Movies for Grown-Ups: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
"My idea of perfection is Roger Livesey (my favorite actor) in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (my favorite film) about to fight Anton Walbrook (my other favorite actor)."
-- David Mamet, 2003
“Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.”
-- T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land” (1922)
For a bunch supposedly dedicated to “peace,” the cadre of anti-war anarchists who met once a week in my first apartment fought furiously about everything. The one thing we all agreed on was that meetings were to conclude (with a chorus of “shhhh!”) just before the latest episode of Twin Peaks (1990-91) began.
Now, I experienced two profound (for me) revelations while watching TV in that old apartment. I wrote about one of them here.
The other happened during one of the earliest Twin Peaks episodes, when characters were still being introduced.
Bad boy Bobby Briggs, his mom, and his father Major Garland Briggs (an Air Force office) are gathered for a meal. In heightened, formal language that sounds almost like the ponderous narration of a “mental hygiene” short like Reefer Madness, the major -- a stocky, balding, pasty fellow, looking particularly stiff in his uniform (at the dinner table?) -- tells Bobby he wants to have a serious talk with him.
Conditioned by M*A*S*H and Dr. Strangelove to view U.S. military officers as stupid, pompous, lunatic hypocrites, my friends and I dutifully snickered while the major spoke. Bobby rolled his eyes, and so did we.
Until we stopped.
One by one, it dawned on us that, come to think of it, the major was kind of sort of being reasonable and sensible. And Bobby (the young “rebel” we’d normally sympathize with) was being a brat and a creep.
My anarchist pals and I found ourselves seduced into obsessing over a TV show in which the heroes (a sheriff, an FBI agent, and an Air Force officer) were the very people we hated in real life. Major Briggs in particular turned out to be an intelligent, sensitive, and noble character, who just happened to look like a human cartoon.
Based on its awkward title, I'd always assumed Colonel Blip was a “zany”(if dark and probably tedious) “anti-war” comedy (a la The Bed Sitting Room) about the famous British comic strip character. Created by a left-wing cartoonist in the 1930s, the walrus-like blowhard “Blimp” spouted nonsensical patriotic cliches, and represented everything right-thinking young Englishmen hated about their “stiff upper lip” Establishment parents.
So to get a sense of what an amazing accomplishment ...Colonel Blimp is, imagine Martin Scorsese taking Homer and Marge Simpson and, without a single ironic wink, fashioning a cinematic masterpiece to rival Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage.
Colonel Blimp is a paragon of parodox. It isn’t an anti-war satire, but it isn’t pro-war, either. (And either way, there isn’t a single battle scene.) The titular hero is almost overshadowed by his best friend, who starts out as his greatest enemy. The movie is a bittersweet romance about a lifelong unrequited love (and it doesn’t have a “love scene,” either).
When we meet “Colonel Blimp” – the character’s name is actually Clive Candy -- he’s a fat, balding old fellow, dozing in the officer's steam room. World War II has only just begun, and a cocky young officer pulls a prank on the old man under the guise of practicing "maneuvers."
Candy blusters in response:
“You laugh at my big belly, but you don’t know how I got it. You laugh at my mustache, but you don’t know why I grew it. How do you know what sort of fella I was when I was as young as you are, forty years ago?”
With that, we’re off on a sweeping, epic journey back to Edwardian England to meet the then “handsome and tall” Clive Candy. He soon encounters the two most important people in his life: his arch-rival and Prussian officer counterpart turned best friend, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff, and beautiful nurse Edith Hunter.
Candy’s heart is broken when Edith marries Theo and throughout the film he searches for another “Edith." He finds not one, but two. And yet...
Like a Gone with the Wind for guys, Colonel Blimp spans decades of conflict and peace, love and loss, success and failure, with the added attraction of sly, dry British humor to provide much needed comic relief. (It's been known to make grown men cry.)
The film keeps us unbalanced throughout. We’ve just finished cheering Candy’s noble paean to fighting wars “honorably and fairly,” the British way, when his now shattered, now German friend Theo tells him that such grand principles, if used to fight the Nazis he knows only too well, will help the enemy destroy the very civilization Candy has sworn to preserve.
The Battle of Waterloo may very well have been "won on the playing-fields of Eton," but Theo tells his friend those days, their days, are long gone, if they ever really existed at all:
"This is not a gentleman's war."
It’s a justly famous sequence (and one I've posted a few times on my blog since 9/11):
Theo: I read your broadcast up to the point where you describe the collapse of France. You commented on Nazi methods -- foul fighting, bombing refugees, machine-gunning hospitals, lifeboats, lightships, bailed-out pilots -- by saying that you despised them, that you would be ashamed to fight on their side and that you would sooner accept defeat than victory if it could only be won by those methods.
Candy: So I would!
Theo: Clive! If you let yourself be defeated by them, just because you are too fair to hit back the same way they hit at you, there won't be any methods BUT Nazi methods! If you preach the Rules of the Game while they use every foul and filthy trick against you, they will laugh at you! They'll think you're weak, decadent! I thought so myself in 1919!
Theo: [he pats Clive's shoulder] You mustn't mind me, an old alien, saying all this. But who can describe hydrophobia better than one who has been bitten -- and is now immune.
The entire movie is a paradox, down even to its production in early 1940s Britain. It was shot on Technicolor stock in war time, when such stock was exceedingly difficult to obtain. The result, especially in a good print, is appropriately jewel-like. (Actor and author Stephen Fry who, like Mamet, calls Colonel Blimp his favorite film, notes that it looks like it was shot in the 1960s rather than the 1940s.)
As Powell later wrote:
I have often been asked how we managed to obtain military vehicles, military uniforms, weapons and all the fixings after being refused help by the War Office and the Ministry of Information. The answer is quite simple: we stole them.
They were forced to. Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s judgment uncharacteristically faltered: he misinterpreted the movie -- with its German co-hero -- as unpatriotic and un-British (as well as a personal attack) and tried to stop its production then ban its release.
Badly edited prints circulated for years -- leading to even more confusion about its meaning -- until the movie was finally restored forty years later to great acclaim.
Others point to the scene in which refugee Theo, a broken man whose own children having joined the Nazis, seeks asylum in Britain:
The speech is so memorable that just last year, a writer for the left-wing Guardian compared it favorably to one that had recently been delivered by the Labour Party leader -- while feeling obliged to add that:
Of course, the speech is brilliant propaganda. At the time, it spoke directly to the patriotic urge and even now, 67 years later, I defy anyone in Britain to watch it and not feel better about where they live. But [the film's screenwriter] Pressburger, who wrote it, didn't need to confect the feelings behind Walbrook's words. A Jewish Hungarian, he found a new life in Britain in 1935.
Along with its many other technical accomplishments, the all-important age makeup worn by actor Roger Livesey is breathtaking, putting that seen in many modern films to shame.
Had I bailed out during the film's opening sequence when I tuned in for the first time -- as I’d been tempted to do through no fault of the filmmakers, there really is something annoyingly Chitty Chitty Bang Bang about it... I’d have missed one of the great “Movies for Grown-Ups.”
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp has a nostalgic, fairy tale quality, but it's really an unflinching examination of what it means to be an honorable, civilized man, when that very civilization -- the one you’ve always known and loved and fought for -- is now, despite all your costly (and literally scarring) sacrifices, dying anyway.
And you along with it.
Check out the previous essays in Kathy Shaidle's Movies For Grown-Ups Series:
Part 1: "Make Way for Tomorrow"
Part 2: "Dodsworth"
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