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Talk:The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

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(Editor note. This well written description is from a blog that I came across. The link to the blog is at the bottom of the page. The blogger known as Dave has done an excellent job describing this classic film. So here you go.--Jcordell 08:58, 1 September 2011 (CDT))

"Gentlemen, war starts at midnight!"

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.

It's a long movie (over 2 1/2 hours) that tells a big story encapsulating 45 years of English history. Like any epic worthy of the name, there's pathos, humor, lofty ideas and memorable characters. It may be lacking a bit in respect to action-adventure and picturesque scenery, but that deficit can be forgiven easily enough. Keep in mind that the film was produced when the Blitzkrieg on London was at its peak and British filmmakers were necessarily hemmed in a bit, constrained from travel overseas to film exotic location shots and other such diversions. As it was, the film was a big budget production that aimed to strengthen the resolve of its audience, even while leveling satirical barbs at segments of the populace that still conducted themselves strictly in accordance with the bygone mores of a fading golden age of English global dominion.

The title's reference to a character named Colonel Blimp would be pretty confusing to most audiences just watching the film without any background information, so I'm glad I have the benefit of the Criterion edition with its usual quality supplemental features and liner notes. The central figure in the film goes by the name of Clive Candy, and we trace his career as he climbs the military ranks from Lieutenant up to Major-General (and then back down again, in a sense.) So who is this Blimp fellow anyway?He was a familiar figure to English audiences of the 1930s and 40s, through newspaper cartoons drawn by illustrator and satirist David Low. Colonel Blimp was typically shown as an bald, rotund old man with a walrus mustache dressed only in a towel, sitting in a steam room mouthing absurd platitudes that mocked the reactionary sentiments of old guard apologists for Great Britain's former and fading glories - a holdover from the 19th century in which he was raised and intellectually, emotionally, traditionally rooted. Blimp's opinions typically gravitated toward the conclusion that a gentlemanly negotiation with Hitler and the Fascist tide sweeping the Continent was most in keeping with English customs and a proper understanding of patriotism. Apparently his pompous outbursts in the comics pages struck a nerve with the public, who heard similar sentiments from older members of the UK establishment all too frequently in the years leading up to the war, and both the cartoons and this film capture the exasperation of a younger generation who longed to take more direct action based on lessons they had drawn from their experience of seeing the Nazi monster arise from the ashes of German defeat in the First World War.

After Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger proved to be a winning combination in their work on 49th Parallel and a few other films, they found backing from British film mogul J. Arthur Rank (whose films open with the big gong being struck) to create a lavish color production inspired by the Blimp cartoons. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp was the first of their collaborations to be released under the name of The Archers and there are quite a few Archers selections awaiting us in this series. Their productive career work earned them a strong reputation and loyal following and their virtuosity is clearly on display here. They created a rich, textured and evocative story that grows in resonance with multiple viewings. And what magnificent attention to detail. I really enjoyed the history lesson and the opportunity to settle into the sensibilities of bygone eras through well-crafted scenes and the kind of stately, dignified and droll performances that quality English films seem to offer with ease and abundance.

The story opens in then-contemporary London, 1942, with us meeting the old man in his most Blimp-like incarnation, towel clad and irate in the Turkish bath as he's taken prisoner by Spud, a young rival who got an early jump-start on war-games that Candy was supposed to lead on behalf of the British Home Guard. After Candy blows his stack at the impudence of his captor for playing outside the rules, we're led through flashbacks to see pivotal moments in the old man's life that led to his blinkered perspective.

The narrative begins with Candy's successful return from military adventure in the Second Boer War as a decorated soldier bent on restoring the honor of the British military. He's learned that a fellow soldier has gone about feathering his own nest in Berlin by spreading rumors to Germans eager to hear tales of British depravity on the battlefield, rumors that Candy believes are false. But when he seeks official permission to travel to Berlin to set the record straight, he's denied the opportunity by a fastidious officer who prefers to let the diplomats handle such delicate matters. Candy's not content to follow that patient course of action so he sets out on his own. (One thing to watch for as the plot unfolds is how he transforms into a blustering stickler for the very types of limits that he pressed in his youth.) The trip proves fateful, for it's there that he meets Edith Hunter, his ideal of femininity (as a sickening long-haired poet might describe it) and also manages to offend the honor of German officers who actively seek opportunities for indignation and the subsequent duels that military etiquette requires to settle such disputes. The arrangements for the duel are shown with meticulous (and amusing) deliberation - though we see precious little of the actual sword-fight itself. Which is exactly the point the Archers wanted to get across - it's not the action, it's the build-up and the fall-out that really count for something.

