Friday, November 6, 2015

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Writer: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
DP: Georges Perinal
Editor: John Seabourne Sr.
Score: Allan Gray
Producer: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Starring: Roger Livesey, Anton Walbrook, Deborah Kerr
Distribution: Criterion Collection
Length: 2 hrs. 43 min.

The title of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp does not refer to any character in the film. It refers to a cartoon character created by David Low. Low portrayed the character Colonel Blimp as a risibly ignorant nationalist who preaches about the British military from his privileged seat in a Turkish bath. The character was a satire of the British upper class.

Although this character doesn't appear in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's film, the character played by Roger Livesey, General Clive Wynne-Candy, is heavily based on him. Like Blimp, Candy is a heavyset man with a bushy mustache who likes to talk about his nationalistic views. But while Powell and Pressburger are undoubtedly as critical of their character as David Low was of his, their film can't be called satirical. Their criticism doesn't come with humor, but with a slow-burning mix of nostalgia and loss, and the bittersweet development of a friendship over of several decades. The result: one of the greatest, most human, and most timeless pieces of war propaganda you're likely to find.

You could see it as an expression of nostalgia for the time when our notions of war were less horrific. You could see it as an expression of dissatisfaction toward the self-serving myopia of the people who held those notions. You could see it as a call for people with archaic beliefs to recognize the gravity of war, a lamentation of the tragedy of the World Wars, or a denouncement of Nazism. You could even see it as whitewashing the past of the English military for its quasi-denial of English transgressions in the Second Boer War (though I would argue that the fact that it brings it up at all says more about media and Clive's sheltered position than the Boer War itself). In essence, the film is an amalgamation of themes that might speak to a specific audience: the British public during World War II, especially those who appreciated David Low's "Colonel Blimp" cartoons.

The film's plot spans more than 40 years, beginning during the Second Boer War and ending at the onset of World War II. It follows the life of the aforementioned Clive Wynne-Candy and his friendship with a German soldier named Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff, played by Anton Walbrook. The film speaks to a broad set of issues pertinent to the war, including the different wartime experiences of people coming from different social classes, the relationship between war and national pride, and the deliberation required to work out international relations in the wake of a war. The interactions between Clive and Theo extend from all these things, but the film does not treat them as stand-ins for their respective countries; in fact, that's what they try to be, but the film does not allow it.

Clive remains largely the same over the years, and he's conscious of this. He consistently returns to his family home in London, and when he marries after World War I, he promises his wife Barbara that they'll remain exactly as they are "until the floods come." Despite his obstinate stasis, he's easy to like: he's kind to people close to him, he has faith in people's integrity, and doesn't mince words about his opinions. But for all the confidence with which Livesey carries the character, Clive repeatedly ends up ignorant to the consequences of his own actions and of global conflicts.

Unlike Clive, Theo changes drastically over the course of the film. He and Clive meet in Germany in 1902. Clive had come to Germany, against orders from his superiors, to confront a German writer who had been spreading propaganda critical of the British army. Clive insulted the German military in the confrontation, and to save face was made to participate in a duel; Theo was his opponent. Though he opposed dueling, Theo suspended his own beliefs and stood for his country's honor. By the end of the film, he hasn't an ounce of national pride left in him.

The reason for this difference between them is obvious: Clive was on the winning side of World War I and Theo was on the losing side. Clive never had to live in Nazi Germany. Nothing in Clive's life ever challenged the narrative that Britain's military victories were righteous rewards for adhering to civilized methods of war. The losers don't have this luxury. In one scene that takes place during World War I, we see the difference in values between Clive and those on the losing side, and Clive's ignorance of that difference. Clive goes to interrogate several German prisoners being held by British soldiers; he can't convince them to talk, but he forbids the use of violence to make them talk. Once he leaves, another man steps up to interrogate them. He says:

"Now listen. I am in command here now. And I know how to deal with you scum. I'm not a simple English gentleman. I'm a simple South African. And I can assure you that I have means to get what I want."

This man carries a kind of obvious hostility that Clive doesn't, and we can see that the German soldiers sense this. They weren't afraid of a "simple English gentleman," but like Theo the South African soldier didn't come from a country that was victorious in war; he came from the country that lost to the British earlier in the film. He lacks Clive's manners - and his leniency. This man does indeed get the information he wants, and Clive remains oblivious as to how.

In this scene we also see that sometimes, it's a matter of status, not just of the difference between winners and losers, that determines who gets to hold onto the ideal of a civilized war, justly fought and won with dignity. The reason Clive left the German prisoners in the hands of the South African soldier was because he preferred not to eat the low-quality food on which the lower-ranking soldiers were subsisting. There are also more obvious markers of status in the costuming and the architecture. Military uniforms and imposing classical architecture seem to enforce a vertical rigidity on the blocking; in less formal spaces, it's both less static and more expressive.

After World War I, when Clive brings Theo to his home for a dinner party, he introduces Theo to his guests, a group of highly-ranking military officers, politicians, and successful businessmen. The meeting is rather awkward, but only for Theo, who is unsure how to express his and his homeland's dire situation for having lost. The other men insist that there should be no tension between England and Germany when there's no war between them, and that Germany will bounce back from the war's aftermath without any trouble. Theo disagrees, telling them things are more complicated than they think. Arguably, history proved Theo right.

Theo's portrayal - a sympathetic portrayal of a German character - would have been a little out of step with the rest of the film's rigorous attention to specific anxieties of its audience. (Winston Churchill originally wanted the film banned for this reason.) But this was the way of Powell and Pressburger; in giving Theo the level of emotional depth and charisma they do, they promote international friendship outside of the context of war - but certainly not because of it, as Clive is wont to believe. The portrayal of international affection as something that happens in spite of war rather than because of it would appear later in their 1946 film A Matter of Life and Death (also starring Roger Livesey).

The film's dramatic structure raises anxiety about a world and societies at war and then overwhelms it with the emotional force of Theo's story. Near the end of the film there's a scene consisting only of a close-up of Theo as he looks into the camera and tells the story of his life in Germany, a story that we hadn't seen anywhere else in the film. (Anton Walbrook, the actor who plays Theo, lived a life similar to that of his character; both fled Nazi Germany to live in England.) What follows is the destruction of one of the film's most familiar spaces, scenes with modern architecture that contrasts heavily with the classical architecture seen previously in the film, and finally a total rearrangement of images we saw in the film's opening sequence.

It's also interesting to note how the film depicts the passage of time. After the film's first hour it skips from 1902 to 1918, and in between we see an extended sequence of animal heads appearing on the walls of Clive's home, each one accompanied by the sound of a gunshot and a label with the name of a foreign country the animal came from.  Later we see a hand turning pages in a scrapbook, overlaid by a series of other images. It details the happy life he led with his wife Barbara between 1919 and 1939. But then we see her obituary, and once again the film shows the passage of time with animal heads appearing on his walls. Mirroring the way those on the losing side of a war find themselves less inclined to abide by the rules of fair play when another war comes around, the film links violence Clive himself performs with losses he experiences. We recall that the first sequence with animal heads took place after he lost his first love.

Though it's easy to spot commonalities between the films of Powell and Pressburger, each of their films is unique and beautiful to look at. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp doesn't have the environmental majesty of Black Narcissus or the expressionistic psychedelia of The Red Shoes, but it's no worse off for it. Though it's dated and unsubtle, it's full of excellent performances, feels a lot shorter than it is, and is rewarding overall.

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