Powell and Pressburger’sLife and Death of Colonel Blimp, with which I have opened my PandP retrospective, is my favourite film. I do not make this claim lightly or easily. and recognise that there are times when I would advance the claims of other contenders for this title. It is, however, the only contender which is also, quite indubitably, a great film. My viewing of it is therefore always on at least two levels – as a cinematic masterpiece, and as something which is guaranteed to move me to tears in more than one place and which to watch is always cathartic for me. In many ways it is much easier for me to analyse its greatness than to assess the reasons for its personal psychological impact. One of the most extraordinary facets of its brilliance is that this was PandP’s first colour film and yet the use of colour is consistently brilliant (and would of course become one of their greatest hallmarks); there is, as so often – and as I seem to find reason to often remark in respect of the great Directors, something of the kid in the sweetshop here. But every aspect of Blimp is remarkable and brilliant. The structure, with that dramatic in media res opening sequence, is perfect. Quite fantastically the accompanying DVD documentary revealed that this framing device was cut from the US cinema version and it was only in 1983 when the restored print was shown that it was put back in place ; not surprisingly seeing this apparently reduced Emeric Pressburger to tears. There is incidentally a certain notable resemblance between this use of a framing device and flashback which will occupy most of the film and that of Kane (even if there are also very notable differences – not least that Blimp is very much alive where Kane is dead! the observation of the comparison between Blimp and Kane is not at all new and the film is sometimes called ‘the British Kane’). Another remarkable thing about this sequence is that it continues to work and enthrall every time you see the film, so that the knowledge (which would have been hidden to those watching for the first time) that Blimp is to be a hero (where it appears initially that he is an absurd buffoon) in no way damages one’s viewing enjoyment. PandP also use a dual narrative approach in which when we watch the first time we do not see what happens inside the pub, whereas the second time we do, which enables them to re-stage the same events while holding the tension and attention.
The entire Turkish bath sequence is magnificent and perhaps the shot from Blimp falling into the bath in an undignified scuffle as an old man and emerging at the other end as a young man is one of the greatest plunges (sic!) into flashback in the entire history of cinema. It would of course be perfectly possible to analyse virtually every shot and sequence in the movie in terms of the brilliance of the cinematography, the colours, the design, the camera-movement and so on; there is never a moment when one is not aware that one is in the presence of cinematic genius. The famous duel scene with its astonishing cut-away and pull-back through the roof to the snow falling on the yellow windows of the gymnasium and the more distant twinkling lights of Berlin is merely one example.
Yet in all this cinematic brilliance and use of technique (such as the fabulous animal head montage where the passing of years and time is marked by a succession of stuffed animal heads appearing on the walls of Blimp’s London house) everything is always at the service of the story and the narrative. And we must never for one instant forget that The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp was, and is, a piece of war-time propaganda. The fact that Churchill, apparently without seeing it but on the advice of some advisers, wanted it banned, makes no difference to this (and as Stephen Fry pointed out with acute insight in the documentary the irony of this is that it is possible to see Churchill himself as something of a Blimp character – not that he was nearly as pleasant!). PandP’s intention was to make propaganda of a ‘what are we fighting for’ kind. In this their central contention was that the war was with the Nazis not with the Germans. In this ‘England’ is given a mythic status – it is a land of green countryside, of kindness and courtesy, of civilised values. Blimp himself is a representation of those values – to which are added a certain stupidity. Now it is worth emphasising that this representation of history is wholly mythic – Blimp’s heroic actions in the Boer War for instance (which we only hear of near the start) were in fact part of one of Britain’s more vicious colonialist and imperialist adventures. Even in the WW1 sequences PandP make it clear that Blimp is out of touch with the realities of what is happening and his great speech at the end of that war about civilised values having triumphed is shot through with irony. The film itself is intended to suggest in part that to combat the Nazis quite different values are needed – as in part represented by the rather noxious ‘Spud’. But above all the film – and herein lies its radicalism – divorces the mythic ‘England’ from the English just as it divorces Germany from the Nazis. Theodore Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Theo) is of course throughly German but he also belongs completely to the mythic ‘England’. That is why the heart of the film is that astonishing one-take close-up shot of his speech to the official scrutinising his status – Anton Walbrook’s performance in that scene is simply miraculous and is one of those emotional moments which cannot fail to move (you can see this on You Tube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P0Dl_BtJKqk&feature=related although it loses much by not being seen and understood in context). This internationalism in the film’s narrative and project was in fact at the heart of its actuality; Powell himself reflected that it was….
“…a 100% British film but it’s photographed by a Frenchman, it’s written by a Hungarian, the musical score is by a German Jew, the director was English, the man who did the costumes was a Czech; in other words, it was the kind of film that I’ve always worked on with a mixed crew of every nationality, no frontiers of any kind.”
