The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

Watched Gunga Din (1939) the other night. It’s a Hollywood movie, made for fun, with Hollywood Englishmen and Hollywood Indians. Nothing wrong with that. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), though, reminds us that there are real Englishmen and that some of them, the upper upper class,  aren’t like you and me, unless you happen to be one of them – perhaps one like that fellow in Seven Up! (1964) who later in the series refused to return, but made an exception when he married a Bulgarian woman who was fostering a cause – in which case can you lend me 50 lbs till the weekend?

A lot of my movie-watching choices are inspired by film discussions that I listen to on podcasts such as /Filmcast, B-Movie Cast, Movies 101, Double Feature, etc. Such is the case with Colonel Blimp, featured on Filmspotting recently. First thing to impress me in the movie was its color. I wrote a review of  The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and I remember reading about the care and trouble taken with the color in that movie. Some woman – I forget her name – was the great Technicolor expert. She’d come on set and… choose the colors? Tweak the lighting? Do something with the film or developing lab instructions? Whatever it was, the color jumps out at you in Hood and Blimp. Cinematographer Georges Perinal handled the color chores in  Blimp. He was lucky to find the color stock in 1943, at the height of the war. When Speed Racer (2008) came out, I remember a lot of chatter about the color in it (I liked the color, but not enough to finish the movie). We’re living in an age of greater subtlety in color palates now, and different taste, but it’s still a pleasure to feast one’s eyes on the richness of a Colonel Blimp. And what happened to the “r” in “colonel,” anyway?

The first startup company that I worked for encountered a rough patch and was acquired by the Arthur J. Rank company, which also made Colonel Blimp. Perhaps you’ve seen the big dude at the beginning of any Rank film, hitting the… the gong? Whatever that big cymbal thing is called… I never got to meet Mr. Rank, if he was in fact still living at the time of my company’s acquisition. Before I could, Rank Co.  turned around and sold us to some awful Texas conglomerate with a three-letter name, the first being D, the other two I don’t remember. DTS? DBT? But I was long-gone by then anyway. While Rank held us, though, young English engineers would trek over to the U.S. They always wore ties and sport coats, which in Silicon Valley made them seem even geekier than they were in the first place.

Colonel Blimp was written by Emeric Pressburger and directed by Michael Powell, a team that made a number of great movies, including (1946), A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway to Heaven) Black Narcissus (1947), and The Red Shoes (1948). Powell is the one who wrecked his career with Peeping Tom (1960) and then later came to Hollywood to do some work with Coppola and Scorsese and to marry, in his senior years, Scorsese’s brilliant young editor Thelma Schoonmaker.

Blimp takes us briskly through the life of one soldier, comparing his ideas of decent behavior with those of England’s Boer, WW I German, and Nazi opponents. The movie surprised me with its temperance where the German people were concerned, considering that the movie was made in 1942/1943. Surprised me and enraged a great many in the English audience of the time, who were not in the mood to share Blimp’s readiness to forgive. Churchill tried to have the movie banned, and it was censored somewhat before its release. Blimp the cartoon character was created in 1934 and was meant to personify stupidity in its many forms; the movie’s Blimp character, however, is provided with a core of romantic sentiments and decency that cause us to understand that in evil times, “good” can seem like “stupid.”

One spot where the movie jarred me came with the arrival of World War I. Colonel Candy (the Blimp character) has spent years shooting big game in lieu of possessing his beloved, while continuing to serve in the army, and now, having left him onscreen moments ago as the young man bereft, we find him older, in 1918 toward the end of the Great War, behaving more as if it were 1914 at the war’s beginning, all polish and privilege, not after the years of horror that the army had endured by the end. Otherwise, I’ve never seen a better movie for aging a character from glowing youth to corpulent red-faced age. Roger Livesay in the role of a lifetime.

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