Flickering Myth’s writing team pick out those hidden gems you might have missed; next up is Jackson Ball with…
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, 1943.
Directed by Robert Powell & Emerich Pressburger.
Starring Roger Livesey, Anton Walbrook, Deborah Kerr and Roland Culver.
The life story of military man Clive Candy, told over the course of the Boer War, World War I and World War II.
At the height of WWII, the British government felt that spirits needed to be lifted with a positive, propaganda-esqe film for the general public. They turned to a filmmaking duo that had already had a string of successful films: Robert Powell & Emerich Pressburger. The resulting film is a sprawling, all-consuming tale of love, friendship and war… Winston Churchill hated it.
Churchill, the then-PM, made a critical mistake: he asked for a propaganda film from two of the most honest filmmakers around. Powell and Pressburger (collectively known as The Archers) were never ones to shy away from the truth in a film, as is evident from their unflinching stance in their latter projects, such as A Matter of Life and Death (1946) and The Red Shoes (1948). However, their unrelenting quest for the truth is even more visible in their often overlooked masterpiece, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.
Following the central character Clive Candy (played by a never-better Roger Livesey) ‘Blimp’ charts his progression from a young man in the Boer War, to an elderly statesman of The Home Guard in WWII. Do not be fooled though, this is not a war film. The wars act as simple, contextual timeframes in which the real story takes place; a story of a man struggling to find his place in the world, and the loves and losses he encounters on the way.
This is where the honesty of Powell and Pressburger comes into play. When we first meet Candy, it is in the present day during WWII, as a bumbling, pompous old man with more than a hint of bitterness (the very picture of the titular blimp character). The audience is hardly drawn to this hero immediately, but throughout the rest of the film flashbacks show us Candy’s military life up until this point. By illuminating us to a lifetime of war, Powell and Pressburger subtlety peel back more and more layers to the character, simultaneously allowing us to warm to Candy and comprehend the life-changing effect war has on a soldier. Perhaps it is that latter function that Churchill had such a problem with.
The multi-layered central character receives immeasurable amounts of life and colour thanks to a mesmerising performance from Roger Livesey. The real genius of the performance is that Livesey is able to flawlessly and seamlessly portray the same man through youth, middle age and his senior years. At the first viewing it is difficult to believe the character is played by the same actor throughout the film’s entirety. The supporting cast too are excellent, most notably Anton Walbrook as Candy’s long-time friend, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorf.
It may always be a mystery as to why The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is not held in a much higher esteem, but to those that have had the pleasure to experience it, it is clearly a classic. Like many great films it is subversive by nature: a WWII propaganda film that is anti-war, pro-British and above all else, unashamedly honest.
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