What an adorable film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is. As true as this description is, though, it doesn’t seem appropriate for a movie that stands among the great war flicks. And yet there are no battle scenes. No violence? What kind of war movie is that? Although a film of paradoxes, like I said, it’s one of the best.
The film opens with a military exercise in World War II-era Britain. Some soldiers go into the bathhouse and “hold hostages.” They disturb Clive Wynne-Candy, who’s resting in the sauna, saying that he is under arrest. “War starts at midnight!” bellows the old man. The young officer explains that the exercise must begin earlier because Nazis won’t necessarily operate by such a gentlemanly agreement of when to start a war. Clive tackles the young one into a nearby pool after the officer makes fun of his weight and moustache, and Clive yells one of the movies’ best lines at him: “You laugh at my big belly, but you don’t know how I got it! You laugh at my mustache, but you don’t know why I grew it!” The camera moves down the pool, and we see a younger, skinnier Clive sans moustache get out of the pool. We have flashed back to 1902.
Clive, a soldier, becomes enamored with Edith (one of three roles portrayed by Deborah Kerr, who gives the film a great sense of timelessness), and after Clive makes a derogatory comment about the German army, he is forced into a duel. Since the entire army cannot fairly duel Clive, a soldier is picked at random. The chosen soldier, Theo, fights Clive, and both end up in the hospital. Up until that point, they’ve never met before and only regard each other as the opponent, a part of the enemy.
Edith visits Clive in the hospital, but his head is covered in bandages. He cannot speak, but he wants to talk to her nonetheless. As she asks him questions, he mimes, and it’s a beautiful scene of comedy (and quite touching, too), to watch them communicate despite the massive amounts of bandages wrapped around his head.
Clive and Theo meet, talk, and both realize that they are more alike than they could have imagined and become fast friends. During a card game while they both recover in the hospital, Theo, whose only knowledge of English are the phrases “very much” and “not very much,” says something in German to Edith so that she may translate for Clive. “I hope we shall be able to play [cards] every night,” says Kerr, translating for Theo. It’s a great line, and it’s even better because Kerr delivers it with a gentle woman’s touch that makes it even more heartwarming to hear.
Months later, when he is ready to leave the hospital, Clive learns that Theo loves Edith and wants to duel him for her love. Clive acts as if he has no feelings for Edith and says that he wishes the two of them the best of luck. Even though Clive later in the film says that he didn’t realize at that moment that he had feelings for her, from his actions in the hospital, he seems to have cared for Edith very much. Then why did he lie to Theo? I think he’d rather lose Edith than have to kill a man over Edith (or worse, die in the duel and never see Edith again). Theo, who still has a hard time with English (but has expanded his vocabulary), tells Clive after he gives up Edith, “Our friendship is very much.” Jeez, how can you not want to cry during these some of these scenes?
Actually, there are plenty of scenes that put me in a teary mood. While getting ready for an attack, Clive gets a message that the war is over. He turns to the soldier with him, Murdoch (who later becomes a very dear friend), and asks if Murdoch understands what that means, that the war is over. Murdoch, in all his simpleness, says, “Peace. Everybody can go home.” Then, when I thought that was the best possible response, we hear a retort from a soldier’s point-of-view: “Clean fighting, honest soldiery has won.”
Where are my Kleenex?
Another weepy moment comes when Theo tries to leave Germany because of the rise of the Nazis. England, however, doesn’t want him now since they feel the need to protect their country from potential spies. Theo admits, and wittily remarks, “It took me eight months to find out I was wrong about the Nazis… It took you and England five years.” He then begins a speech about why he wanted to leave Germany. He convinces us the minute he says, “The price of everything rose except human beings.”
Is Theo’s speech a tad preachy? Maybe. But we forgive it’s trespasses because it’s so touching, especially when he talks about his sons not coming to their mom’s funeral, and Theo says, “Heil Hitler,” not in praise, but in anger, almost as if he’s about to cry.
I know it’s a far different movie, but I think that The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp would work strangely well as a double feature with another war-commentary movie I just saw: The Boy with Green Hair. The latter investigates the damage done by war to children (which Colonel Blimp touches on here and there), whereas the former is about the gentlemen and soldiers and how they are affected, for better or worse, by war. Both are important war movies, and I can already see the two practically conversing with each other.
I say “for better or worse” not as an insult to any character but just to show how human they are. As a soldier, Theo becomes bitter toward England (but eventually changes his mind), and Clive has an awful inner conflict: how are wars to be fought anymore? If there really are different enemies and they should be fought in a different manner, does that mean we must abandon gentlemanly conduct (even though it’s something as un-gentlemanly as war)? Colonel Blimp is a convincing growth of not only two countries that are constantly at war with each other and how they’ve evolved over time but also, as Roger Ebert puts it in his Great Movies review of the film, as “an idealistic and a romantic.”
The movie warms you up like a mug of hot chocolate on a cold night like tonight (and what a relief, because it’s freezing outside). The movie clocks in at 163 minutes, and even though it doesn’t fly by per se, I was continually absorbed throughout the running time. This is a very rare kind of movie, and this is also my first Powell and Pressburger movie. I’m highly anticipating the other gems awaiting me.