Those who are young, eventually become old. It's an unshakeable inevitability of life, and it's rarely a painless process. Forced to watch the world grow and evolve around us, some choose to embrace the changing tides, while others instead hold firm to the past, stubbornly maintaining faded principles in the face of ambiguous progress. But even the most proud and obstinate of personalities can't fight off the looming shadow of approaching obsolescence forever -- or can they? From the celebrated cinematic duo of Powell and Pressburger, 'The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp' presents an epic story fueled by high drama, tender romance, playful satire, and the bittersweet passage of time. A genuine masterpiece of filmmaking, the picture holds a secure place among the medium's most treasured classics, proving that some so called relics never become outdated.
Very loosely inspired by David Low's original 'Colonel Blimp' comic strips, the story follows the life of General Clive Candy (Roger Livesey), a traditional British soldier who gradually finds himself out of sync with shifting wartime philosophies. Told in a flashback structure, the narrative chronicles Candy's misadventures from 1902 - 1942, periodically checking in on the incorrigible gentlemen as he navigates growing British/German hostilities and two World Wars. All the while, Candy maintains a deep friendship with a German officer (Anton Walbrook), and continues to pine over a lost love (Deborah Kerr) whose face he repeatedly sees in different women throughout his life. With the old "chivalrous" modes of warfare being phased out, Candy will eventually have to change with the times, or finally accept his tragically and sometimes comically obsolete status.
Critics often speak of certain actors being born to play specific roles, and in the case of Roger Livesey's remarkable turn as General Clive Candy, that sentiment has never been more appropriate. One of classic cinemas most unique and memorable creations, the character is a headstrong, old fashioned relic whose persona brilliantly walks the fine line between satirical distortion and endearing sincerity. Bawdy and refined all at once, Candy comes to represent the whole of a dying breed, and Livesey injects the epic role with a larger-than-life bluster that's perfectly counteracted by a surprising undercurrent of sensitive pathos.
Playing the part in three distinct time periods, the actor crafts a convincing, gradual transformation that hits all the right transitional beats. Everything from his distinct voice to the very way he carries himself, is flawlessly honed in to accentuate the role's impetuous elegance and gallant sense of outdated honor -- and his growing mustache, receding hairline, and expanding belly (all realized by some great make-up), only serve to further embellish the man's strong internal flair. Admittedly, when we first meet the character, already an old man, his look and manner seem exaggerated and over-the-top, but by the time the flashback structure comes full circle, Livesey totally sells the performance, effectively revealing the beating heart that rests beneath Candy's farcical outer shell. A lesser actor may have overplayed the part, but Livesey so effortlessly steps into the General's shoes, that it seems as if they were tailor made for him to begin with -- and as guided by the masterful hands of Powell and Pressburger, the results are nothing short of iconic.
Collectively known as "The Archers," the artistic collaboration between writer Emeric Pressburger and director Michael Powell is the stuff of cinematic legend ('The Red Shoes,' 'Black Narcissus'), and here the coupling of their individual talents has never been more complementary. Pressburger's peerless script is a meticulously structured exercise in affectionate satire, intricate character study, bittersweet romance, and thought-provoking wartime commentary -- all fused together to form an epic adventure that blends comedy and drama so deftly that any pre-conceived barriers between the two genres simply fade away.
At the core of the runtime is an insightful examination of evolving (or perhaps devolving) battlefield strategies, pitting classic "gentlemanly" British militarism against the decidedly less honorable tactics of the first and second World Wars. An old soldier in the midst of a new kind of conflict, Candy refuses to let go of his increasingly anachronistic principles, and this leads to some legitimately provocative questions. The narrative's key thematic quandary challenges the protagonist's idealistic concept of "right is might," forcing the character, and the audience, to consider a less admirable approach. If the opposition is unwilling to play by the so-called rules of engagement, must one then fight like the enemy in order to survive?
