The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
There are many films that address the aging process, how one grows wiser with the benefit of a full life of experiences, but The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp perhaps articulates most clearly how time makes fools of us all, and our capacity to change is the only thing that keeps us relevant. To this end, it details the life of Clive Wynne-Candy (played by Roger Livesey in top form), utilizing a clean narrative structure with three distinct acts representing the most significant periods of his professional career.
We begin at the end, with a group of home defense recruits participating in a simulated invasion during World War II. They are young, brash soldiers, and although their instructions state that the invasion begins at midnight, they break the rules and challenge the simulation, attacking first and capturing a humiliated Candy in the process. This theme of honor in war and each character's attempts to navigate what that means as warfare evolves is one of the linchpins of the film.
When you first look at Candy, he seems like every other old man bewildered by the rapidly changing world around him. He's out of touch, too tied to the old way of doing things to be useful in the modern era. He is, quite simply, a relic. A monument to Great Britain's self-assured colonialist past with its noble ideas of a gentleman's war. Even his name alludes to a softness that is incompatible with the harshness of twentieth century warfare.
And to be fair to Candy, it's possible that the world has never changed so much as it did during his military career spanning the first half of the twentieth century. We see him as a young man rising through the ranks during the Boer War, when war was still fought the same way it had been for the entire previous century.
He lives in a world of manners and protocol, and even the impetuous act of dueling that he gets himself into becomes a mockery of itself, as government officials from Great Britain and Germany get involved and negotiate the matter down the last detail, all according to the rulebook. He chafes at some of its restrictions, longing to take action rather than wait for diplomatic measures and occasionally puts a toe out of line, but he is very much a product of its structure.
But this system and men like him are about to become as extinct as many of the animals from Africa he hunted and proudly displays on the walls of his den.
After Candy is captured by his insubordinate men, we enter an extended flashback sequence where a young Candy has returned from great success in the colonial wars of Africa. Eager to prove himself, the glory-seeking youth disobeys direct instructions from a superior (sound familiar?) and ends up getting involved in a diplomatic incident in Germany. Mistakes were made, things were said, and long story short, he ends up in a duel with a designated defender of Germany's honor, Max.
In an interesting creative manuever, the film focuses on the build-up to the duel and the ceremonious protocol surrounding it, then shows exactly zero percent of the duel. But we quickly learn that both are injured in the effort and are shipped off to recuperate together. If you thought The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, a film released squarely in the middle of World War II, wouldn't heavily feature the true and enduring friendship between a German and an Englishman, 1.) I wouldn't blame you, but 2.) You would be wrong.
In fact, the relationship between Candy and Max is the thread that bind the narrative together, and is maybe the most pure and beautiful thing I've ever seen? They're best friends and no amount of military calamity is going to change that. Max's growing English skills reflect how close the two are becoming, and its a testament to their friendship that when Max beings a romantic relationship with the English governess that Candy maybe kind of has feelings for, the idea of a love triangle doesn't even cross Candy's mind -- he's just happy for his friend.
I've yet to mention this woman, mostly because she's rather difficult to address. Deborah Kerr has the one female role in the film, although to be fair to the filmmakers she is playing three distinct characters. Candy's inability to embrace change even goes so far as the woman to whom he chooses to attach himself. First there is the English teacher in Germany, who he only realizes the depths of his feeling for after she becomes involved with Max. Then there is the nurse who he meets and eventually marries during World War I. And finally, the plucky chauffeur who Candy handpicks as his driver and who he has an almost fatherly relationship with. They're all identical and although it is to Kerr's credit that they do feel like distinct characters, they are very much the same sort of woman. Nothing says stuck in the past like continually pursuing the dopplegangers of the first woman you ever really loved.
Interestingly, this film faced significant opposition from the British government, and when they attempted to hire Laurence Olivier, their original choice for the lead role of Candy, the Ministry of Information refused to release him from active duty to make the picture. The concept of a noble English hero who warns against the idea of victory against the Nazis by any means necessary was hardly in line with official British propaganda at the time. Really, the depiction of war as a whole in this film is pretty unflattering — not exactly what Britain felt it needed right about then.
Livesey and Kerr are excellent in their uniquely demanding roles, showcasing one man’s journey from youth to old age and bringing to life three separate women, respectively. But the real standout as far as I’m concerned is Anton Walbrook, who creates a nuanced portrayal of a German man who is compelled to turn against his country when he can no longer defend their actions. The scene where he arrives in England, an emotionally devastated and broken man seeking asylum, is an incredible piece of acting.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp may not have won the British military’s favor, but it stands outs as one of the most compelling films about war and remains relevant long after other films from the same period that received an official seal of approval have become dated.