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The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp: The Criterion Collection

Home Vision Entertainment

Starring Roger Livesey, Deborah Kerr, and Anton Walbrook

Written by Emeric Pressburger
from a cartoon character created by David Low

Directed by Michael Powell

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Review by D.K. Holm                    

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were one of cinema's great creative teams, like Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, or Alfred Hitchcock and John Michael Hayes. Indeed, in his introduction to the biography of Pressburger, Wilder (who knew Pressburger back in Berlin) wrote, "if there are two guys that [sic] think the same way, that have the same background, that have the same political convictions and all the rest, it's terrible. It's not collaboration, it's like pulling on one end of the rope."

Their first color film, but neither their first nor last encounter with controversy, Powell and Pressburger's 1945 The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is a moving, funny, and constantly surprising story that is both based on a popular cartoon character and yet also a highly personal story reflecting elements of both filmmakers' lives.

The project began in the early '40s when bedrock Englishman Michael Powell and European immigrant Emeric Pressburger decided to contribute to the war effort. A form of propaganda that is embedded into a sweeping comic story of Britain's relationship with the military over 40 years, from the Boer war to the start of World War II, Blimp got into a little trouble with Churchill and the wartime Ministry of Information. It was all really a misunderstanding, as Powell himself says, and was born of a suspicion from Churchill (who tried to suppress the film) that the filmmakers were ridiculing the military. Though, as Stephen Fry says, Churchill himself was the epitome of Blimpism, in fact the blatant message of the movie was simply that, within the context of modern warfare, the old rules of "gentleman's combat" were disastrously out of date.

Nevertheless, Powell and Pressburger, backed by J. Arthur Rank, made the film without government or military support. Blimp might have been a very different movie otherwise. Powell and Pressburger originally wanted Laurence Olivier and Wendy Hiller in the leads, but one got pregnant and the other could not get released from his military duty. Instead, the parts went to Roger Livesey, who has the pleasing and comforting mien of a Don Ameche, and near-newcomer Deborah Kerr, who had an affair with Powell during the filming (James Mason might also have been in the film, but his part was taken by James McKechnie).

Blimp himself was a character in a series of political cartoons by David Low, meant to mock Conservative ideas and policies. Blimp — almost always found in situ at a Turkish bath, wrapped in a towel covering his round belly, his vast walrus mustache hanging like tongs — is always presented declaiming some comic and self-evidently contradictory or obviously revelatory remark to his auditor, a David Low surrogate. "Gad, sir. Eden is right. War is not inevitable and it never will be unless we do something about it." Blimp came to represent stodgy backwardness to young readers, who wouldn't break out of the rigid hierarchies of British social and economic life until the postwar years.

The story of the film begins, however, in a very modern way. Like something out of Brando and The Wild One, the picture starts with a team of British soldiers rushing down the road on motorcycles, set to "modern" jazz. Only later does the film make its leap to the distant past, during a military exercise when a young and brash soldier nicknamed Spud (James McKechnie), who is frustrated at how the military seems to hew to old-fashioned notions of how war works, confronts General Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey), head of the Home Guard and a believer in the formula that "Wars start at midnight!" The Edwardian Candy is shown 40 years earlier, just back from the Boer War and himself construed as a disrespectful young upstart by those who at first don't recognize him. Throughout Blimp, the theme of manners versus coarseness — of constricting rules versus all-out attack — interact. Candy ends up in Germany, where, Flashman-like, he instigates an international incident, becomes best friends with a German soldier (Anton Walbrook), and realizes only too late that he has fallen in love with a young schoolteacher (Deborah Kerr, who plays three parts in the film) who has gone to someone else. Later, Candy serves in World War I, where he re-encounters Walbrook, this time a prisoner of the British, and then Candy marries a pale imitation of his true love (Kerr again). Finally he meets Walbrook again (everything in the movie comes in threes), but this time Walbrook is a refugee from Nazi Germany, where his wife has died and his sons have turned against him. The aging German and Candy's new romantic interest (Kerr again), help Candy reconcile himself to the new world. The "death" of Blimp is really the death of Blimpism.

*          *          *

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is classic filmmaking at its best, light and deep at the same time, deft yet weighty. Beautifully photographed in Technicolor by Georges Périnal (who worked with René Clair), and production designed by Alfred Junge, it is also very funny. Often the comedy comes from the way Powell and Pressburger place their super-serious characters in costumes (funny hats, towels, or turbans) or settings (bathhouses, beer halls) that undermine their dignity, contrasted with the manners and rituals that organize their social lives. But Pressburger is a beautiful writer, and Powell was a Hollywood-level master of color, movement, camera placement, and actorial timing — a cross between Lubistch and Hitchcock. And it should be said that Kerr pays a spirited, endearing character, times three.

The Criterion Collection has done its (almost) always predictably fine feat of transference with Blimp. The single-sided, dual-layered disc offers a bright transfer of the full-frame film (1.33:1). It looks beautiful. You can even see the beads of sweat and water on Candy's flesh in the film's opening Turkish bath sequence. The packaging informs us that the "new high definition transfer was created on a Spirit Datacine from the British Film Institute's 35mm restoration internegative ... MTI Digital Restoration System was used to remove thousands of instances of dirt, debris, and scratches." Audio comes in Dolby Digital 1.0 (with English subtitles) "mastered from the restoration optical tracks ... mastered at 24-bit; audio restoration tools were used to reduce clicks, pops, hiss, and crackle."

The biggest supplement is a joint audio commentary track by Michael Powell and Martin Scorsese. Since Powell died in 1990, this obviously is a track inherited from the 1988 Criterion Laserdisc edition of the movie. It's good to have it more widely available, given that two of cinema's greatest filmmakers brood intimately and freely on moviemaking before our very ears. There are some long gaps in the chat, and Powell sounds a little frail, but he recounts stories about the film showing a remarkable memory, and occasionally he finds himself laughing along with Livesey's performance. Powell makes his first appearance about 14 minutes into the track. Scorsese pops in occasionally to give voice to his enthusiasm for the way Powell-Pressburger made movies, and he also recounts aspects of the long, torturous history of the film's restoration, which finally bore fruit in 1983. Powell and Scorsese seem to be in separate recording booths. A conversation between might have been fascinating.

But also on hand is "A Profile of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp," a much better than average "making-of" documentary. Among the interviewees are actor and writer Stephen Fry (who could play Blimp in the unlikely event there were ever to be a remake), author and Powell specialist Ian Christie, and Kevin MacDonald, who wrote a moving biography of his grandfather, Emeric Pressburger. This delightful 24-minute documentary is a welcome addition to the platter.

Also highly informative and very convenient is a slide-show of David Low's cartoons, which gives the viewer a sense of the context out of which Blimp the movie emerged. In addition, there is a slide show of about 90 black-and-white production stills (from the personal collection of Michael Powell). Finally, there is a ten-page folding booklet with transfer notes and credits, and two essays — the first an excerpt from cartoonist David Low's autobiography, and another from Ronald Haver, who was a curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The musical menu divides the 163-minute movie into 31-chapter scene-selection.

— D.K. Holm

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