There are of course no easy answers, and this plot point actually proved to be very controversial during the film's production in 1942. In fact, the script generated heated opposition from the British military who did not take kindly to the implication that they might have to fight like Nazis in order to win the war. It's a complicated and morally ambiguous issue, and while the old-fashioned, broad storytelling style does limit some of the screenplay's depth and nuance, Pressburger handles the material with a skillful hand, and balances these weighty concepts with lighthearted farce and poignant humanity.
Expanding its range beyond just warfare, the movie also becomes a playful satire focused on the amusing minutia of manners and protocol. Through an elegant silliness, the filmmakers cleverly poke fun at the inherent absurdities of polite conflict. Furthering this end, Pressburger's dialogue is full of hilariously dry observations and densely packed, witty conversations. As a whole, a certain prim and proper quirkiness permeates throughout the runtime, and even the most minor characters are all layered with a sly sense of sardonic personality.
The movie's influential duel scene is a particularly good example of this sharp satirical style. As Candy gets ready to do battle against a German soldier he has offended, his superiors meet the opposition to discuss the complicated ins and outs of their duel. While both parties go over the ridiculous rules and regulations, they maintain an almost absurd level of cordial civility, discussing the potentially deadly conflict as if they've merely gotten together for tea and crumpets. Likewise, the actual preparation for the battle follows in similar suit, and after showing an extended sequence detailing the pre-duel rituals, Powell and Pressburger then completely subvert expectations by quickly transitioning away from the actual fight. The filmmakers realize that the battle itself isn't what's interesting; it's the complicated groundwork and paradoxical courtesy that's really fascinating (and incredibly entertaining).
While this borderline cartoonish farce leads to a very funny experience, the film is also surprisingly wistful, and there are several truly moving sequences that sort of sneak into the narrative, punctuating the satire with palpable emotion. The central romance between Candy and a trio of women he meets throughout the years (all played by Deborah Kerr) is filled with longing and unashamed sentimentality. When Candy initially meets Edith (the first role Kerr inhabits) it's clear that he's in love, but the poor bastard doesn't realize it until it's too late. From then on, it's as if his heart only sees one face. Powell and Pressburger present this idea rather literally, and due in large part to Kerr's fantastic performances, their gamble pays off beautifully, tugging at the audience's heartstrings in all the right ways.
Candy's endearing life-long friendship with Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff, a German enemy turned ally, also helps to layer the film with even more dramatic substance. Walbrook and Livesey play off each other skillfully, and their coupling proves to be incredibly touching. Together, these emotional subplots all serve to bolster the General's overarching struggle with obsolescence, painting the tragic picture of a stubborn old man who continually refuses to change. As Martin Scorsese so astutely points out in the included special features, there is an "eloquent sadness" to the whole affair, and despite the plentiful laughs, this is a genuinely affecting story.
Bringing visual life to the ambitious narrative, is a refined cinematic style led by Michael Powell's keen artistic eye. From a purely superficial standpoint, the Technicolor imagery is simply gorgeous, and the director's use of color in the sets and costumes is bold without being overly showy. Powell's aesthetic approach can be either subtle or explicit depending on the situation, using simple and intricate cinematic techniques to give the proceedings a scope that is simultaneously grand and intimate. Two of the film's most memorable scenes offer powerful examples of both approaches. On the more overtly stylistic end, is a montage sequence that focuses on a growing assemblage of animal trophy heads that gradually collect on Candy's wall. Each new addition represents a year that passes in the story, quickly transitioning viewers through a visually clever narrative time jump.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, is a quietly staged scene that features a soft spoken monologue beautifully delivered by Anton Walbrook. As Theo mourns over his great losses, Powell opts to present a large chunk of the sequence as one undisturbed shot, gracefully pushing the camera in and out to emphasize the emotional arc of the character's words. It's a carefully understated bit of direction that subtly enhances the mood, while still allowing Walbrook's heartbreaking performance to take center stage. The movie is littered with similarly delicate or alternatively brash stylistic choices, and together they help to create an irresistible sense of motion picture wonder.
