The Life and Times of Colonel Blimp

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September 10, 2012 by raconteurmagazine

By Anthony Porter

Sometimes, when I sit down to watch a film, I give a little thanks to BBC2 and to those childhood Saturday afternoons spent watching the matinee films with my dad. Films like the sweeping epic that is Doctor Zhivago or the sublimely funny Kind Hearts and Coronets.

At other times I look at the film listings on the multitude of digital channels and I wonder where those great films are. We live in a world where supposedly limitless media is available on demand. Yet almost all that’s available is the same, homogenised and pre-packaged rubbish repeated ad-nauseum, while these classic films slowly slip into obscurity.

My intention then is to try and provide a tiny sample of suggestions, a few options in the digital download age when you consider the next film you’d like to watch, a random selection of what I consider to be some of the very best films ever made.

So following the feel good Olympics when we were reminded that it’s kind of cool to be British, here is a film from a time when Britain was fighting for its very existence, and a film that can still give some pause for thought.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
Colour. 1943. UK
Directors: Michael Powel & Emeric Pressburger
163Mins Cert: U
Starring: Roger Livesey, Deborah Kerr, Anton Walbrook

Produced during the Second World War as a morale boosting film, the first few minutes of this film seem to follow the formulae for such things and there is little promise of the beauty and complexity to follow.

We open with a brash, young, firebrand officer leading his squad on what is supposed to be a training mission to prepare for a possible invasion. The exercise supposedly starts at midnight, but our young officer has other ideas. He intends to start early, undertaking a coup-de-main before their enemy is even started, breaking all the rules in an effort to win.

A slick military operation leads us into the Turkish baths of a London gentleman’s club (when such things didn’t mean strippers) where we first encounter the comical, almost caricatured figure of Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy VC, the walrus like, moustachioed old soldier from another time and place. Our young officer takes the old man prisoner, chiding him for his out of touch ways and taunting the general’s protestations of “the war doesn’t start till midnight” with “fair play never won a war”, but when the young officer finally criticises General Candy’s moustache it is too much, and enraged the old man attacks, with the cry of “let me tell you why I wear this moustache!”

We then leap back in time, some forty odd years, and our old soldier is now the young Lieutenant “Sugar” Candy VC, idealistic firebrand, hero of the Boer War and very much a man of his time and place in Edwardian England.

From this new starting point we are taken along on the life story of Clive Candy, following him through his incongruous first meeting with man who was to become his oldest and dearest friend, meeting the love of his life and finding out just why he does wear that great walrus moustache. We then skip through the years with Clive as he remains faithful to his ideals while the world around him changes, until finally his very concepts of himself are challenged by his oldest friend in a brutal summation of just what is at stake for the free world.

Powell & Pressburger are often hailed as the finest film writers in British cinema history, and here they take a premise that could have been so easily been nothing more than a comical bit of propaganda and instead they elevate it to something finer. They tell a complex tale of love and of friendship, of duty, patriotism and sacrifice and of the struggle between cherished ideals and brutal pragmatism. In a little bit of film trivia, they do it in a way that made Churchill want to ban the film, disconcerted as he was by its content and tone.

Roger Livesey as Clive Candy is superb throughout, delivering an understated performance of genuine depth at the center of the film. Anton Walbrook as his friend is regarded as one of the best actors of his age and certainly one of the most underrated of all time in my opinion and together in this film they produce performances that draw you into their world impeccably.

At nearly three hours long, this might be seen as a long film by many, but it never feels like it and at the end of it you will feel like you have made a new friend in Clive Candy, and that your life is a little richer for his presence.

One thought on “The Life and Times of Colonel Blimp

  1. Ian F White says:

    Excellent. Looking forward to the next review.!

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