The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp runs two and three-quarters hours and takes place over forty years. The former’s passage is sublime, the latter’s is subtle. Directors Powell and Pressburger bookend the film in the present, then flashback. The lead at the start of the film is James McKechnie. He’s a lieutenant who gets some orders and decides he’s going to get creative with them, which takes him–after some truly amazing driving sequences with motorcycles and army trucks–to aged general Roger Livesey hanging out in some Turkish baths with his pals, steam wetting his walrus moustache. It’s young versus old; McKechnie’s got the new ideas, Livesey’s got the old.
Only what if, at one point, Livesey had the new ideas and someone else had the old. The film flashbacks forty years to a much younger Livesey–the makeup on him in Blimp is a significant achievement–just coming home from the Boer War. He’s just found out a spy he knew from the war (David Ward) is in Berlin, drumming up anti-British sentiment over the conflict. Being a good British officer, Livesey thinks it’s his job to get involved, which introduces him to Deborah Kerr–an English governess in Berlin who doesn’t like the anti-British sentiment. Then Livesey’s big mouth gets him in more trouble, leading him to meet–gradually–German officer Anton Walbrook.
Blimp is never more comedic than during this portion of the flashback. Powell and Pressburger come up with some really good sequences, quite different than how the film opens. The present is movement and sound–the driving sequences, beautifully photographed (by Georges Périnal) and edited (by John Seabourne Sr.)–are visually ambitious. As well as aurally–the truck part of the sequence is set to fast, popular music. The past has a slower pace, visually, but only initially. There’s a lot of establishing work done. Then Powell and Pressburger start getting more and more ambitious.
Some of their ambitions are with how to move through the forty year flashback. They come up with a couple excellent devices, which they use multiple times throughout Blimp, to move the action forward in time without having to do anything with the actors.
Since Blimp is about the military, Powell and Pressburger are also able to get away with a bunch of exposition in the dialogue without it slowing things down. After the time transition, there’s a little catch-up, but never too much. Each scene in Blimp is perfectly timed, which probably helps it breeze through its not-insignificant runtime.
When the action gets to World War I, things are very different. Livesey’s starting to get makeup. He’s also got a sidekick–John Laurie–the film goes through phases of actors. It starts with Livesey, Kerr, and Walbrook. Then it’s Livesey, Laurie, and Kerr. Finally it’s Livesey, Walbrook, Laurie, and Kerr. But there are some interesting complications.
Anyway. The World War I sequence. Whereas the film opens with these modern army motorcycles zooming along, with shots alongside, snappily edited, with this fast music accompanying, the World War I sequence feels like a stage play. The exterior backdrops are clearly paintings. Livesey and Laurie are usually outside. Well, Laurie’s always outside. But he and Livesey will have these interactions during the exteriors before Livesey has to go in and talk to these soldiers or those soldiers. Livesey’s a general now. Travelling the front in Flanders; the soldiers inside don’t have the same read on the war as Livesey. They think he’s out of touch. And when Livesey’s in the war, it’s that stagy exterior. They’re exquisite sets, but they’re definitely not reality. It’s very subjective. And awesome, because Livesey never gets to talk about how he’s internalizing anything. He’s British. They aren’t supposed to internalize.
But the World War I stuff isn’t just Livesey on the front, it’s also Livesey meeting Kerr (just after the war) and having a grand romance. Only Kerr is playing a different character than before. She’s the same age as she was in the first sequence, just all right with her twenty-year senior paramour Livesey. And Walbrook comes back. As a German prisoner of war. Who also has a much different read on things than Livesey. Walbrook gets some great scenes in this section. He gets great scenes later on, but he didn’t get any great scenes–where he got the best material–in the first section. The film treats Walbrook very differently in each sequence, which is awesome, because Walbrook’s so good developing his character over forty years. He’s got a very different part than Livesey. As life for a German from 1902 to 1942 was much different than a British person in the same period.
