The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp</strong> (1943)

( streaming, November 2018) Structure isn’t always used as effectively as it could in movies, especially as a tool to reveal dramatic ironies. But The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is a film from 1943 that does it exceptionally well: It starts with an impetuous young British soldier disregarding orders to mock-capture an older officer as he’s in a Turkish bath. The older man seems like an object of ridicule with an overblown moustache, a portly belly and a pitiable insistence on following rules in war. But then the flashback begins, and so does our perception of the character through a forty-year span. Made at the height of WW2, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp isn’t your usual wartime propaganda film: it’s a sophisticated meditation on age, wisdom, unfulfilled romances, the sacrifices required to fight evil and the nature of friendships. Our protagonist (magnificently played by Roger Livesey at a variety of ages) is occasionally sympathetic but not always admirable—he causes diplomatic trouble for dumb reasons, derives the wrong lessons from his life and becomes increasingly fixed in his ways. In short, he’s an authentic character in a medium far more interested in easy archetypes. He escapes easy description, and that also goes for the entire film as it pokes and prods at British tradition, military customs and the changing dynamics between friends. Is it better to be ethical or victorious? Is it better to be young and dumb or old and inflexible? It’s an unexpectedly moving film, and one that escapes the kind of cheap rabble-rousing propaganda that emerged from the era. Deborah Kerr is fine in three separate roles, but Anton Walbrook is almost as good as a friend/foil of the protagonist. There’s some serious moviemaking skill in some of the film’s delivery (most notably in portraying change across a lengthy period), and the colour cinematography of the film makes it feel more modern than its early 1940s origins. Even if the version I watched was a poorly-compressed low-resolution digitization of a pre-restoration copy of the film (it was the most easily available way to see the film legally), the magic of the film still works. By the time we get back to the framing device, we no longer see the older man in the same way, nor do we think that the young man is completely right … but neither do we think he’s completely wrong either. Such nuances were rare in early-1940s cinema, and it’s one more reason why The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp has survived so well along the way.

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