Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were a cinematic match made in heaven. The duo began collaborating on movies in 1939, and worked together off and on for over three decades. Though their films were credited to both as the writers, directors and producers, Powell was more of the director of the two, while Pressburger was the writer. Though their works have been spotlighted by the Criterion collection since they started making laserdiscs, they are the sort of filmmakers that will never be as well known as David Lean or Danny Boyle, but are arguably among the best – if not the best – filmmakers that England ever produced. 1943’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is a strong contender for their greatest film. Criterion has just released it on Blu-ray and our review follows after the jump.
As would be known to the viewers of the day, Colonel Blimp was a cartoon character that was popular in England, and was known as an older, stereotypically British personality. But now, perhaps confusingly, he is less well known, so it’s worth pointing out there’s no such person in the film. The main character here is Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesy), who starts the film as an old Major General. It’s World War II, and he’s back in service training young soldiers. As the film begins his driver (Deborah Kerr) lets slip that war games start at midnight, and her boyfriend figures the best way to win is to start before then. When Candy is captured he protests that the men aren’t following the rules of war (and so starts one of the film’s major themes), and then he flashes back to his youth, when he was an upstart.
Candy was in the Boer war at the turn of the century and gets the idea to go to Germany when a British woman named Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr) writes a letter complaining about a German man who’s been spreading anti-English propaganda. Clive decides to go to Germany start a fight, which he does. But when he’s asked to engage in a duel, it’s against Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook), a stranger to him. In one of the most genius moments in the film, Powell meticulously sets up the duel, and then the camera floats away never showing the actual fight. It points out that the action isn’t as important as the why it happened and the results. Both men are mildly injured (Clive’s scar is on his lip, so he begins to grow a mustache), but in the hospital Theo and Clive become friends. And when Edith comes to visit she falls for Theo. Afterwards, Clive realizes that he loved her too.
By the time World War I has rolled around, Clive has a full mustache, a number of hunting trophies and a hole in his heart. But at the end of the war he meets a young nurse who looks exactly like Edith (big surprise as she’s also played by Deborah Kerr). The two marry, but then Clive is made aware that Theo is in a prisoner of war camp. When Clive tries to talk to him, Theo ignores him. They reconnect later, but at the time Theo saw the weakness of the English, people who thought that winning the war was the end of the game. That rules and regulations were all that mattered. As Clive enters World War II, it’s pointed out that rules don’t always apply.
There is so much more to the film, but that’s the basic outline, and though the film runs close to three hours, it’s never less than engrossing. Shot in three-strip Technicolor, it’s simply one of the most gorgeous films ever made, and in terms of composing a frame, Michael Powell was a master. At the heart of the film is the performance by Roger Livesy, who becomes an old fuddy-duddy over the course of the film, but it’s also about (as represented by Kerr and her three roles), how we as humans are often attracted to the same things, and often repeat our mistakes. And the genius of the film is how it shows that over a lifetime. Few films engage on that scale of vision, showing how a young man can become set in his ways, and how he chases the same dreams and make the same mistakes. But that’s why the film is so revered. It’s singular.
The Criterion collection presents the film in a newly remastered version, with the transfer taken from a recently done 4K scan, so this is as good as the film can look on home video. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio (1.37:1) and in 1.0 uncompressed mono. Recorded for the original laserdisc version (in 1988), there’s a commentary track with Martin Scorsese and Michael Powell. At first Powell sounds unfirm, but he picks up his interest as he goes and he’s perfectly complimented by Scorsese, who loves the film.
More recently, Scorsese recorded an introduction (14 min.) for this restoration, and he knows a lot about the film and offers those thoughts in a more compact form, and notes how one sequence was a direct inspiration for a scene in Raging Bull. There’s also an appreciation of the movie done in 2000 for the BBC that’s also included (24 min.) with comments from Stephen Fry, film historian Ian Christie and Pressburger biographer Kevin MacDonald. There’s a restoration demonstration (5 min.) with comments from Martin Scorsese, and a new interview with Thelma Scoonmaker (29 min.), who’s been editing Scorsese’s films for years and is also Michael Powell’s widow. Rounding out the collection are two still galleries, one for the movie, while the second covers the work of David Low and his Colonel Blimp cartoons.