‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’: The Greatest British Motion Picture

Criterion Collection Blu-ray cover.

Criterion Collection Blu-ray cover.

I’ve admired “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” (Rank Organisation, 1943) for decades, but until Criterion released it on Blu-ray, my enjoyment has always been impaired somewhat by the quality of the Technicolor. Criterion’s DVD release from about a decade ago was a vast improvement over what I’d seen before, but I still disliked the Easter-egg pastels. British Technicolor, as I understand it, uses different chemicals from American Technicolor, which creates an entirely different palate. Most of the aficionados I’ve heard talk about color (Martin Scorsese, for instance) prefer the British Technicolor process; I do not. I like the vividness of American Technicolor — “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “An American in Paris” and “Magnificent Obsession” are three great examples of the kind of color I like best. Perhaps I’ll go into this in more detail in another post, but for now the point I want to make is this: with the new Blu-ray transfer of “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp,” one of the only two real objections I had with the picture has been removed: it looks fabulous. (There is, however, one challenging aspect that comes as a result of the new, super-sharp image: the age makeup that is used throughout the picture is unmistakable. Whether or not this is distracting, however, will surely depend on the individual. I rather like the additional layer of artifice it adds to the story, which is decidedly artificial and artistic, rather than realistic and documentarian.  Many of the outdoor locations (especially the battlefields) are obviously shot on sound stages (I like this, too).  But I can quite understand how a lot of people will find greasepaint wrinkles and white shoe-polish in the hair difficult to accept as indications of the depredations of age. C’est la guerre.)

Let me get my remaining objection out of the way at once: it’s the crummy score by Allan Gray. Mind you, it’s crummy, but hardly appalling in the way that so many modern scores are appalling: it isn’t used as aural wallpaper; it’s used with discretion and it’s nearly always clear what purpose it serves. The only problem I have with it is that I don’t like the way it sounds: the romantic theme is the most satisfactory thing in the score, but to my ear, it’s not as gorgeous as it should be (I can’t help wishing Korngold could have scored this picture!) — it’s not as fine as the writing and the acting. The comic underscoring is too broad and corny — it doesn’t tickle my funnybone; it digs its elbow into my ribs in a most disagreeable fashion.  Of course, it could be a whole lot worse: Allan Gray’s wretched score for “The African Queen” is far more bumptious and irritating — he’s at his worst when he thinks “it meet/To put an antic disposition on,” which he does throughout that picture.  In “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp,” which is less comic than “The African Queen,” he’s less overtly antic . . . but, alas, it appears that I am not merely anti-antic, but also anti-semi-antic.

The history of “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” is a long and tortuous one, beginning with Winston Churchill’s failed attempts to stop the picture from being made, to its being hacked to bits and restructured for American audiences in its first run, then to its almost total disappearance, and finally to its complete restoration in the 1990s. What must have audiences thought of it when it was slashed from 163 minutes to 90? On the commentary track, Martin Scorsese, who first saw it on a black and white television back in the 1950s, says it was impossible to follow what was going on. In its pristine restoration, it is a masterpiece: the single greatest British picture of them all. As far as I know, there’s not even a close second. It’s one of only a handful of works of genius ever put on film. Unlike many great pictures, it’s also a huge amount of fun. It is alternately hilarious, serious, charming, poignant and heartbreaking. It is lovely to look at and even more delightful to know. The more often I see it, the deeper my love for it grows. But do yourself a favor and watch it on Blu-ray, which will give you the truest experience. The DVD will do in a pinch, but the Blu-ray offers a much better picture and soundtrack. (The clips I have included are not, alas, from the Blu-ray — but they’re good enough to get the idea across.)

The acting from everyone in the cast is superlative. Deborah Kerr was only 21 when she made the picture; according to director Michael Powell, he was constantly astonished by her intelligence and talent. After one romantic scene halfway through the picture, Powell says on the commentary track, “Isn’t she fine? She always hit the right note. Most actors — even actresses — are not particularly intelligent; Deborah was particularly intelligent.” During another scene Powell says, almost in a state of bewilderment, “And she never put a foot wrong. She knew things in the part that she couldn’t have possibly known as a girl.” And indeed, her performance is almost unimaginably superb. She plays three separate roles that add up to what I think may reasonably be considered The Eternal Feminine: three young women who come into the life of our hero over the course of his career. Take for instance, this scene, in which she handles the dialogue with the finesse of an actress (I mean a great actress, of course) twice her age and with the sort of moral authority that comes only from extraordinary intelligence. Though I’ve admired Deborah Kerr for as long as I can remember, her performance in “Colonel Blimp” fills me with something more exalted and exhilarating than mere admiration.

