The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

In the thick of the Second World War, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger wrote and directed The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, a kind of elegy to classic British values, that in the opinion of its hero Clive Candy, won for them the First World War.  There is no one named Colonel Blimp in the film, instead we follow the life of Candy (the title of the film comes from a character in a 1930s comic strip, which poked fun at the reactionary values of people like Clive Candy and Winston Churchill).  The film’s greatest strength is in its pacing: the film is long, but never feels tedious, because the dialogue is blazingly fast (though not quite rushed), and the action moves steadily along.

Clive Candy (Roger Livesey) relaxing in the sauna.

The story is told through a long flashback.  Near the end of Candy’s career, an impudent young officer provokes the old man, who is busy relaxing in a sauna.  The film is told as a reminiscence of Candy’s service in the military, and we learn, namely, how he got his big belly and why he grew his mustache.  Throughout his long career, he duels a German man who becomes his best friend, falls in love with a woman who becomes his best friend’s wife, serves in the First World War, and retires into the home guard, where we met him at the beginning of the film.  The most important relationship in the film is that between Candy and the down-to-earth and likeable Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook), his German friend.  They meet at various point of Candy’s life, and eventually Schuldorff, a refugee from Nazi Germany, settles down in Candy’s house during the Second World War.

Clive Candy at the beginning of his military career, speaking to the future wife of his best friend, played by Deborah Kerr.

When Candy writes a speech denouncing Nazi tactics after the retreat at Dunkirk, he goes as far as to say he’d rather accept defeat than use tactics such as they have.  He promptly gets a letter informing him that he’s lost his position in the army, and his best friend, an anti-Nazi German living in England tells him where he’s gone wrong: ‘You’ve been educated to be a gentleman and a sportsman in peace and in war…but this is not a gentleman’s war.’  The point doesn’t go easily with Candy, who turns for consolation to his young driver (who looks exactly like Candy’s ex-wife, Schuldorff’s ex-wife, and all three roles are played by the same actress, Deborah Kerr) and says ‘You see, even one’s best friend lets one down.’  Candy’s attitude is outdated, and he refuses to see how he might be wrong, but it’s easy to sympathize with him, because he’s still a good old British chap who means well.  Powell and Pressburger’s film is like a swan song to the old reactionary values of Candy, his politeness and manners and gentlemanliness, which seemed to be outdated by the time of the Second World War.

Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook) telling Clive Candy why he was demoted.

The pacing of the dialogue in the film is very fast: conversations are witty and quintessentially British.  There’s an interesting parallel between this pacing, that emphasizes wit and intelligence, and the British values that Candy comes to represent by the end of the film.  This is a film full of smart gentleman, and the way they speak is reminiscent of a Noel Coward play: as much as the film sympathizes with Candy’s values, it utilizes a way of speaking that is classically British, just like the values of its protagonist.  Although we may think that the age of the gentleman is long past in our modern times, it can’t be denied that there’s a certain charm in seeing that way of life portrayed on screen, and though it might not have been the way to win the war against the Nazis, it still can be an effective way to win over the ears and minds of an audience.


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