The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp was released in 1943 and was directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. It was released by Criterion on DVD on October 22, 2002, and on Blu-Ray on March 19, 2013, as spine #173. Powell and Pressburger also directed The Red Shoes (spine #44), Black Narcissus (spine #93), I Know Where I’m Going! (spine #94), The Tales of Hoffmann (spine #317), A Canterbury Tale (spine #341), and The Small Back Room (spine #441). On his own, Powell directed Peeping Tom (spine #58) and 49th Parallel (spine #376); he was also a co-director of The Thief of Bagdad (spine #431).
General Clive Candy (Roger Livesey) is an old-fashioned Englishman who witnesses his country change — for good and ill — over the course of his service in three wars. He befriends a German soldier (Anton Walbrook) prior to World War I, and meets three women (Deborah Kerr) during each war who all look eerily similar. Candy grapples with the increasingly outdated notion that war can be civil and gentlemanly.
General Clive Candy longs for the days when life had rules. He’s offended by dirty military tactics, he’s confused by the things women are beginning to say, and he believes deep in his heart that “might is right.” Normally, those words signal an ideology based in the inherent morality of those in power, but Candy’s saying exactly the opposite. He thinks that playing fairly is the only way to ensure victory, and that those who don’t will inevitably fail in their endeavors.
Is it a naive outlook? Perhaps. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp isn’t thinking in such definitive terms, though. It wants you to understand why Candy thinks these things, even if you don’t end up agreeing with him. The film is asking you to empathize with Candy, to understand that he’s had years of life experience to make him who he is. Livesey is fantastic as Candy, giving the character a youthful charm and wit and morphing those features into compassion and melancholy. He plays Candy as a young man and an old man, and I honestly thought that there were two different actors playing each role. We like to talk about actors giving “transformative” performances, but they don’t often do that transformation during a film’s runtime.
Deborah Kerr and Anton Walbrook are great as well, with the former playing three roles who function as evolutions of each other, starting with a woman who is outspoken in her distaste for gender roles and ending with a woman who abandons them entirely. These three characters are just similar enough for their connection to matter, but they’re all still distinct. And Walbrook is a powerhouse as well, given the difficult task of making a German soldier sympathetic to a British audience in 1943. Powell and Pressburger know when to let their actors carry the film. At one point, Walbrook gives a heartbreaking monologue, and it’s a static shot of his face without any music. He’s got the whole film riding on him in that moment, and the directors know he’s up to the task.
This release has your standard suite of Criterion features: Commentary, documentary, booklet, miscellaneous historical artifacts. Martin Scorsese has a pretty heavy presence on the disc, which is interesting. It’s not unusual for contemporary filmmakers to do “video introductions” on Criterion films, where they share their appreciation for the film and talk about its influence on their work. Spike Lee did one for Ace in the Hole, Ti West did one for House, and Scorsese does one on here. What is unusual is for a contemporary filmmaker to do a video introduction, a commentary track, and an explanation of the film’s restoration. The restoration demonstration is very cool, and not something that we see on every Criterion release. Seeing the side-by-side comparison of the restored version and the original version will only make you love this company more. Steadfast Scorsese collaborator (and widow of Michael Powell) Thelma Schoonmaker also has a feature where she is interviewed about her love for the film. Scorsese was clearly taken with Colonel Blimp; he had a big part in restoring the film to its original length, having first seen it on television in a 90-minute black-and-white cut. It was so difficult to find, there were times when Scorsese wondered if the film existed at all or if he simply imagined it. His enthusiasm for the film is infectious, and he energizes what would otherwise be a somewhat dull set of special features.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is a humanist masterpiece. Its central character’s nostalgia for fair play may seem naive, by the end you realize the folly of reducing people to fit your personal values or opinions. It’s a beautiful appeal for understanding and kindness, and we need it now more than ever.
Criterion Grade: B
Film Grade: A