As The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp opens, the heroic Major General Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey) seems a rather ridiculous sort of man: Cartoonishly rotund, lying towel-clad in a Turkish bath, he’s more moustachioed walrus than emblematic hero, an odd fellow to follow through 40 years of love and squalor in the flashbacks soon to come. Meanwhile, young Spud Wilson (James McKechnie), the brash lieutenant whose imprudence before protocol so perturbs his elder, has just the cocksure charm and Nivenesque gallantry to leaven this wartime pageantry. And so when the handsome rascal disobeys orders, launching his war-games assault on Candy’s crew hours before the agreed-upon hour, one’s sympathies are squarely aligned with the scamp, his winning smile and mischief more agreeable than the inflated indignity of a certified grump.
But, of course, Clive Wynne-Candy was young once too, and as we soon discover, he was no less charmingly reckless himself, charging hastily into Germany for a much-needed propaganda corrective while on leave from his duty in the Boer War. It’s here that Colonel Blimp asserts a thesis it strives to illustrate with a breathtaking historical sweep, articulated succinctly in the drowned-out repetition of Candy’s battle cry: “Forty years ago…,” he stammers, before a tracking shot down the stretch of a pool whisks us from WWII back to 1902, where, at the far end of a long unbroken take, a youthful Candy emerges from the water, refreshed and ready for battle. It’s the flashback as an act of restoration, returning the great man with pride to a time of humble beginnings, from which point a history is charted in miniature. Colonel Blimp tells the story of one man’s passage from youthful ignorance to wise obsolescence, from a heedless adventurer without regard for real authority to an old-world hero unable to exert his own. Its central paradox is universal: By the time a man is old enough to have gained useful knowledge and experience, he’s no longer needed or listened to.
Colonel Blimp is also, of course, a grand historical epic without pretense or theatrics, an unabashed wartime romance without a single scene of battle or love. Anticipated events and turnabouts of any significance are summarily excised, matters of the most consequence duly expurgated, until all that remains of the story in its truncated form are the details that make every life worth living, not the biographical bullet points but the white space between them. This is a film composed of gestures, a film whose most memorable moments are some of the most minor: a smile exchanged between strangers as they find themselves thrust into combat with one another (a parody of war’s utterly arbitrary configurations), a beer-bribed brass band giving thanks from the balcony across the room (in a clever play on the military salute), the cherry-red glow of a traffic light cast across a familiar face (inspiring a moment of passionate recognition and nothing more). This isn’t just the nuance that rounds out a film concerned with grander aspirations; this is the film, both the comic and dramatic meat of it, and its concern with shading over outline makes its aspirations higher than any picture more classically defined.
Less a narrowed character study than a work of incisive microcosmic portraiture, Colonel Blimp captures as much a man as it does a generation, one passing gradually and stubbornly from relevance into tired antiquation, the value systems and moral frameworks once held with the strongest conviction suddenly rusting and pried apart. Candy eventually finds himself a veritable expert in a world of unlistening beginners, a voice of reason falling on deaf ears. As he grows older, the world around him appears to age backward, with Deborah Kerr in a triple role as increasingly youthful women, more distant from Candy each time he sees her. By the time the film returns, triumphantly, to the present day of 1942, the walrus-like general sweating profusely in the Turkish bath no longer seems so ridiculous, the weight of his history and the depth of his character transforming age into wisdom and indignity into outraged command. A great wave of guilt washes over the proceedings; the tug of sympathy once felt for this puckish lieutenant now seems a gross misjudgment, a bet on the wrong hand. That’s very much the point. The young and imprudent are always more appealing than the old and wise, a cycle we’ll continue without learning.
The Film Foundation's recent restoration of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, an endeavor both expensive and arduous, has resulted in one of the finest-looking transfers of a Technicolor print ever produced. Criterion duly benefits from this labor of love (headed up by Martin Scorsese, of course) by releasing, in turn, perhaps its most impressive Blu-ray to date: The detail and depth of this image are extraordinary, the sumptuous photography presented to practically transportive effect, with just the right degree of film grain preventing this from looking overly manipulated. Most impressively, this is the richest and most eye-poppingly saturated colors have ever looked, with its great many swaths of red and blue looking bolder than ever. Would that every film looked so good. Criterion's linear PCM mix, which preserves the original monaural soundtrack, is crystal-clear and balanced.
Scorsese's involvement in the restoration of this film, much like earlier Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger projects saved from the brink of deterioration, has kept him close to the action on all fronts, so it should come as no surprise that the special features presented here run very Scorsese-heavy. The great director (and superb storyteller) offers a candid and surprisingly touching video introduction in which he offers valuable insight into the film's many themes, as well as a brief, but informative restoration demonstration covering the technical ins and outs of the quite clearly painstaking process. Two additional featurettes, one focused on interviews with editor Thelma Schoonmaker and the other on the film's production and legacy, are no less helpful and substantive, and a commentary track from Powell himself is an essential part of the package. Two stills galleries and a booklet featuring a lengthy essay by Molly Haskell round out the set.
Among the finest films ever made, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is also one of Criterion's best Blu-rays to date.