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Blu-ray Review: The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp – The Criterion Collection

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The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp is perhaps the most accessible art film you’re likely to find. It wraps itself in a period war setting, using grand sets and wardrobe, is awash in Technicolor opulence and deftly and frequently mixes humor throughout the decades-spanning tale. But it’s also over two-and-a-half hours in length, is concerned with the morals of war and the inherent tensions between youth and old age, all while trapped in a tale of love both lost and unspoken. Yet it seems to pass by quickly, in a breezy, grand spectacle, and you might not even realize that you’ve watched one of those “character study things” until reflecting later on the enjoyable ride.

The story centers around General Clive Candy (Roger Livesey), who by appearance and occasionally stuffy attitude is meant to embody some of the “old regime” schtick of Colonel Blimp, an almost slapstick military character from a long-running British cartoon strip. And Candy does contain occasional bits of humorous bumbling, but he also represents a more traditional and, dare we say, manners-driven approach to the military and war. In fact, we begin the movie with Candy getting into a tussle with a younger officer as they dispute the rules of the game in a mock war exercise (“War starts at midnight!”), with the old General basically saying that these impertinent youngsters don’t understand what it means to uphold the unspoken code of conduct inherent in war, and one day they too will be old, and will realize that a thing or two can be learned from elder officers about a thing or two. Cue flashback to when he was younger.

And so the real part of the film begins, as we trace Candy’s life and career through several decades, from his own rebellious actions as a young officer up through the last part of his career, where he is treated as a dinosaur, a relic of how things used to be done. And if that were the extent of the story, it would still be fairly interesting. But it’s about more than just the changing of the guard and generational misunderstanding.

It’s also a somewhat tragic love story. Early on, Candy’s rash actions land him in the middle of a duel with a German officer (Anton Walbrook). While we don’t see much of the duel itself, we live with the effects of it for the rest of the film. Although both injured, the two duelers become friends, despite their nationality keeping them on opposing sides of the war. And they both also fall in love with the same girl (Deborah Kerr), although it’s the German who is quick enough to realize his feelings and asks her to marry him. Candy doesn’t quite realize what he let go until she’s gone, and spends the rest of his life looking for her, or someone like her, again. She seems to show up in other woman, both the woman he eventually marries, and in a young officer later in his life. While he continues to age, this archetype of his ideal woman stays youthful and vibrant, almost trapped in amber from that lost encounter decades ago.

And there are other facets as well, including some rather warm relations between the two officers – British and German – that made Winston Churchhill and some of his officials of the day worried that its anti-war undertones diminished the very serious threat from Germany at the time. Which may be one of the reasons the film has been little seen since its release and/or mercilessly edited down. This edition presents a handsomely restored original cut, where all of the happy, sad and thoughtful interweaving storylines once again play out in blazing Technicolor.

Video / Audio

 Absolutely gorgeous is the only way to describe this pristinely rich Technicolor presentation. If you’ve seen The Red Shoes then you know what kind of sumptuous stock Powell and Pressburger liked to use to capture their grand visions. But Blimp goes beyond even that film in terms of its perfectly over-rich color and general clarity. The detail on this print is remarkable, and it often feels like a much, much newer film than 1943. In fact, the scene at the beginning where a group of motorcycles are racing to the base while jazz music plays in the background, it actually looks and feels almost authentically like a very good print from the late 1960s (the color palette of the stock being the only thing that pegs it even that far back). This is simply an immaculate transfer. The only video quality item to note is that I did spot a couple of of almost imperceptibly brief instances of skipped frames, which very well could be present in the master as well.

The LPCM 1.0 English soundtrack is certainly clean and exhibits no noticeable instances of pop, hiss, distortion or other impingement. And while it’s certainly “good”, it’s nevertheless constrained by its mono nature, with the grandness of the score and overall production constantly desiring to push beyond its limited borders. However, dialogue is well balanced with music and background effects and it’s obvious that care has been taken to shine up the track, in spite of its occasional thinness.

Bonus Material

 Scorsese’s contribution to this release is so prevalent that its title could easily have been preceded by “Martin Scorsese Presents.” Not only has the modern filmmaker long championed this and other Powell/Pressburger films, but he is all over the special features included here as well.

A good place to start with this release is the “Introduction by Martin Scorsese” (HD, 13:51), where the director shares his early memories of seeing the film, as well as its controversial and somewhat butchered public history. He also touches on what attracts him to Powell/Pressburger films in general, and a bit on the restoration for this new edition.

The film can alternately be watched with a commentary track featuring Scorsese and the film’s director Michael Powell. The two are recorded separately and alternate thoughts during the film. Much of their comments are more general, including Powell’s overall memories of shooting, instead of timelining what is happening on screen. Both contributors are also prone to long bouts of silence, but offer some interesting tidbits when they do speak.

“A Profile of The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp” (HD, 24:03) is a television documentary on the history of the film, which features several interviewees including Stephen Fry, who offers his admiration for this and other films by The Archers. “Optimism and Sheer Will” (HD, 29:14) is an interview with Thelma Schoonmaker Powell, who is not only Michael Powell’s widow but was editor for Scorsese’s Raging Bull. She discusses Blimp from more of a structural standpoint, but also how it inspired some of the scenes in Raging Bull.

“Restoration Demonstration” (HD, 4:50) is another item hosted by Scorsese, and gives before and after examples of the restoration work done for the film. “Stills Gallery” is a collection of mostly behind-the-scenes images from the making of the film, while “David Low’s Colonel Blimp” offers some vintage panels from the long-running comics strip. Finally, a booklet is included which contains a rather informative essay by Molly Haskell, focusing on the expert crafting of the various thematic elements from the film.

Conclusion

If you’re a fan of other Powell and Pressburger films, I can’t recommend this edition enough. The remarkable video transfer of this Technicolor marvel is reason enough, but even beyond that it’s simply an enjoyable and thought-provoking film. It’s simultaneously about growing old, lost loves and the changing landscape of war. And while all of that could become either rote or heady, here it’s expertly weaved through a very enjoyable story; a big-budget film that deftly balances entertainment with depth. Although the bonus material is on the better side of average, it’s the splendid transfer of a grand, but somehow neglected, film that makes this an easy recommendation.

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About David R Perry