Commonsense and Bad Manners

Her intelligence and diction remind me always of that line from “The Agamemnon,” which Taplow construes for Mr Crocker-Harris in “The Browning Version“:  θαυμάζομέν σου γλῶσσαν — “We marvel at thy tongue.” That’s the wonderful Roger Livesey who gets cold tongue for his supper. Michael Powell hoped to cast Laurence Olivier in the lead role, but the military refused to grant him temporary leave from active duty. Olivier was a much bigger star at the time, but I don’t think he had nearly the soulfulness and conspicuous honesty of Livesey — and none of the pathos. Once you’ve seen Roger Livesey in the part, no other actor seems possible: he’s just about the most charming and lovable actor who ever performed in front of a camera.

“Colonel Blimp” tells of the forty year military career of General Clive Wynne-Candy, running from the Boer War until the middle of the Second World War. In the course of those four decades, we see how manners, morals, styles and warfare change — we see whole ways of life come to an end and old duffers who try to figure out how they fit in in a world they don’t understand — a new world that is being created by young men who know nothing about who and what came before them. Clive Candy meets his greatest friend by accident. After a chance altercation over a point of honor in a Berlin café, Candy finds himself challenged to a duel (with sabers) against an opponent he has never met. Both he and his Prussian officer opponent give each other a good pasting — Candy takes eight stitches to the upper lip; his Prussian opponent, twelve stitches to the forehead. While they are recuperating in the same hospital, they meet over a rubber of bridge and become lifelong friends. This is the scene where they meet in hospital.

Very Much

The charming German lady, Frau von Kalteneck, is a wonderful actress by the name of Ursula Jeans. She was the wife of Roger Livesey and also the sister of the sublime comedienne, Isabel Jeans, who was the first Mrs Claude Rains. Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff is the great Viennese ham, Anton Walbrook. Walbrook is awfully wonderful as Lermontov, the demented ballet master in “The Red Shoes,” but I don’t think he was ever better than he is in this one.

Several weeks go by in a hurry and we arrive at this, the next scene in the picture. Clive (Livesey) has fallen in love with Edith (Kerr), but doesn’t know it. Theo (Walbrook) has also fallen in love with Edith, and does know it. Edith has fallen in love with both Theo and Clive and doesn’t know what, if anything, will become of her.

I Came to Berlin to Find a Rat, and I Found Two of the Grandest People I’ve Ever Met

While it is certainly tempting at this point to go into some detail about at least a few of the major themes in the picture, I think I will forswear that temptation for the time being. Instead, I’ll show you two of my favorite scenes, both of which present thematic material forcefully, beautifully and, I think, poetically. (They are both certainly beautifully spoken and acted — “Colonel Blimp” has more interesting, beautiful voices than any other picture I know.) Both scenes are in the way of being quite unabashed propaganda; both present the most enchanting propaganda I’ve ever come across.

The first comes at the end of The Great War, a war we’re to accept as a fable with a moral, which, in as few words as possible is:

Right Is Might

I can’t tell if the scene, out of context, seems a bit thick. But in the context of the picture, Clive Candy’s world has been so thoroughly created in the two hours that precede it, the moralizing is entirely earned and very moving indeed. I don’t know of another picture that makes decency so exciting and satisfying. It’s propaganda of the very highest order. I particularly admire the set, which took a month to set up and two weeks to clear away after shooting wrapped.

In the last third of the picture, Theo, having lost his wife Edith, and wanting to get out of Germany before it’s too late, arrives in England, seeking asylum. When the official gives him a hard time about not leaving Germany in 1933, as so many others did, Theo delivers a thrilling monologue. When Michael Powell handed him the pages and told him that it would be shot in one long take, Herr Walbrook almost passed out. While you watch this scene, notice how Powell removes, little by little, the ambient sound as the monologue progresses till there are no street noises, typewriters, bells, footsteps . . . nothing but the human voice. I find the effect magical. I won’t do this often, but I’ve included two versions of the scene. One is the full scene, nine minutes long; the second is the great monologue with a little set up dialogue preceding it. If you don’t have nine minutes to spare, by all means, check out the second one first. Then you can always come back and see the scene in its entirety some other time. As I say, I won’t do this often, but this seems to me a special case. (N.B.: The short version is much louder.)

The Full Scene


Few of the actors in the smaller parts are familiar to modern audiences, but many of them were lions of the London stage — some of them shared the stage with Henry Irving and Ellen Terry. The President of the Tribunal in the scene above is played by a popular West End actor, A.E. Matthews. In his youth, Matthews worked at a London bookseller; when he learnt that Sir Henry Irving had worked not only in the same bookshop, but at the very same desk as he, he decided to devote his life to the theatre. During his long and distinguished career, he worked with everybody from Ellen Terry to Elaine Stritch.

The Great Monologue Only

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