“Dear old Clive, this is not a gentleman’s war. This time you’re fighting for your very existence against the most devilish idea ever created by a human brain… Nazism. And if you lose, there won’t be a return match next year… perhaps not even for a hundred years”
I’ve been counting down the days until the promised re-release of the newly restored print of Director Michael Powell and Screenwriter Emeric Pressburger’s ‘The Life & Death Of Colonel Blimp’. So when I saw that Pressbuger’s grandsons Kevin MacDonald (Award winning Director) and Michael MacDonald (Award winning Producer) were doing a Q&A after a screening at the Curzon Soho last Tuesday, I had to attend. While acknowledging his personal bias, Kevin MacDonald introduced the movie as “The greatest film ever made” which in my humble opinion is almost true, with the slight modification “The greatest British film ever made”. The brothers revealed that Martin Scorsese put his weight and finances behind the restoration as well as George Harrison’s widow, who put in a million. It is a meticulous restoration more than four years in the making but it was well worth it as previously unseen (Even on its original release in 1943) levels of detail and colour can now be enjoyed.
If you’ve never seen ‘Blimp’ before, the plot follows dyed-in-the-wool military man Clive Candy from a young and energetic VC winner in the Boer war to a loveable yet outmoded old Colonel during WWII. Candy is played by perhaps Britain’s greatest and least known actor Roger Livesey. The seamless way Candy ages across 40 years isn’t all down to the superb makeup, as Livesey somehow morphs his whole body shape to convey the ravages of time. Across ‘Blimp’s epic 3 hour running time, Powell and Pressburger take in the themes of honour, loyalty, loss, love and most prominently aging. It is a film made in, set during and about war but it is notable that it contains no scenes of conflict. It’s actually all about how these conflicts tragically effect the people in them, while never being anti-war. It simultaneously mourns the loss of British chivalry as ‘Total War’ dawns yet stridently criticises dogmatic and old-fashioned military concepts. The miraculous thing is that ‘Blimp’ weaves all these deep and contrasting themes together while always being a warm and humorous portrait of Britain.
The MacDonald brothers also revealed a few personal recollections after the screening. Their grandfather was a Jew who sought refuge in Britain from Fascism so it’s easy to see the auto-biographical elements in the writing of Anton Walbrook’s ‘Theo’ character. The scene in the immigration office is astounding and the long slow close up of Theo’s anguished face will be etched on your mind. They also touched on Churchill’s opposition to the equivocal tone of ‘Blimp’ at a time when he wanted a simple message given to a nation still reeling from Dunkirk. When Pressburger heard that Churchill wanted it banned, he was greatly hurt, as he idolised our wartime Prime Minister with his lone stand in the face of Nazism. It’s a film that in 1943 just asked far too many questions.
To conclude, I urge you to go see this magnificent elegiac film while it’s on the big screen, although I’m hopeful that a Blu-Ray release will be imminent so a wider audience can get to know it’s quixotic charms.
Here’s a clip of Scorsese introducing a screening of ‘Blimp':