Tag Archives: The Browning Version

‘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

Two Approaches to ‘The Browning Version’

Title card to the 1951 screen version.

Title card to the 1951 screen version.

. . . κρατοῦντα μαλθακῶς
θεὸς πρόσωθεν εὐμενῶς προσδέρκεται.

(God from afar shines graciously upon a gentle master.)
Aeschylus, “The Agamemnon,” lines 951-952

In the 1951 screen adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s one act play, “The Browning Version,” Michael Redgrave gives what I consider to be perhaps the greatest screen performance by a leading actor. At any rate, I cannot think of a performance that I admire more. (There is one performance by an actress that I think is as great, but I’ll discuss that in another post.) By no means is “The Browning Version” a perfect movie — it’s full of bad performances (Jean Kent as his shrewish wife is especially appalling), and it suffers from a ludicrous final scene that was added to give the story a squishy uplift that undermines the story’s tragic integrity. But Michael Redgrave’s performance as Mr Crocker-Harris, a much despised schoolmaster, is beyond reproach. Here’s a scene in which he gives a private tutorial to his one sympathetic student, named Taplow (Brian Smith).

In 1985, Ian Holm played the role on the BBC. He was supported by a much better cast (including Judi Dench in the Jean Kent role: Dame Judi proves the role does work when handled with sensitivity and intelligence). Holm’s own performance is excellent — and different in nearly every conceivable way from Redgrave’s. (Taplow is very well played by Steven Mackintosh.) Have a look.

I have great admiration for Holm’s performance; in some ways, I think he may be closer to Rattigan’s original conception. The constriction in his throat, for example, strikes me as a good acting choice: Mr Crocker-Harris is being forced to leave his position due to illness; Holm’s habitual clearing of his throat suggests both some sort of chronic illness, as well as chronic psychological discomfort. By contrast, Redgrave gives no indication of the nature of Mr Crocker-Harris’ career-ending illness. But as admirable and tough-minded as Holm’s interpretation is, he doesn’t move me as deeply as Redgrave does. At first, I thought it possible that I was simply more familiar with Redgrave’s performance. But I’ve changed my mind about this.

For one thing, Holm has made the Crock (as his students refer to him) too emotionally shut down. There’s no music or poetry in Holm’s line readings. I think, in fact, this is perhaps more realistic than Redgrave’s intensely musical readings — it certainly makes his Crock less overtly eccentric than Redgrave’s — but eccentricity is precisely what the part calls for. Redgrave presents a personality that is very much shut down, but the voice continues to shudder and tremble with emotion. For example, there’s the point when he says “I’m not denying ‘The Agamemnon’ is a play: it is perhaps the greatest play ever written” — and Taplow says “I wonder how many boys in the class think that.” The abrasion to Redgrave’s gossamer sensitivity is exquisitely painful (especially after the way he dwelt lingeringly upon “the greatest play ever written”; Holm speaks the line as a rote memory lecture note) — you can hear the pain in Redgrave’s voice and see it in his eyes. His is “A countenance more/In sorrow than in anger”; Holm is more angered at Taplow’s insolence than wounded by his observation: he looks frigid and stern; his voice is all gravel and ashes. Redgrave’s reaction strikes me as the better acting choice because it leads more naturally to Mr Crocker-Harris’ revelation about his having written a translation of the play. You can understand why the Crock reveals himself to Taplow — it’s a defense of his beloved Aeschylus as much as it is an unexpected, all-but-involuntary recounting of a long-suppressed memory. But why does Holm reveal himself to the boy? It seems out of character, and the effect, overall, is more brittle and less meaningful. (In the television (and the original) version, the Crock says he finished the play; in the movie version, he didn’t finish it. It’s an interesting difference, since Holm’s character seems more likely to finish anything he started, while Redgrave’s — though stoic and long-suffering — seems more likely to surrender to apathy and call it “facing facts.”) When Taplow says “that must have been hard work.” Holm bristles defensively, while Redgrave luxuriates in the memory of a time when he was fully engaged intellectually, and emotionally wholly alive. (I much prefer Taplow’s line in the picture: “That must have been jolly hard work.”  I also much prefer Redgrave’s pronunciation of “construing” with the emphasis on the first syllable. For all I know, Holm’s pronunciation is perfectly correct, but what of that? I like construing because it sets it apart from the more generic meaning of the word.)

In fairness to Holm, I should mention that the director, Michael A. Simpson, has done him no favors by shooting the scene entirely in close-ups, which interferes with the possibility of establishing any chemistry between him and Taplow. In Anthony Asquith’s movie, the scene is played largely with both characters in the shot, which makes the Crock’s reactions to Taplow’s remarks more immediate and pathetic. Also, it’s well to remember that Michael Redgrave was a very large man — six foot five — so having him in the same shot with Brian Smith allows him to loom in a way that the diminutive Ian Holm cannot.