Widely revered as one of the greatest British films of all time, 'The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp' easily lives up to its lofty reputation. A melancholy lamentation on changing times, a thoughtful rumination on war-time ethics, a touching romance, a hilarious satire, and a thoroughly ambitious character study all rolled into one stunning Technicolor marvel, this really is one of cinema's crown jewels. Clive Candy is a masterful creation, and Roger Livesey delivers a performance so assured in its blustery bravado and heartwarming intimacy, that it feels both larger-than-life and perfectly natural all at once. Through the decades spanning tale of a stubborn general's trials and tribulations in love and war, the film tells the epic story of a young fool who becomes a grand old man -- or perhaps, a grand young man who becomes an old fool. After all, in Powell and Pressburger's charmingly satirical world, I'm not so sure that there's a difference.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Criterion presents 'The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp' in their standard clear case with spine number 173. The BD-50 Region A disc comes packaged with a booklet featuring an essay by film critic Molly Haskell.
Taken from a recent 4K restoration conducted by the Film Foundation, the movie is provided with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 1.37:1 aspect ratio. Remarkably pristine, detailed, and vibrant, this is a very impressive and wonderfully faithful video presentation.
The print has been painstakingly restored, and outside of some very minor specks and color pulsing here and there, the source is nearly immaculate. In fact, there are several stretches (particularly the opening motorcycle scene) that appear so spotless and clear that they almost look like they could have been shot yesterday. Though not as prominent as I was expecting, a very light layer of grain has been preserved. If DNR was applied to the image, its use was judicious, and has not resulted in any negative detail damaging side effects.
From the moment the film begins, it's readily apparent that one is in for a real visual treat. The main title sequence depicts a series of sewn tapestries, and the image proves to be impeccably rendered, revealing every tiny thread of needlework in the textiles. From there, clarity remains strong and consistent throughout, delivering the Archers' gorgeous visuals with life-like dimension. Fine details are often so apparent, that limitations in the production's make-up and effects are actually exposed (one can clearly see the pasted on edges of Livesey's receding wig, for instance). The Technicolor cinematography shines beautifully, with rich saturation and bold primaries (especially reds and blues). With that said, there are a few scenes that look comparatively dull and faintly washed-out. Contrast is steady throughout, with inky blacks and even whites (though the final shot is a little blown out).
As further enumerated in the included restoration demonstration, the Film Foundation has really done an astounding job here. Damage has been dutifully cleaned away while still preserving the movie's cinematic integrity, repairing this timeless classic back to its original vibrant glory. While there are some very minor flaws here and there, this is a true standout release, and pure demo material for classic cinema on Blu-ray.
The audio is presented in an English LPCM mono track with optional English subtitles. Though limited by its age, this is a very solid mix that's free from any major technical issues.
For the most part, dialogue is clean and reasonably full. Likewise, effects work and music are handled well within the single channel, maintaining a proficient dynamic range. With that said, when there is a lot activity in the track, there are a few instances where frequencies start to muddle together a bit, making speech just a hair difficult to discern. This is particularly true of an early scene between Candy and Edith in a café where some of the background sounds can make it a tad hard to hear their conversation. Thankfully, this is a very minor concern, and the majority of the presentation is quite strong for its age. Background hissing is audible in the main title sequence and several scenes throughout, but does not prove to be a major distraction.
Modest but technically sound, the mix is faithful and fitting, preserving the film's sharp dialogue and wistfully romantic musical theme.
Criterion has put together a great collection of supplements, including a commentary and documentary. All of the special features are presented in 1080p with Dolby Digital 1.0 audio and no subtitle options (unless noted otherwise).
'The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp' is a wondrous, seemingly incompatible hodge-podge of motion picture brilliance. Seamlessly mixing epic drama, light-hearted satire, poignant romance, and a thoughtful meditation on changing times, the film manages to defy all genres and labels. This is pure, captivating cinema at its finest. Beautifully restored, the video transfer is simply gorgeous, faithfully replicating the picture's Technicolor majesty in vibrant high definition. While there are some age-related limitations, the audio track is very solid. Criterion has included a fantastic collection of supplements that fully trace the film's fascinating production and legacy. An exceptional release for an exceptional movie, this disc is very highly recommended for all film fans, and is a genuine must own for anyone with even a cursory interest in classic cinema.