For a film about ageing and obsolescence, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) looks astonishingly good as a septuagenarian. It’s now more than 70 years since Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s now-classic film opened in the UK on 10 June 1943, in the dark days of the second world war, when its portrait of an old-fashioned English officer failing to keep up with the times met with concern from high places. Prime minister Winston Churchill attempted to ban the film and succeeded in restricting its export until after the war.
Whether or not Churchill saw a satirised version of himself in Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey), whose life and loves are charted from the time of the Boer War to his relegation to the Home Guard during World War II, his government certainly took issue with a film that presented British officialdom as presided over by doddery old buffers with increasingly outmoded morals and methods.
What’s more, the film’s sympathetic portrayal of Wynne-Candy’s German (though anti-Nazi) friend Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook) – who appears more tuned in to the shifting reality of things than his friend and sometime love rival – rankled at a time when Germans were more usefully painted in a purely villainous light.
Seventy-plus years on, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp can be seen as a startling early flash in an extraordinary run of mid-1940s classics – A Canterbury Tale (1944), “I Know Where I’m Going!” (1945), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948) – that Powell and Pressburger made during their most vital years of collaboration.
Now that we’re so far removed from the 40 years of Wynne-Candy’s lifetime depicted in the film, you might wonder if it isn’t time for someone to take Powell and Pressburger’s masterpiece to one side and tactfully suggest that its time is done, that it can no longer compete with the whizz and crackle of contemporary cinema. As Theo says to Clive in the film: “We need a different knowledge now.”
But then the film starts again, the whack of arrows into a target (the logo that heralds the beginning of Powell and Pressburger’s great films) leading into a colourful romp through early 20th-century British history that’s as fond and poignant as it is critical. As the film hops time zones between past and present, strange satirical currents flow together with a deep-rooted appreciation of the national character and a paean to friendship across national borders.
The passing decades seem to have worked on the film like a preservative, and – following a recent restoration spearheaded by Martin Scorsese – 2017 finds The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp as lithe, profound and imaginative as ever.
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Originally published: 10 June 2013