There’s something almost anachronistic in this modern age about a watching a film examining what it means to be an Englishman. Perhaps it is this, along with the stunning Technicolor cinematography, that makes this film feel so otherworldly. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, set for re-release on the 18 th May, is yet another Powell/Pressburger movie that has been lovingly restored in a BFI project headed by Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker. However, whereas their previous restoration, the Red Shoes, has an almost mythic and timeless quality, Colonel Blimp feels oddly out of time.
Set against the backdrop of the Second World War, our film starts with an altercation during a Home Guard exercise. A young upstart of a lieutenant wants to get an unfair advantage by starting six hours early. This riles Major General Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey), but the lieutenant argues that when fighting enemies as dirty as the Nazis, underhanded tricks are necessary. Given that the film’s original release date was right in the middle of WW2, this is all you need know of the film’s subtlety.
The majority of the film from here on out is the story of Clive Wynne-Candy (and how he got his moustache) in three episodes; the Boer War, the First World War and the Second World War. We travel with him through a series of adventures and romances during a close to three hour running time. We meet the German duelist Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook) and the three important women in Candy’s life; the great unrequited love Edith Hunter, his wife Barbara Wynne and his driver Angela Cannon (all played fantastically by Deborah Kerr).
Three hours is a lot to sit through but, on the whole, it rushes past, aided by one of the great comedic performances from Livesey. The emotional tightrope he walks throughout the film is just as dazzling and inventive as the stunning camera work and the both hilarious and melancholic devices showing the passage of time. Deborah Kerr’s turn is less showy, but every part Livesey’s equal as it is through her acting and repeated casting that the film gets its heart and its wry sentimentality.
A film romanticising one man’s struggle to accept the notion of dirty warfare is a very tough sell in the 21 st century. That this film nearly succeeds is a testament to the craftsmanship involved. However, the world has moved on and, much like Clive Candy himself, the Life and Death of Colonel Blimp finds itself sadly redundant and antiquated despite its great achievements.