Along with Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles, perhaps the filmmakers that have had the greatest influence on movies over the past 50 years have been Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. But sometimes it feels like not enough contemporary film buffs know a lot about them. Maybe its because they operated in England, free from the Hollywood system and rarely working with the stars of the time, putting artful storytelling and formal ingenuity over satiating the masses.
But even if you aren’t familiar with their work, you will definitely sense some familiarity in their best work. Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Steven Spielberg and countless others have drunk deeply from the “Archers'” deep creative well, with their gorgeous camerawork, innovative editing and storytelling techniques, and that they were unafraid to let overwhelming darkness and tragedy permeate stories that may appear familiar at the surface. “The Red Shoes,” a dark fairy tale in the world of ballet that contains perhaps the greatest scene in the history of movies (the 20-minute dance sequence) has flourishes that have shown up in nearly every Scorsese film, and the final 20 minutes of the psycho-sex drama with nuns that is “Black Narcissus” has been co-opted by countless horror movies.
But I think one of the most difficult things to portray in movies is, well…life. Life can be so abstract, so mercurial and so complicated that it’s a Herculean task to even distill one life into a fictional narrative. But 1943’s “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” has the Archers taking a swing at the concept, detailing the triumphs and heartbreak that defined Clive Candy (Roger Livesey, nothing short of amazing), who over 40 years fought in three wars, had and lost the love of his life and went from a swaggering romantic to a bloated, antiquated caricature of English rigidness (the movie’s title is taken from an old British comic-strip detailing a similar character). The result is an extraordinary achievement, a three-hour epic that doesn’t feel bloated, with wit and compassion replacing hot air and self-seriousness.
“War starts at midnight.” That’s the refrain repeated to a group of British soldiers undergoing a training exercise during World War II. But when one of the soldiers decides to storm a Turkish bath house where several officers, including Candy, are relaxing, to prove the point that the enemy won’t follow any rules; this is “total war,” the Germans won’t wait until midnight in some traditional adherence to rules. This sentiment is lost on Candy; endowed with an enormous gut, a laughable walrus mustache, and a melodramatic way of speaking (Candie’s appearance may have hit close to home with Winston Churchill, who tried to have the film banned). The young soldier pities this military lifer gone to seed, but Candy tells him that he doesn’t know anything; we find out that Candy;’s life wasn’t always defined by rules or his pitiful appearance.
The film then goes back to 1902, and we see another young soldier, fighting the Boer War in South Africa, in the same bath house belittling another wizened officer. It takes us a minute to realize this soldier; dashing, impossibly brash with a deep, commanding voice that hadn’t yet become a joke, is the younger Clive Candy, still being played by Livesey (the make-up in this movie is astonishing, putting many modern films to shame). Here is a soldier fueled by optimism, not a desperate adherence to the temple of rules and order. He isn’t afraid to go to Berlin and play mind games with former German POWs, and there he meets two people who will bot enrich his life and cast a pall of tragedy and regret over it; British diplomat Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr, brilliant in three different roles) who he immediately falls in love with, and German soldier Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook), whom Candy befriends after dueling with him.
Over the next 40 years, Candy will fight in three wars, lose his youthful swagger in increments, have his friendship with Theo tested by the madness of war, and be forever haunted by the woman who stole his heart. But Powell and Pressburger keep “Blimp” from being a navel-gazing dirge; it’s almost symphonic in how it creates a Technicolor world where the hopeful future and the mournful past can exist side-by-side, just like how the Archers’ singular wit and dedicated, ingenious approach to storytelling, buoyed by the constantly moving camera and bravura performances from the three leads.
Roger Livesey’s performance is a masterpiece unto itself (btw, Michael Fassbender’s performance in “Inglourious Basterds” is basically an extended Livesey imitation). Clive Candy begins as an action hero, a figure so dashing that he makes Clark Gable look like Peter Lorre, but as his hairline recedes and his waistline expands, he becomes a more serious cross between Churchill and King Lear (but without the madness or daughter issues). There are few characters that I can recall who are this complex, this empathetic, this human. He isn’t afraid to befriend Theo, played by Walbrook as a man who’s strength and confidence improve over the years as much as his English does. He is immediately taken with the intelligent, headstrong Edith, but in a decision that will define the rest of his life, he leaves Edith, who stays in Germany and marries Theo, who confesses his love for her.
“Col. Blimp” is defined by Candy’s life and his relationship with the world around him through the prism of war, his friendship with Theo and the women in his life; his meekish wife Barbara and later on his determined, prodigal driver Johnny, who are both played by the same actress who played Edith; the great Deborah Kerr. Kerr miraculously makes all three of these women distinct, and in yet another display of storytelling genius, the Archers hit the point home that Candy is haunted by Edith by literally seeing her face on every woman he sees; the gamble of having the same actress playing three very different characters is both charming and heartbreaking in its execution.
Candy’s friendship with Theo is one of the reasons this film, constructed as a piece of pro-British war propaganda (damn is this film British; there are passages, especially in the first 10 minutes, that channel Monty Python 30 years beforehand), was hit with some controversy; it made a German officer an empathetic man with a soul, who in these three wars is Candy’s rival, his sworn enemy, and finally his only hope for protection after he loses everything, respectively. This is one of the great stories of male friendship, writ large on a global scale, with its wisdom and humanity firmly intact.
Candie is such a fascinating and empathetic character that “Life and Death of Col. Blimp” hardly needs any musings on the evolution of war, the roles romance and friendship play in it, and how youthful exuberance can crumble into elderly doddering. At the beginning of the movie, you might be on the side of the young soldier, ridiculing this outdated relic. But after completing the lifetime journey with Livesey as Candy, and marveling at the symphonic collusion of Powell and Pressburger’s achievement, with the writing, filmmaking and acting working perfectly in sync, it’s impossible to miss Candy’s soul still buried under the prosthetics; tested, eroded, but still fighting the good fight.