Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s delightfully melancholy The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp gets its steam from the military discrepancy between protocol and disorder—when it is and isn’t appropriate to use what John le Carré refers to as “proper channels." General Clive Candy (Roger Livesey) spends the bulk of the movie unwavering in his belief in Britain’s superiority as a beacon of proper conduct in warfare; this stolid patriotism sets his life on its course as a young officer back from the Boer War. He unilaterally decides to join English teacher Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr) in Berlin, combating a strain of anti-British propaganda in the German papers. Taking a shine to each other, the two aim to dispute a particular German newspaperman’s claims that British troops have collected Boer refugees in hellish concentration camps.
Candy ends up infuriating the entire Imperial German Army and is thus challenged to a duel by sword. Along with Ms. Hunter, his subsequent friendship with Theo (Anton Walbrook), the randomly selected officer against whom he squares off, will follow him through the rest of his life. Livesey portrays (in one of cinema’s rare successful prosthetic lifespans) forty years spent blustering, brooding and browbeating through three wars—no small feat for a wartime production. But The Life And Death of Colonel Blimp isn’t a bloodthirsty epic; it’s closer to the era’s tender, neighborly old time radio. Candy serves as a military man par excellence, while supporting characters endure much more tortured moral dilemmas and compromised alliances. Their trajectories (particularly Theo) create fascinating parlor-room conversations, and Candy’s stodginess becomes creaky, moving closer to ruddy ignorance. That’s the movie’s grand joke.
For example: in reality, those newspaper claims about British camps in South Africa were later proven correct—but Powell and Pressburger consciously guarantee that Candy never finds out. This film famously pissed off the British right wing all the way up to Winston Churchill. Juxtaposed against Sir Winston’s wartime favorite Mrs. Miniver—itself one of the most moving propagandas of all time—Colonel Blimp comes off as a curiously neurotic investigation of Britishness, disguised as a genteel period piece. (The ad campaign promised “A Lusty Lifetime of Love and Adventure in Lavish Technicolor!”)
Powell & Pressburger process Candy as a metaphor—which is where “Colonel Blimp” comes in. Nobody named Blimp appears in the film. The colonel was a popular cartoon character, a blue-in-the-face hardcore imperialist martinet, constantly wheezing at the petrification of his opinions as time marched on. There can be no doubt that the filmmakers were having old-world fun; for one thing, the passage of Candy’s peacetime years is measured in hunting trophies. And yet: There’s something astonishingly creepy/romantic about Kerr’s performances—first as Hunter, later as the two subsequent women Candy inserts into his life to compensate for her loss. Powell and Pressburger invest a previously unheard-of sympathy in “Blimp”, ultimately adopting his fading perspective, and so the movie aches with fond memories, warm reunions and potentially devastating departures.