In the present–or near present, the last section of the flashback, catching up to the bookend–Livesey and Walbrook are reunited once again. The sections are all about twenty years apart. 1902, 1918, 1939. The bookend is in 1943, with the catchup over the last four years of the present action the fastest. But Livesey’s in the same makeup in the last section as he was in the opening bookend. He’s become the guy at the beginning of the movie. The old general who young and capable McKechnie thought was so out of it.
The film’s not really about Livesey being out of it or not. It’s a character study set against British and European history (and social history), with some really grandoise moves from Powell and Pressburger. Kerr playing three different characters–Livesey has a type, he eventually confesses (though Laurie suggests the film skips over five more Kerrs during the first World War)–it’s a grandoise move. Especially since they’re rather different characters, even if Livesey wants to gaze on each one with the same adoration. Kerr gets some glorious moments in Blimp, though her most impressive acting comes in the third sequence, when she is no longer romantic partner material for Livesey or Walbrook.
The production’s impeccable. Powell and Pressburger have various styles throughout, something different for the time period, type of scene, setting. There’s always a new style they’ll implement to get a scene done, developing on a previous one or just doing something entirely new; even in the last scene, they’re still switching up the style. Glorious Technicolor photography from Périnal. Seabourne’s editing, whether he’s being flashy or not, is always fantastic. Great music from Allan Gray (and some exquisite use of classical composers as well). Junge’s production design–phenomenal. The whole production is breathtaking.
Walbrook’s got the meatier role but Livesey’s got the harder one. He’s got to develop a character underneath a caricature. Walbrook gets to break out of a caricature. It’s hard to say who gives a better performance. Same film, very different types of roles leading to different types of performances. I’ll start to type Livesey, then think I should type Walbrook, but shouldn’t I type Livesey. Ad nauseum.
Kerr’s great. She doesn’t have to break from caricature so much as develop a character the film never really shows. She’s idealized and objectified (not visually, but narratively). She transcends those constraints, which is kind of the point. Powell and Pressburger set that detached, off-kilter narrative distance and then do everything to facilitate her being able to cross it. While still staying detached and off-kilter.
The stunning thing about Blimp is how much the filmmakers are doing throughout. After the first section of the flashback–there’s always this theme or that theme, this exceptionally gentle subplot, that exceptionally gentle subplot–and they keep them all going at once. While still doing the various character developments. And history lessons. It’s a dense, narratively, visually, conceptually. Blimp couldn’t be a minute shorter.
Laurie’s great in the fourth biggest role. He gets to be the humor in the later sections of the flashback, when the world isn’t really funny at all anymore. After those four actors, no one really stands out. Not because they’re not good–they’re usually great–but they’re just in the film for a scene or two. Sometimes separated by twenty-one years.
Muriel Aked’s got a really nice scene with Livesey. She’s his only family, his aunt. She gets to humanize him quite a bit. Even if it’s with hunting trophies.
But Livesey, Walbrook, and Kerr are the film. Powell and Pressburger stick to them. Even when someone’s chastising Livesey and it’s over his shoulder, the directors are sticking to him. There are some magnificent scenes in Blimp. The way the filmmakers execute them enthralls. And they seem to know they’re being enthralling and they’re excited to get to enthrall.
Blimp’s also a very serious film. Far more serious than the opening bookend suggests. More serious than the first section of the flashback suggests. The World War I sequence, which totally changes the visual tone of the film–realistic to subjective–is when Blimp starts getting really serious. And it never stops. That seriousness helps break Livesey’s caricature, it helps get Kerr across that intentionally protracted narrative distance, it’s what Walbrook has to embody.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is exceptional.
Written, produced, and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; director of photography, Georges Périnal; edited by John Seabourne Sr.; music by Allan Gray; production designer, Alfred Junge; released by General Film Distributors.
Starring Roger Livesey (Clive Candy), Deborah Kerr (Edith Hunter / Barbara Wynne / Johnny Cannon), Anton Walbrook (Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff), John Laurie (Murdoch), James McKechnie (Spud Wilson), Roland Culver (Colonel Betteridge), Albert Lieven (von Ritter), and Harry Welchman (Major Davies).