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DVD Review: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Criterion Collection)

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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.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is an epic film, and this critical moment is practically just the beginning. The German soldier that Candy had dueled with is staying in the same hospital as he. Candy received eight stitches, and Theo twelve. So I guess Clive won. What happens in the hospital is the crux of the movie though, because the two become life-long friends. They also meet a woman who they will “vie” for over the course of the next 40 years.

Edith Hunt (Deborah Kerr) is an English socialite who takes an interest in Candy, and visits him in the hospital. There she meets Theo as well. The humor of this movie is almost impossible to convey with words, but it is marvelous. One of the greatest comedic instances comes when Theo must tell Clive that he is in love with Miss Hunter. We are just as taken aback as Theo is when Clive tells him that he is not in love with her, and that he wishes them well. This is not a lie at the time, although over the course of 40 years, we – along with Clive himself, discover that it is the biggest lie he has told of his life.

That was act one, all taking place in 1902. In a film filled with brilliance, the passage of time is surely one of the greatest. We are shown a trophy room, with blank walls, then hear a gunshot. Suddenly, the mounted head of an animal appears, with the date “1903.” Then another gunshot, and another head, with the date of 1904. This continues until 1918, when Candy is called back to service in World War I.

When the war is over, he finds his lost friend Theo, in an English POW camp. Their meeting is strange, as Theo wants nothing to do with Clive at first. He pretends not to know who he is. But he relents, and even takes up an invitation to join Candy with a group of British officers for dinner. The conversation is quite intriguing, and it is here where we first begin to see just how intelligent Theo really is. This was a problem for the real life British military, who in 1942, were in the midst of World War II. Having a sympathetic German character in an English film simply would not do, the military brass withheld all cooperation because of it.

The second act of the film is in 1918, and once again, the very intriguing device of using the heads in Candy’s room is used to mark the passage of time. In the interim between 1918 we see Candy get married to Barbara Wynn (Deborah Kerr) who looks identical to Miss Hunter.

The action resumes in 1942, and General Clive Candy is retired. He feels old and useless, so his friend Theo and his driver Angela (Deborah Kerr again) suggest he work for the cause. He founds a pro-war English group for civilians, and is cheered by most as being a most patriotic old sport.

We have come full circle, and find ourselves in the Turkish baths once again. But we now know who this pompous old blowhard is, and he has lived a very full life.

At 163 minutes, there are many, many more scenes than the ones I have described. But explaining the entire thing would rob anyone who has not seen Colonel Blimp of the wonderful experience of being surprised at every turn. It is a marvelous piece of work, and the restoration of it has been meticulous.

Criterion are known for their supplemental materials, and there is much to enjoy here. Those comments from Scorsese are just the tip of the iceberg. In a way, the entire restoration project was something of a family affair for him. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp was written and directed by the fabulous team of Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell. Anyone who has watched the credits of a Martin Scorsese film will recognize the name of Thelma Schoonmaker, for she is his loyal, and brilliant editor. Her married name is Thelma Schoonmaker Thomas though, and her late husband was Michael Powell.

During the 30-minute interview with her, titled “Optimism and Sheer Will,” she offers a wide variety of thoughts on the film and of her husband’s tremendous career. One of the more intriguing tales is of just how much “the old man” (Winston Churchill) was against the production of Colonel Blimp. When told just how opposed he was to it, Powell asked if he were forbidden to make it. “No, no,” said the adjunct, “We are a democracy, we do not forbid such things. But you will never get the “K” if you do make it.” The “K” was a knighthood, and Powell was never knighted. He did make this marvelous fim though.

Another very enlightening bit about this movie was the status of Emeric Pressburger. He was a refugee from Nazi Germany at the time, just like Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff, and in England at the courtesy of the government. He quite rightly feared deportation, as did Theo. There was a great deal of art imitating life in this movie, even down to the situation with Deborah Kerr. Thomas was in love with the young actress, they were even engaged. But she left him, and according to Schoonmaker, whenever he was asked about the movie, it always seemed a painful reminder of Kerr.

Besides the Thelma Schoonmaker interview, I was also very impressed with a demonstration of the restoration process of the movie, hosted by Scorsese, and the 24-minute “A Profile of ‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’ (2000). There is are also behind-the-scenes production stills, and an interesting gallery of the David Low’s original Colonel Blimp political cartoons, which were the main inspiration for the movie.

While I am no walking film encyclopedia (like Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino), I do take a pretty avid interest in film history. So when I say that The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp had not previously crossed my radar, I am guessing I am not alone. One might reasonably think that a movie this good would have been mentioned a lot more in various outlets, but it really has not, at least not to my knowledge. My point is, for those who appreciate great, classic films, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp should not be missed. It is a fantastic piece of work, and with all of the extras included in this Criterion Collection edition, it is a must.

(The two-DVD Criterion Collection Edition of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp will be released March 19, 2013).

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