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British filmmaker Michael Powell is probably best known in the United States for directing the cherished ballet melodrama, The Red Shoes (1948), a picture that many consider to be his greatest work. But Americans shouldn't be too surprised that Powell and his producing partner, Emeric Pressburger, seldom scored hits in this country. Their other masterpiece, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), was the subject of considerable scorn in England when it was first released, even though Brits were the only viewers who seemed truly capable of grasping its stiff-upper-lip form of satire.
Set over a period of several years, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp follows the exploits of a British Army officer named Clive Candy (Roger Livesey). In a manner that's somewhat reminiscent of Citizen Kane (1941), Powell jumps around in the narrative as he examines Candy's often dismayingly dignified approach to both war and romance. Candy ages from a young participant in the Boer War into a conservative member of the Old Guard, all while pining for his one true love (Deborah Kerr, portraying three different characters). Along the way, Powell also traces Candy's ongoing relationship with a Prussian military officer (Anton Walbrook).
As is so often the case with a Powell-Pressburger film, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp boasts stellar production values. Powell shot the picture in glorious color, a genuine rarity during the war years, since color film stock was so hard to come by. Although Colonel Blimp features a terrific cast, cinematographer Georges Perinal's vibrant Technicolor imagery adds greatly to the picture's overall effectiveness. He was a hugely talented visual stylist.
Powell and Pressburger sensed that they were asking for trouble when they first conceived of Colonel Blimp, and they were right. Based on a popular David Low comic strip about a gasbag member of the British military, the picture's critique of gentlemanly warriors seemed too harsh for a public that was under constant attack from Nazi air raids and bombings.In a lot of ways, Colonel Blimp is quite warm-hearted. But who wants to be told that the stoic men who are leading their sons into life-or-death battle are archaic buffoons? Low, not helping matters a bit, actually described the Blimp character as "a symbol of stupidity," but noted that "stupid people are quite nice."
Winston Churchill, who detected a lot of himself in the Powell-Pressburger version of Col. Blimp, was outraged by the film. Given the gentle handling of Walbrook's character, there was even concern that the picture was pro-German! Churchill's Minister of War, Sir James Grigg, tried to nip the entire enterprise in the bud when, after reading the screenplay, he refused to loan Powell and Pressburger any form of military gear for filming.
That, however, didn't stop the producers. As Powell later wrote in hisautobiography: "I have often been asked how we managed to obtain military vehicles, military uniforms, weapons and all the fixings after being refused help by the War Office and the Ministry of Information. The answer is quitesimple: we stole them." Apparently, Powell and Pressburger had enough friends in high places to scrounge together everything they needed to make the film, Churchill be damned.
Churchill, of course, never gave up. He would refuse to let The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp be exported to other countries until two years after the war ended, at which point it was only shown in a highly edited form.Audiences in the U.S. didn't see the film as Powell intended it until some 40 years later. By then, of course, Churchill was dead, although he may have made one or two rotations in his grave upon Colonel Blimp's glorious reception by the critics.
Producer: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Screenplay: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Cinematography: Georges Perinal
Film Editing: John Seabourne
Art Direction: Alfred Junge
Music: Allan Gray
Cast: James McKechnie (Lt. Spud Wilson), Neville Mapp (Stuffy Graves), Vincent Holman (Club porter), Roger Livesey (Clive Candy), David Hutcheson (Hoppy Hopwell), Spencer Trevor (Period Blimp).
by Paul Tatara