#159. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

Embarrassing to say so but I think this is the closest I’ve come to abandoning the Project. Not that I was actually telling myself it was time to stop, or getting fed up with it. It’s just that The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is about three hours long and it was starting to seem I could not get through it. Watched like twenty minutes in the first sitting, ten minutes in the next sitting, twenty in the next – it went on and on. Started crossing my mind that this might be the title where, against my better judgment, my old procrastinating self allows the Project to peter out and die. So there’s an argument to be made here about whether I really saw the movie at all, given how long it took. (I’m haunted by Jonathan Franzen’s remark that if it’s taken you more than two weeks to read a novel you haven’t really read it. What would the equivalent be for a movie? Two days?)

But I like it! It’s funny and romantic and accented with an absolutely fucking gorgeous display of technicolor. Tailor-made for awards recognition, it’s a war movie, made during wartime, that follows a pair of friends, and their lovers, over the course of their lives. Leading up to a day just shy of the present, before WWII, at which point our heroes are just about elderly, defined by their triumphs and failures (both personal and professional), from the first world war and the years between.

So why the fuck did I take so long to get through it?? Why did it feel simultaneously delightful and interminable?

It’s directed by Michael Powers and Emeric Pressburger, who go on to work as one of the most illustrious duo in cinema history, and in the same way Casablanca’s plot suggests that the movie is about a lot of different things – war is front and center and there’s political intrigue of one sort or another, questions about sides and strategies and infiltrations, extractions, etc. – but is ultimately about a friendship between two men, the demons of their (accumulating) past, and the women they’ve loved, so is The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp about a military man named Clive Candy, played as a roguish young lieutenant up to a mild old general by Roger Livesy (in one of the greatest performances on the List to date), who befriends a German solider, after they’re forced to duel with swords, and their friendship – as well as their mutual love for a woman named Edith (Deborah Kerr).

Kerr plays different roles, and hangs on the arm of both men throughout the film, and this became kinda confusing as I watched it over the course of several days. Had to read up on the plot in order to re-orient myself before sitting down with it. It’s a war film, but there isn’t any action, and as a three-hour epic following one man who worked in the military through forty turbulent years, I was expecting something along the lines of The Big Parade or All Quiet on the Western Front; something that, even if it’s cerebral and moody and character-focused in the beginning, or even the first two-thirds, does ultimately explode into battle.

pressburger powell.jpg
Writer-director duo Emeric Pressburger and William Powell, left to right.

Colonel Blimp doesn’t do that, and it’s probably for the best because it would detract from the drama of Candy and Theo [and, frankly, I can tell you in this Editor’s Note from the Future that Powell and Pressburger would probably have been out of their element in directing a battle scene. Not that it would have been bad. Just weird.]. I want to say that I liked it a lot but, clearly, if it took me so long to get through it then I probably wasn’t my kinda movie. And, to elaborate on that editor’s note, I can tell you from the future that all of their movies, with the exception of I Know What I Want!, have had the same effect on me: beautiful, memorable, they all get me thinking deeply about the subject and make me wanna go out and create some art of my own, but they’re also a bit of a chore to get through.

What I’d posit is the significance of this movie as it relates to my own journey through the List is that it’s exactly the kind of movie I feared all of the early/mid-century movies would be: austere, beautiful, skillful and smart but…not that interesting. When you look at the entry for Colonel Blimp on Criterion’s website you’ll see it says that the movie’s “considered by many to be the finest British film ever made,” and I think that word finest is a perfect fit. There’s an austerity to it. A lightheartedness that feels very British in that, as huge and ornate and opulent as the movie is, you don’t get a vibe like the filmmakers are taking their subject matter too seriously. It’s easy to imagine how self-righteous and maudlin this kind of production would have been in the hands of an American, with American subjects.

But Gone with the Wind, which is probably an even larger production, feels friendlier than this one. What’s the difference? Both are colorful and span many years and have a large cast and run for three hours. I guess there’s just something about Colonel Blimp, its dealing with matters of history, of sorrow and regret and valor and pride, of family and country and heartbreak, is more adult than movies whose scope we could cite as American counterparts.

Because I don’t think there’s anything coming out of American cinema at this point, in the early 1940s, that’s targeted for adults. I know a lot of people lodge that complaint against 21st century Hollywood, with its glut of superhero and Star Wars films, but it’s not true. Obviously. We’ve got hard-R erotic thrillers and movies about Eichmann and Phantom Thread and the like (for more on Phantom Thread, I jotted some stuff on its parallels to Rebecca). What’s interesting about Colonel Blimp is that, without flashing stuff that might strike us visually as adult subject matter (sex, drugs, violence), it nonetheless seems to turn off the radio, dim the lights, pour a bit of brandy and sit down for the sort of earnest latenight conversation that warms something in adults that it doesn’t in younger people, who have way more free time and, by extension, more time for reflection.

I admire the hell out of this, but I think I’m enjoying the memory of it more than I enjoyed the task of sitting through it.


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