Powell and Pressburger's sweeping drama is among the greatest achievements of any British filmmakers.
Roger Livesey, who played three lead roles for Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (including, here, the outdated military officer Clive 'Sugar' Wynne-Candy VC, aka 'The Blimp') was a character actor of stolid good looks, even when bulked up, half naked and prematurely aged in this superlative and sweeping drama.
He is entirely plausible as the irate Home Guard Area Commander who attempts to drown an impudent young officer, having been upstaged and arrested for applying unorthodox thinking in advance of military manoeuvres. Livesey possessed vitality, sympathy and presence. But this vitality was not necessarily heroic, nor did his presence evince the usual sort of leading-man charisma.
Emotional intelligence is one of the defining qualities exhibited by the team of Powell and Pressburger; but in Colonel Blimp, they arguably fashioned a film where no character shows it. Except, perhaps, the elite German cavalry officer, Theodor Kretschmar-Schuldorff, movingly played by Anton Walbrook.
Tracking back some 40 years, we witness Candy befriend Kretschmar-Schuldorff following a sabre duel. The German, in turn, falls for Candy’s English friend, Miss Hunter (played by Deborah Kerr in one of three roles she performs in the film).
Kretschmar-Schuldorff announces his infatuation to Candy, who hugs Miss Hunter in congratulation. Her emotions are in a whirlwind: the camera barely catches her as she casts down her eyes. It is a moment the audience could easily miss (Candy certainly does); the emotional turning point of the movie expressed in the fleeting fluttering of an eyelid.
It is here that the filmmakers confront us with a question: what importance should we place on an individual’s lost opportunity for love against the grand march of time, through the exigencies of war and the chaotic carnival of destiny? But it is not the only thorny thematic issue raised by Blimp as Powell and Pressburger ponder the competing demands of honour and efficiency, love and duty, the meaning of patriotism and national identity, the relative value of experience and enthusiasm, rationalism and romanticism. Characteristically, the directors offer few, if any, answers.
As a film, it doesn’t settle. Employing the most audacious and complex flashback structure in the 15-year history of Powel and Pressburger’s production company, The Archers, Blimp hurtles us away from the temptations of emotional explicitness into the world of action.
During shooting, Churchill’s War Department denied both permissions and resources to stymie production, but not such as you would notice. Georges Perinal’s Technicolor cinematography may not essay the delirious, colour-drenched canvasses Jack Cardiff was encouraged to develop in the immediate post-war trilogy of A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, but the film is very beautiful nonetheless.
Its 'exterior' sets (quite often studio-bound and designed by the great Alfred Junge) produce effects that are of a piece with the evocative expressions of the aesthetic and psychological impact on man by his environment, a developing hallmark of Powell and Pressburger’s work together.
In fact, it is the film’s very refusal to settle – its indeterminancy – that sets it apart. Few films in British history can rival (take a deep breath) the sheer cinematic vision, the scope, the philosophical depth, cinematic élan, subtlety of expression, the collaborative audacity or sense of experimentalism of Colonel Blimp.
But for all its artifice – a quality that the filmmakers embraced rather than mitigated against – its major achievement is that it catches life on the wing, that sense of the complexity of lived experience, of what it feels like to be a lone individual, like Candy, swept along by, but surviving, the changing winds of history. It is for this reason it deserves to be considered among the greatest achievements of any British filmmakers.
A major restoration of a cherished British epic.
Watching it now, there’s something perfectly imperfect about Blimp.
Staggering and heartbreaking. Still.