my Military History class would be begging to be euthanized.

With that said, it is not a bad movie. It is interesting to see the evolution of Candy from a young, impetuous lieutenant to an old, moss-backed general. However some of this character evolution does not seem realistic. His pre-WWII sentiments of fair play belie his apparent conduct in WWI. The movie is well-acted, especially by Walbrook, but even his character contradicts himself. The first half of the movie moves along briskly, but after the trio breaks up it goes downhill. It is also a good example of a propaganda film with the message being that England should not be required to fight fairly against the Nazis. Give The Archers credit for having a sympathetic main character argue for the opposite. (The city of Dresden can tell you which argument won). There are references to German atrocities in WWI and the stated fact that the British were the good guys in the war, albeit naively good. There is some humor, but it is very British.

My main complaint is the flashing back and forward skips over what should have been the most interesting parts of the movie. I know critics will chastise me for wanting to see the duel, but who’s with me on this? We watch the negotiations for the duel, but not the duel itself? Are you kidding me?! I know you might want to leave something to the imagination, but when the actual scenes are action-free, why not substitute a scene that shows what Candy was doing from 1914-1917?

ACCURACY: The movie is fictional, so historical accuracy is not really an issue. The one possible inaccuracy that stands out is – would the Home Guard have been practicing to repel an invasion as late as 1943? I doubt it, but it is possible. There were Germans who fled because they disagreed with the direction the Nazis were taking Germany, so Theo’s immigration to England is plausible. I am sure there was a debate in England of how dirty to fight the Nazis. Obviously, the dirty-fighters won that argument as the movie implies by Candy’s fall from grace.

CONCLUSION: It should be obvious that I do not think “Blimp” belongs in the Top 100. I just watched “In Which We Served”, another British WWII movie, which is much superior to it in every way and probably will make my 100. I am not an Anglophobe, quite the opposite, old chap. However, I feel compelled to point out that in the case of “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp”, the emperor has little clothes.

Watch it for yourself and choose a sideline to be on – the professional critics or the common sense war movie lovers. See you on my side! You British viewers get a pass on this one. It’s okay for you to love it.


  1. There is some humor but it is British? You know, you underline my latest theory. I do believe (I was in the US for the first time this year) that there is no European country as different from the US than the UK. Despite the "same" language. I finally watched the Bridge on the River Kwai and a great part of the movie lives from the opposition of the American and the British. Highly amusing for me. Be it as it may, I believe that this movie is not one of the 100 greatest but I am a bit tempted to watch it.

  2. I wish you would watch it. I am pretty sure you will like it more than I did. I look forward to you reviewing it in the future.

  3. Bad, bad news. I watched and loved it. Don't know when I will review it. Maybe on the weekend. I agree it is as British as you can get.

  4. Nothing wrong with that. I think there are some foreign movies Americans just do not get. This is one for me. I would imagine it works the other way around also. What popular American movie do you not get?

  5. I don't think there ever was any. But there are certainly some I did not like. you would have to give an example, and then we would see. I think we are more familiar with things important to Americans than the other way around.

  6. Good point. How about "Apocalyse Now" which has been compared to "Come and See"? "Saving Private Ryan", "The Patriot", "U-571", "Braveheart", "Gladiator"? All movies I would wonder how Europe viewed.

  7. Watched it. Loved it! Can't say I agree with you old boy on a number of your points.

    If you can't get the hoopla surrounding the nonsense of the duel then I'm not suprised you don't get the film.

    Please don't tell me U-571 ranks above Blimp. If it does the boys and girls at MHM deserve a jolly good thrashing and then after that lunch at my club.

    I like your blog.


  8. Actually, I loved the scene where they discuss the rules of the duel, but was quite disappointed in them not showing the actual duel.
    Not to worry, U-571 is not on the list, nor does it deserve to be. You sound like you are British, so let me apologize on behalf of America for U-571.
    Thanks for calling me "old boy", that is so cool.
    Thanks for becoming a follower.


Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.