In its elaborate opening sequence, which bears a particular resemblance to The Palm Beach Story’s deliberately bizarre, wordless prologue, bored army regulars get the idea that, as part of a “war game” against the home guard (who consist mostly of civilians and retirees), they’ll take the enemy’s “leadership” hostage. The home guard’s number one is rotund, walrus-’stachioed retired General Clive Wynn Candy, who promptly, forcefully, takes hold of the narrative mantle, famously leading in with, “You laugh at my big belly, but you don’t know how I got it! You laugh at my moustache, but you don’t know why I grew it!” As his tirade continues, filtered as if speaking from underwater, the film steps back 40 years—not with a dissolve, but with a gradual dolly-in. The grand, epic narrative that ensues tells not just how Candy got to where he was that day, but how everything else moved, with or without him.
Famously, Winston Churchill carried a dim view of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, mostly on the advice of his staff, and tried everything in his power to keep the film from even being made in the first place. That seems hard to believe today, as few other British films from that period seem to mythologize the pre-war period of Churchill’s youth and early career quite as potently as Colonel Blimp, which was the second of 14 movies that Englishman Michael Powell and Hungarian émigré Emeric Pressburger would direct together. (They would also collaborate on as many more, mostly with Pressburger on writing duties.) At the time, however, the character known as Colonel Blimp was a satirical truncheon wielded by cartoonist David Low at the British establishment, which he saw as capable of absurdly reactionary attitudes and pronouncements. According to experts, Churchill might have viewed the film as an attack on what he believed in, or a promotion of what he was fighting against, as he was in the middle of running a war against Nazi Germany.
Seeing Colonel Blimp strictly in the terms of for-the-war-effort propaganda is a terrible mistake. There isn’t a jingoistic, early-to-mid-20th-century “I dare say old chap” moment or sentiment in the film that Powell and Pressburger fail to elevate to a broader, frequently mythic, perspective. All the same, the wars portrayed in the film (the Boer War, the First and Second World Wars), depicted as they are indirectly, often through montage, are often merely a vehicle for the duo’s more pressing concerns, being no less than an inverse of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five; instead of becoming unstuck in time, General Candy (Roger Livesey) remains stuck while the century seems to evaporate and transform around him, ungraspable, in a whirlwind of battlefield commendations and animal heads. Only two things seem to remain, besides the dependability of change and a world always seeming to ignite in violent conflagration: his dear friend Theodor Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook, in one the greatest performances from one of the screen’s most dignified, charismatic figures), and Deborah Kerr, who plays three characters.
For the audience, the idea of a triple-Kerr is a Buñuelian fantasy abstraction, but for Theo and Clive, it’s nearly the only continuity they can depend on as the 20th century marches on, eventually without them. After everything else dies, falls away, or renders them mere spectators to history, they still love one another because they love/loved her. She is, to both men, the totem image of enduring love and lost love, her devastatingly matter-of-fact departure from the story (on two occasions) weighed against the imprint she leaves on their hearts and minds.
Presented less abstractly than Kerr’s multiple incarnations, Theo and Clive, expressed through unbreakable loyalty to one another, and the illusion they share of the eternal Kerr. As John Lennon once said, “A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality,” and so does the film acquire a patina of something magical when it begins to develop that their love of their departed wives is so strong that the two men seem to will her back into existence—not necessarily for themselves, but for the young England.
The genesis of the pair’s lifelong friendship is borne of a whim that, thanks to a poor choice of words, explodes into a full-blown international incident, when Clive strikes a German propagandist, then—still feeling the heat of the moment—manages to insult the whole of the German army. This burgeoning development then alights on ceremonial procedure that was barbaric and archaic even in 1902, when German officials demand satisfaction, and his own government relents. As Theo is chosen as Clive’s opponent by lottery, pure chance is thrown into the mix, and this unlikeliest of friendships is catalyzed by the unseen outcome of the duel, though they don’t even exchange words until their shared hospital convalescence. The earliest formation of life on this planet required a shorter, more robust chain of causality, and, furthermore, the two are kept apart for most of the interim between each of the three wars.
Love of England, hatred of the Nazis, is ostensibly what drives Theo to emigrate, and the film makes a persuasive case that Englishness can be defined by the love one has for the land and the country, rather than one’s birthplace. In one of the most moving passages in Powell and Pressburger’s cinema, the kind that should be studied detail-for-detail by acting students, Theo tells an immigration official “the story up until then,” not once mentioning Clive, who comes to vouch for him once his story, the hitherto unsaid truth, is disclosed. But Colonel Blimp is as eloquent about what goes unspoken, or rendered unseen. The speech, captured in a single, unbroken take, is one of several mysterious, magical moments in the film, along with Blimp’s contemplative words over the cistern that has formed where his house once stood (with the sublime leaf over the water), and the Citizen Kane-like crane shot that retracts the camera away from the gymnasium duel. Powell and Pressburger were just then finding their way to a popular cinema that could accommodate expressionist visuals, and these flourishes simultaneously define Clive, Kerr’s three women, and Theo as human organisms, while drawing them onto a plane of the eternal, declaring finally, in Latin, “There passes the glory of Candy.”