The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

Dir. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Starring Roger Livesey, Deborah Kerr, Anton Walbrook

The scene that made me love Powell and Pressburger is relatively unimportant in this film. Clive Candy (Livesey) has gone to Germany to publicly denounce an avid German nationalist and a true scoundrel named Kaunitz (David Ward). Unsurprisingly, the hotheaded officer with a voice like flat orange soda gets into a tiff with the better part of the German officer corps, who challenge him to a duel. One officer, a Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Walbrook), gets the luck of the draw and will have a chance to fight the insolent Britisher for his inflammatory statements. To avoid a more severe diplomatic incident, the British accede to the German demands for a duel, and so it is that two German officers and two British diplomats sit in a room to talk over the terms of engagement. Nothing is left to be guessed at later. They decide upon a facilitator, what kind of clothes the men will wear, precisely how heavy the sabers will be. Each time one man proposes, his foreign opposite will agree. They thank one another lavishly, saying the words curtly or nodding with great formality. I have seen this movie several times and don’t know what any of their names are. It hardly matters, really. They exist for this thorough evocation of a courtlier time, a magnificently civil build-up to a consensual death match. Virtually everyone involved in the duel seems to think that duels are somewhere between pointless and demeaning. The Brits all agree. Theo, we find out, doesn’t approve of duels. But these men all fetishize duty, and thus early one snowy morning, Clive will slice Theo’s head open and Theo will very nearly cut off Clive’s upper lip. Obviously, what these four men plan in a board room is absurd decades later. Yet the film takes them seriously, never more than half-smiling at the way these men detail single combat like a cook detailing the ingredients in a fine tasting menu. It would be easy to make them a joke: they are never a joke.

To put it more simply, I love the way that The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp treats the past. The film is so delicate where we are more often prone to heckle or likely to scoff. The barbarism of past times—the imperialist paternalism of the Boer War, the nationalist fervor of World War II, the fascist terror of World War II—is frequently noted in our modern critiques of history, which never do seem to realize that future thinkers will judge our own time as hopelessly backward and frequently evil. We can only hope that those people will be able to judge some of us as individuals along the way. Clive Candy really believes in the beneficent British Empire. He really believes that it is a light of the world. He really believes that Britain-the-nation is worth fighting for. In one scene, as the Great War ends, he opines to his servant about the reasons why Britain’s moral superiority led to Britain’s military superiority. Those opinions about Britain aren’t what make him outdated before his time; what does him in is his decency and sense of fair play that he expresses once the ceasefire begins. The movie pretends that those are qualities which used to be more or less universal, or at least universally appreciated. (This is a British movie released the same year as Casablanca, incidentally, so it’s not like everyone’s in a hurry to pull England down.) Candy triumphantly crows at the end of World War I that right made might. The Germans, he says, attacked civilians and used poison gas and attacked neutral shipping. They still lost. He notes that people only start to fight dirty when they’re afraid they can’t win, which has some germ of truth to it. His explanation of the war ignores its causes and Britain’s role in an international arms race, although that’s true to form as well: Candy is no politician and he knows it. Candy’s general sense of right and wrong has no place in the 20th Century—heaven knows what century it would be at home in—and it is so, so fragile.

Theo comes to live in England once Hitler’s rise to power has been accomplished, once his children are, in his words, “good Nazis.” If you don’t toughen up, he tells Candy, you may find that your good manners will go extinct when the Nazis eradicate you with them. It is one of the rare times in the picture where the quintessentially urbane German raises his voice. Typically he speaks sotto voce, as if he’s telling a joke that only his listener should hear; even in a crowd of hostiles, where he finds himself one strange night when he’s liberated from a railroad depot, going back home to Germany many months after his capture during World War I. He maintains this coy, ironic tone even when he’s the sole German in a crowd of well-meaning English elites. Britain doesn’t want to punish Germany! Britain is a trading nation which needs strong partners to trade with! He maintains that kittenish tone in his voice before loudly mocking their words in front of his fellow POWs in the next scene, using the loud voice which he’ll use on Candy years later. Of the three leads in Life and Death, Walbrook is the least essential but my favorite. In a movie that traffics in a fair bit of sadness the longer it runs, no one is more melancholy than the man who fought a duel to protect his military’s honor in 1902 and who can live, forty years later, to see that military defeated once and dishonored a thousand times over. Livesey’s performance, with his effortless habitation of three different bodies, is perfect. Deborah Kerr, who plays three different women who all bear a striking resemblance to one another, singlehandedly proves that in this realistic world of soldiers and death and high stakes there is also something like magic. None of the women she plays is anything like the others. Edith, who marries Theo, is opinionated and stubborn. Barbara, who marries Clive, is shy and breathy. Johnny, who drives for Clive and who gives Theo something of a shock when he sees her face by traffic light, is simply young compared to her frosted co-stars. Clive’s cosmology can explain why the Great War ended in Britain’s favor; Theo’s experience can explain why winning that war didn’t teach the British anything useful; nothing can explain this curious, lovely connection between a governess, a nurse, and a driver who might easily have been triple-cast instead. Barbara and Clive have an understanding about standing firm in the face of change, one that Clive remembers at the very end of the movie: “Now here is the lake, and I still haven’t changed.” The three Kerrs are their own unchanging entity, a face that lives on as everyone else grows old and fades away.

The movie begins with a funny but telling vignette. Candy, leading the Home Guard, calls for a war game to keep his men sharp: “the war starts at midnight!” One of his ambitious and “impudent” soldiers, Spud (John McKechnie), makes an interesting observation. They think the war starts at midnight, but we know it starts when we say it starts. He and his men burst into a Turkish bath where Candy and some of his fellow bigwigs are relaxing; Spud finds Candy, the pinkest and sweatiest and roundest of the many old folks in the baths, and tells his superior officer that he is now a prisoner. Clive is too stupefied by Spud to get much further than “But—’war starts at midnight!'” It doesn’t faze Spud, who starts to devolve a little into personal attacks on Clive, topped off by a comment about the older man’s mustache. “You laugh at my mustache,” Clive says, “but you don’t know why I grew it.” It’s one of the movie’s finest moments—indeed, it serves as a transition which will show us why Clive grew the mustache and why he does a hundred other things in his decades as a soldier. It is also a marvelous admonition to whichever young generation has some outsize responsibility. What older folks tend to do is frequently done in service of a time long gone by, in response to threats which have been outclassed by newer ones. (Perhaps this is why Theo appeals to me so much; he is both old and mindful of how completely his old ways have been thrashed.) The movie, as much as it respects Clive, does not think that World War II may be closed with the good manners that it tells us World War I was won. But it invites us all the same to learn why he grew his mustache. It gives us a chance to see his point of view, and to marvel at the fact that despite the sudden lake which has swallowed his home, he still has not changed.

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