In this next scene, the Crock explains at some length how he developed into the eccentric person he has become. The picture must have attracted very little attention in the United States when it was released, otherwise I cannot understand how a performance like this could fail to be nominated for an Academy Award. Redgrave did, however, win the prize that year at the Cannes Film Festival.

Everything Redgrave does in this scene is wonderful, but what I find most moving of all is the little pat he gives to the desk when he says, “But a single success can atone, and more than atone, for all the failures in the world.” That little pat tells you that many years ago, his most brilliant student sat at that desk and the poor old fellow has never forgotten what success felt like in that one long-ago year. In Method Acting circles, this sort of thing is called a “psychological gesture” — a physical manifestation of a highly charged emotional recall or state of mind. Done properly, the psychological gesture is a great acting tool, but it’s all too easy to overdo. Redgrave does it to perfection. Method actors are wont to clutter up their performances with what may be termed “faux psychological gestures”: tics and spasms that steal focus but convey nothing. Just look at James Dean or Steve McQueen as they scratch and twitch and grimace and execute little meaningless shivers to catch your attention and you’ll see what I mean. (There’s a famous example in “The Magnificent Seven,” in which McQueen rides shotgun through town on a stagecoach with Yul Brynner. The sequence is only a few seconds long, but McQueen did so many little things to pull focus, that Brynner wanted to kill the son of a bitch.)

When Holm speaks of his wish to “communicate, however imperfectly, some of my joy in the great literature of the past,” the effect is more ironic than poignant: he’s so stern, so robotic that the joy he speaks of is hard, even impossible, to imagine. When Redgrave speaks the lines, you can plainly hear from the way he caresses the words that his feelings for literature run very deep. There is nothing at all dusty about his love; his tragedy is his not possessing “the knack of making [himself] liked.” As I see it, it is not the Crock’s implacability or coldness that made him disliked when he was first starting out as a schoolmaster, but rather the intensity of his passion for his subject. It is this passion that he slowly developed into parody for the boys’ amusement, “because you can teach far more things by laughter than by earnestness.” His observations about “my little mannerisms and tricks of speech” make far more sense if he actually has mannerisms and tricks of speech, which Holm does not — at least, not in abundance. Moreover, an important plot device turns upon Mrs Crocker-Harris’ catching Taplow in the middle of doing an impersonation of her husband. Redgrave’s performance provides a vast inventory of vocal tics for Taplow to imitate; Ian Holm gives the poor boy little to imitate, other than an habitual clearing of the throat and a permanent scowl.

It also appears that Holm takes too literally the Crock’s claim that “I have so little sense of humour.” Mr Crocker-Harris never stops making little jokes, but they’re either so abstruse that nobody gets them or they’re so caustic that nobody finds them amusing. He knows nobody will laugh, but he makes the jokes anyway, then follows them with an icy little smirk. His wit isolates him. When Taplow takes pity on him in class, and laughs at one of his little epigrams (which Taplow later describes as a “dud joke”), the Crock calls him to the front of the class and demands that the boy explain it to the rest of the class. Eventually Taplow confesses that he didn’t hear it properly. “Then why did you laugh at what you did not hear?” “Politeness.” The Crock mumurs, “Toujours la politesse” and sends him back to his seat, with a scornful, “If you should really wish to show me politeness, you will do so by composing verses less appalling than the ones I corrected this morning.” In the picture, this scene is our introduction to the Crock (in the play, we only get the story in Taplow’s recounting of it), and it presents an indelible picture of a harsh master who makes jokes with the specific intention of bewildering his students and then humiliates anyone who has the effrontery to laugh politely. Crocker-Harris has a highly developed sense of humor; he just isn’t prepared to have his punchlines induce laughter.

I’m afraid I’ve come down too hard on Ian Holm in my effort to make clear what I love so much about Redgrave’s gorgeous performance. Holm’s performance is entirely valid and emotionally satisfying. Taken as a whole, the 1985 BBC production is better than the 1951 picture. But as fine as Holm is, the performance isn’t monumental in the way that Redgrave’s is. Happily, you can see both the 1951 and the 1985 versions in their entirety on YouTube, though of course YouTube is never the best way to see anything. You can also see the surprisingly ill-conceived 1994 Mike Figgis picture starring Albert Finney and Greta Scacchi on YouTube (which actually may be the one time when YouTube is the best way to see a picture: in the movie theatre, I found Figgis’ remake intolerable). I say “surprisingly ill-conceived,” because on the Criterion Collection’s excellent DVD transfer of the 1951 picture, Figgis talks brilliantly about the play and the style of acting that was still in vogue when it was written. Figgis is so perceptive and lucid about the material and the out-of-date acting style that I was bewildered that he could have made so many mistakes when he got the chance to do his own version of a play he understands so completely. Finney is a superb actor, but it’s hard to imagine an actor less suited temperamentally to the character of poor old Mr Crocker-Harris. I found myself peeking through my fingers at the picture.