So the idea of internationalism is woven into the making as well as the mythos of the film. The question which is left hanging in the air is whether the changes which are required to defeat Nazism are going to irretrievably damage the mythic England which Blimp represents. In the end the film seems to come down to the fact that they will not and it does so by the use of its climaxing structural and narrative gem. It is perhaps worth recounting this. When Blimp and his wife (Deborah Kerr in her second incarnation – and we now almost pass by the revolutionary brilliance of using one actress in three different roles) come to their London house in 1919 he says – and I wish I had the exact script to hand – that he will never change until the house becomes a lake; of course in the war the house is bombed and destroyed and is converted to an emergency reservoir – then at the end while looking into this, very utilitarian ‘lake’ , Blimp hears Deborah Kerr speak the words and says ‘it has become a lake but I still haven’t changed’. He then salutes as Spud and his victorious troops march past unseen. Against this is the fact that the film’s closing shot is of the tapestry with the words ‘sic transit gloria candy’ on them. So the question of the demise of Blimp’s mythic England is in some ways left unresolved.
At the heart of the film is, of course, the figure of Blimp himself as so magnificently portrayed by Roger Livesey (apparently the original choice was Olivier and one can only be profoundly grateful that this did not work out). Livesey has the ability to bring out every aspect of the Blimp figure which PandP wanted to draw attention to – the gallantry, the stupidity, the honourableness, the incapacity to see beyond the ties of friendship and loyalty which draw him to those around him and in turn attract their devotion. Again the portrait of Blimp is intimately related to the questions of Englishness which I have referred to previously. He is – like the picture of England – a mythologized and air-brushed figure; he is representational yet never less than convincing as a character in Livesey’s performance and under Powell’s direction.
The film is shot through with nostalgia for a mythic England and a mythic past; but the mythic values which that place and time represent become transmuted in the film to a propagandistic statement of what the war should be fought for and what it is being fought against. In the end it is the bitterest of ironies that the film suggests that in order to preserve those values methods will have to be adopted which are likely to destroy them. There is never a question that this is not ‘worth it’; that Nazism is an unspeakable horror which must be destroyed at all costs, but there is similarly a recognition that the fight to resist will have enormous consequences. The film is therefore both propaganda and nostalgia intimately combined and playing off each other. Stephen Fry has suggested that the film…
“.. addresses something I’ve always been profoundly interested in — what it means to be English … it is about bigger things than the war. It takes a longer view of history which was an extraordinarily brave thing for someone to do in 1943, at a time when history seemed to have disintegrated into its most helpless, impossible and unforgivable state.” (interview with The Daily Telegraph in 2003 according to wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Life_and_Death_of_Colonel_Blimp )While I think it is very concerned ‘what it means to be English’ I think it is important to stress again that this is a about a mythic social/cultural vision of Englishness which is not connected with questions of birth or even in a way nationality. Pressburger was a fanatic anglophile and I think that is perhaps his influence which emerges most strongly here (the issue of who contributed what – and PandP are quite unique among the great cinema makers in this collaborative ascription – is a vexed one; that Powell on his own was capable of directorial genius is amply proved by Peeping Tom, but in the great collaborative works – and particularly those centred around these questions of Englishness or nationality it may be that Pressburger’s influence is strongly felt). I certainly agree with Fry that the film takes a longer view of history but the extraordinary thing to me is that it manages to combine this with being effective propaganda.
Perhaps though it is redundant to make somewhat commonplace observations about this masterpiece which has been so extensively analysed by better minds. It is certainly an evasion of the issue of why the film has such a deep emotional impact on me. In the case of other favourite films – say The Sound of Music – I can analyse exactly why the moments which move me do so and the tricks which the film-makers use to achieve this effect (tricks may be slightly unfair – techniques would be better). In the case of Blimp however I am much more uncertain. It is worth noting that politically and ideologically the film is deeply suspect to me – for all its internationalism the realities behind the mythic England constructed are class-bound, militaristic, imperial. It is also worth noting that none of PandP’s other work, much as I love and appreciate it, has the same impact. I think that it has to do with the air of melancholy and nostalgia, the themes of loss and survival, which permeate the film and connect to some deep psychological reactors. In a way this is similar to the reaction I have to that great closing passage of Hearing Secret Harmonies – the very end of the very volume of Powell’sDance to the Music of Time – and again a profound but transcendant melancholy (there given concrete force by the reference to Burton’sAnatomy of Melancholy). Perhaps this is indeed tied to the notion of Englishness and there is some Jungian collective unconscious at work. Perhaps it relates to being a depressive or to a pervasive emotional perception that life is about loss and regret. To explore this fully I would need several sessions of hard psychoanalysis. Whatever the case re-watching Blimp re-establishes it – as it always does – as not only the great masterpiece of English cinema but also as my favourite film.