Candy's dueling partner here is Oberst Theodor Kretschmar-Schuldorff, or Theo for short. In the finest time-honored fashion, the two combatants become close friends as they spend time together in hospital recuperating from the wounds they inflict on each other from their swordplay. Of course, Edith has a part to play in how things unfold, as both men go on to fall in love with their lovely young nurse. Candy's problem is that he's so lost in his militaristic mindset that he doesn't begin to realize he loves her until he's already offered a toast in honor of the love that Theo has declared for Edith. Once recovered, he returns to England, leaving Edith in Theo's arms, soon to become his wife.

Years go by and in the absence of war, Candy diverts himself with the life of a sportsman. Hunting trophies from various quarters of the British Empire accumulate on the walls of his den as he awaits the opportunity to return to combat. Of course, the Great War of 1914 erupts and he springs into action. We only catch up with his exploits as the war nears its end in 1918, where a chance encounter with a young nurse in a convent who "just happens" to look like Edith rekindles his longing for the woman of his dreams. (Both parts, as well as another character later in the film, are performed by Deborah Kerr, who also serves as a fine model for vintage fashions from four decades of English life.) She turns out to be the daughter of a Yorkshire aristocrat and even though he's twenty years older than her, she agrees to be his wife. Years of happiness are interrupted by tragedy for both him and his German friend Theo. The rest of the film shows their growth as men as they work their way out from under the illusions and blindness fueled by the rigorous training and loyalty that in different contexts also accounted for their great successes. It's a moving portrait of emblematic souls, essential viewing for Anglophiles of all ages and temperaments. The dramatic tensions of the film and the relevance I spoke of at the beginning of this post revolve around the place that Candy's/Blimp's "code of honor" has in facing down the threats posed by violently hostile ideologues. In 1940s England, those threats stared them squarely across the English Channel as Hitler's armies carried out their conquests. For us today, a similar (but also very different) challenge faces Western society as it wrestles with what to do about the menace presented by the Taliban, North Korea and others who express implacable malevolence toward our culture, our wealth and our traditions. Ironically, I can see how someone like Dick Cheney could take a film like this one and distort its message to defend torture tactics employed during the Bush administration, by equivocating the Nazis and "the terrorists" on the one hand, and President Obama's efforts to roll back those policies with the failed negotiations favored by Neville Chamberlain and the British establishment in the 1930s, which are certainly enough repudiated in the film. What Cheney and his sympathizers fail to realize is that while Candy's ethos of waging "clean combat and honest soldiering" earns a well-deserved critique, the Archers are not encouraging the kind of barbarism and tactical stupidity that Cheney's gang employed in their foolish efforts to forge a link between 9/11 and Saddam Hussein.

Until Cheney comes to grips with the fundamental dishonesty at the heart of his argument, his pronunciations have no merit and would only compound the problems facing the United States if followed. When he goes on record trying to bolster the flimsy (if not outright criminal) legal maneuvers that have dismayed and embarrassed so many who love this country, Cheney sounds a lot to me like Kim Jong-Il who wants to defend the pursuit of his nuclear ambitions regardless of what the rest of the world thinks. He operates out of the same misguided mindset that led Winston Churchill himself to try and censor this film before it was released and prevent it from being shown abroad. Churchill feared that viewers would lose respect for British authorities and that depicting the military leadership as out-of-touch or unduly attached to irrelevant traditions would somehow embolden the enemy. Sadly, Churchill seems in this case to have lost respect for the intellectual capacity of the nation he led, a phenomenon I've experienced all too often by political leaders in this country.

I can never really understand the thinking behind such fears - at least in Anglo-American society, the tradition of free speech ought to be strong enough to assure our leaders that we can handle the truth - and that the only outcome guaranteed by repressing it is erosion of public confidence and our willingness to uphold those very values they claim to be defending. To me, that's just common sense. Unless our leaders get this point, they are very much in danger of becoming Blimp-like, or worse, because they retain the capacity to do a lot of harm with the power at their disposal. And lest you think I'm being too hard on our former Vice President and those who tend to agree with him, let me paraphrase cartoonist David Low here (from the DVD liner notes): I don't hate Cheney (or Blimp.) I hate stupidity, but I would have a terrible life if I hated all the people that did stupid things. Even nice people can be fools!


Colonel Blimp comic strip

One of the Colonel Blimp's comic strips. Note that it is a satire of the "proper stiff upper lip way of doing business.

Thompson magazines

They look a little short to be 30 rounders, so I'm pretty sure that those are 20-round magazines. Plus 30-round mags were introduced in the US the same year that filming took place, so I'm not sure if they'd have made their way into British hands yet (in fact I don't recall seeing any pictures of, or hearing of, British troops ever using them, though I may very well be wrong). Jimmoy 10:49, 1 September 2011 (CDT)

that's very plausible. I'll make note of that possibility. thanks.--Jcordell 21:59, 1 September 2011 (CDT)

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