Every once in a while I will stumble across a film that is truly a lost masterpiece. It is almost invariably from through the Criterion Collection that I make these discoveries, and that is most certainly the case with its new two-DVD release of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943).
When calling something “lost,” I should clarify. Colonel Blimp is more “new to me” than lost. The film has a great number of fans, and one of the most famous of these is Martin Scorsese. As he explains in one of the extra features, the duel scene in the film had a profound impact on his own Raging Bull (1980). We will come back to that in a bit, after a brief discussion of what some have called “the greatest British film ever made.”
I had a feeling that I was in for something special from the opening credits. I have never seen anything like them. They are on what appear to be a cross-stitched tapestry, and are absolutely gorgeous. Scorsese and others use the terms “bold” and “courageous” when referring to this movie, and this credit sequence alone qualifies for that. It is an incredible sight, all the more so as the colors just pop thanks to the use of Technicolor by the team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
The film opens in the “present day,” 1942. Young English soldiers are training, by playing war games. The “action” is set to begin at midnight, but a young go-getter decides that in war there are no rules, and “attacks” during the late afternoon. There is no actual “Colonel Blimp” in the film, it is something of a derogatory term for the British military lifer, Clive Candy (Roger Livesey). In 1942, he appears to be in his sixties, and has risen in rank to General. When the young soldiers bust in on him at his favorite Turkish bathhouse, he looks like a big fat, bald buffoon. He tussles with the young leader of this squad, and they fall into the pool. When Candy emerges, the clock has miraculously turned back 40 years. He is young, trim, and has a full head of hair.
In 1902, Candy receives word that there is a spy in Berlin, and goes there to investigate, without informing his commander. At a grand ball, Candy makes a scene and insults the German hosts. A duel to defend German honor is then ordered, and Candy is forced to face off with Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook). The two have never met before, and the whole thing borders on farce. But duel they will, after a great deal of preparation of course. The rules are defined, and all kinds of silly questions are asked and answered, and finally Clive and Theo face off.
Then the most amazing thing happens. The camera moves upward from the two, towards the gymnasium ceiling, then right through it. Suddenly we seen a snow-globe perfect vision of Berlin on a winter’s night. We then see an ambulance come to take someone away.
This was the “A-Ha” moment for Scorsese. He had been wrestling with how to present the final fight in Raging Bull, and found it here. It was not in the ring, not really. It was in all of the preparation that came before, in the ritual and depth of significance of the event, not the fight itself. One of the things I love about Scorsese is just how big a movie fan he is. And he makes no bones about it here, he absolutely credits this scene as being pivotal to one of his own, undeniable masterpieces.