The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp Review
In 1943, Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell made their first film in technicolor. Intended as a propaganda piece to keep up wartime morale, the distinctive tale of a friendship between a German soldier and an aristocratic English soldier was not what Churchill wanted and he tried to scupper the film by ensuring that Laurence Olivier was not available to take the lead role. Undaunted, Powell and Pressburger cast Roger Livesey instead and produced a majestic film about the changing realities of warfare, Englishness and lost love.
Clive Wynne-Candy has been retired into service with the home guard when younger troops decide to scupper his plans for war manoeuvres by starting war early. Captured, he remembers the 40 years he has spent as a career soldier. Firstly as a young man winning the Victoria Cross in the Boer War and defending national honour in Munich. Next as a senior officer on the frontlines in the first world war, and finally coming to terms with his obsolescence in the second world war. Through these years he treasures a vision of his true love, and lives alongside the travails of his best friend, Theo Kratschmar-Shuldorf. Living by rules of sportsmanship, he comes to learn that by not changing that he is left behind.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp displays the fierce originality of an Archer's production. It eschews visions of war and violence and values the ability of its strong female characters to adapt and evolve. Taking a sympathetic view of the pompous out of touch Colonel Blimp, it shows a man of great loyalty, fine morals, and in search of true love. Blimp may begin as a cartoon figure, but we come to learn that he is dogged, brave, and more than a little alone. His immutable values are a promise to both his country and his love, and it is only the development of Nazism that renders them outdated. He follows a similar path to his German friend, Theo, who fights for his country only to lose his children to the obscenity of Fascism, and the film deliberately draws European parallels rather than be parochial. It remembers the disenfranchised Germans through moments like Theo's speech in applying for British citizenship. This is one of the great denunciations of Nazi Germany in film, it is both personal and political and acted superbly by Anton Walbrook (himself a refugee from the rise of Hitler).
While Colonel Blimp makes the case for a fight against dictatorship it mourns the loss of the rules of fair play. The colonial attitude and paternalism of Blimp are very much the symptoms of the end of empire - “We weren't abroad – it was Jamaica”. Blimp's fondness for Old England is shared by the Archers, but this is mixed with the disappointment for its inevitable end and the desire for necessary change.
Colonel Blimp mixes scenes of clever almost surreal film-making with occasionally documentary like moments. Blimp's flashback, which begins the movie, is a wonderful example of great technique as the old Blimp falls into the bath only to walk out of the same bath 40 years earlier, and Blimp's periods of celibacy are shown through his prolific hunting with a witty montage of various animal heads appearing on his study wall. The more realistic sequences are in the present of the film such as the viewer joining the troops riding their motorcycles at the start. War always happens off-screen and most of the footage of the conflicts is stylised and studio based to keep the war distant and slightly unreal. Similarly, the deaths of characters occur in obituary columns and through comment by the living. Violence is never presented as fun or justified, and even in the famous duel sequence the injuries are caused without commitment or for benefit of a watching audience. Even more daringly, Blimp's view of war by Queensbury's rules is undermined by other characters. A South African sergeant talks of learning tricks off the British during the Boer war before using the methods that Blimp won't to get the truth out of captured German soldiers, and Theo learns the lesson of changing times and becomes the moral voice of the film – a German as the voice of reason in a propaganda piece!
Visually, Blimp is brilliant with its slightly rose-tinted past and the more common, earthy present. When Theo points out that the picture of Blimp's wife hangs alongside his hunting conquests the irony is brilliantly shown alongside the the sadness of this man who hunts his ideal of love. The camera loves Deborah Kerr in Blimp and her performance as the ideal woman – suffragette, nurse, and army driver – is wonderfully toned with the different roles being fleshed out rather than simply symbolic, the performance of a 22 year old Kerr is simply incredible. The production design is marvellous and the casting allows for caricatures and realism to be balanced finely.
Colonel Blimp can lay claim to being the greatest of home-grown movies because unlike other British films it knows well how the nation looks to the rest of the world. Pressburger's influence as an Anglophile gives a depth and a warmth to the film that never becomes nationalism or chauvinism, there are symbols here but all the characters are real and rounded with fine dialogue and inner lives. Colonel Blimp shows how Britain needed to change to remain the Britain we wanted, not a narrow xenophobic or German hating nation, but a pluralist outward looking one. To achieve such a fine message in a propaganda piece is an amazing achievement. Blimp is the best of British.
The transfer here is presented at 1.33:1 which is close to the Original Aspect ration of 1.37:1. The transfer is warmer and brighter than the Carlton R2 release by some way. The top image below is from the new French disc with the Carlton disc beneath it:
To my eye, the French disc looks better and less grainy with a more acceptable amount of contrast. The print does show some damage with tears, hairs, and speckles at some points during the run time, but certainly no worse than existing discs. My one criticism would be that the print could be sharper.
The sound on the main movie shows a small amount of soundtrack noise but no distortion or hiss. Compared with the existing Carlton disc it is a phenomenal improvement. The extras are nearly completely available with English options and English menus are also provided.
The two disc package puts the main feature on one disc with a fine spoken introduction from Bertrand Tavernier, and trailers from the other Powell and Pressburger releases. Tavernier's background to the film is excellent and it is one of the better film introductions I have come across. The second disc is a treasure trove which includes the Carlton disc's profile of the film with various talking heads including Kevin Macdonald and Stephen Fry. Additionally the disc has Kevin Macdonald's documentary about his grandfather, Emeric Pressburger, where Macdonald travels to Hungary to learn about his early life as a Jew there. The documentary is very interesting but this disc does not provide translation for the interviews in Hungarian which means you will be testing the quality of your French with the subtitles on. Thelma Schoonmaker's appreciation of her late husband and this film is well edited and presented, and she throws light on how the Archers worked together and how Scorsese, for whom she edits, appreciates Powell's work. Finally, Bertrand Tavernier is interviewed about the movie and he talks of Jean Pierre-Melville's love of Blimp and how the two of them visited the humble Powell.
This is a great set and improves on existing releases in all areas. It doesn't have Powell and Scorsese's commentary on the film like the Criterion disc but this is a small loss given the other goodies here. Future discs may improve on print problems and sharpness but this is superior to all existing releases. If you like artful cinema then Powell and Pressburger are the finest providers of it that Britain has had and this is a set which appreciates their talents.