“You bloody young fool–war starts at midnight!”
A simple line uttered by befuddled old Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy that is played for laughs, but subtly carries a lot of weight. The “war” in this case is not the Second World War, which is occurring at the time, but rather a training exercise. An exercise set to start at midnight and teach strategy through a strict protocol of events. However, when it comes to the chaos of war, order and decorum is the last thing on the enemy’s mind. This fact is apparent to the young upstart lieutenant who jumps the gun and leads the charge against Wynne-Candy. Unfortunately, despite his years of service, it is something that Wynne-Candy still fails to realize.
Just as Wynne-Candy stood there stunned in the steam room surrounded by soldiers, I too was caught off guard by The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Although I had already experienced three films by the directing duo of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, better known as The Archers due to their production company, I was completely blindsided by Blimp. I went in expecting a serious Patton-style war film, and came away in rapture of the film’s visual splendor and biting comedy.
While it almost feels redundant to comment on Powell and Pressburger’s amazing visual eye, after all these are the men responsible for Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, there is no denying the talent on display. Even simple moments are executed with precision. The way their camera moves away from two men dueling and gracefully glides outside to a picturesque shot of a brisk winter night only to swoop in on a car awaiting the results of the duel going on inside is jaw-dropping in its beauty. The same can be said for the inventive ways the directors come up with to document the passage of time. Whether it be the camera using the length of the pool to transition the viewers from an image of the old Wynne-Candy to a younger version, or playfully using newly mounted animal heads later on to illustrate that several years have passed, there is rarely a dull moment.
The handling of the passage of time is essential not only from a visual perspective, but from a plot standpoint as well. Spanning 40 years, from 1902 to 1942, time plays a key role in almost every aspect of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. It is used to not only show the shifting views of war etiquette, but also how it is often only the uniforms that are the major difference for men in war. This is especially evident in the central relationship between Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey) and German officer Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook).
Enemies at first, the two men become good friends while in the hospital nursing duel related wounds they inflicted on one another. It is a bond that stays firm even as the two men continue to find themselves on different sides of the same battle years later. There is a great scene in which an older Kretschmar-Schuldorff recounts the hardships of life in aftermath of the First World War. Although losing his wife Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr) and seeing both his sons devote themselves to Hitler crushes him emotionally, he finds solace in the fond memories of his time in the hospital with both Hunter and Wynne-Candy.
The moment is perfectly capped off with Wynne-Candy storming into the immigration office a few minutes later to vouch for Kretschmar-Schuldorff’s integrity. This touching scene speaks volumes to the film’s theme regarding the end of an era where gentlemanly respect was a key aspect to war and life. The sense of honour and respect for your fellow man has been replaced by ruthlessness and selfishness. As great as Wynne-Candy is, his major flaw is not realizing that the world has changed. His need to cling to ideals of the past is not only shown through his lack of strategic foresight in later years, but also in his desire to recreate his unrequited love for Hunter through other similar looking women (all played by Kerr).
As Kretschmar-Schuldorff points out to Wynne-Candy, the world has changed and the stakes are raised. He can no longer rely on old ideals when the lives of entire generations are at risk. It is a point that still feels extremely relevant today.
Since the Blind Spot series started for me a few years ago with Black Narcissus, it was a pleasure to immerse myself in the world of Powell and Pressburger once again. Like a good glass of rye, I have been savoring my gradual education through their canon. I relish the opportunity to take in a film like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp because it has so many wonderful things to offer. It catches you off guard with its humor and heart, while still giving you plenty to reflect on regarding civilized values and the nature of war.