I was glad when I discovered that Classic Film and TV Cafe would be hosting a blogathon about The Archers production company and their films. Why am I such a fan of films that were made years before I was born? Films made in another country too? It comes down to several reasons: great stories told well, actors and actresses at the top of their form, skilled technicians who were also true artists at their tasks. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp was the second film made by The Archers and it meets my criteria for a wonderful film watching experience.
The film tells the story of Colonel Clive Wynne-Candy, from 1902 after the Boer War, 1918 after World War I, and in 1939 at the start of World War II. Colonel Wynne- Candy is brilliantly played by actor Roger Livesey. It was his 20th film, but the first time he had the leading role. His effort to show Colonel Wynne- Candy as an old-fashioned soldier, not bending with the times, but not a bombastic fool, was very well done, and it helped allay the fears that Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his Secretary of War James Grigg had about the film. I will reveal more about their threat to the film’s production later. Austrian actor Anton Walbrook was chosen to play German Army Officer Theodor Kretchmar-Schuldorff. His character was a “good” German, who was against the Nazis and all that they wanted to accomplish. This character also rang the alarm bells for Mr. Churchill and Mr. Grigg and more about this later! Deborah Kerr had the female lead in only her 6th film. She was 21 at the time of production and she had to portray 3 different female leads in this one film. She played Edith Hunter, a love interest for both Livesey and Walbrook’s characters, then she played Barbara Wynne, a new love interest for Livesey’s Colonel, and finally Kerr played Angela “Johnny” Cannon, the retired Colonel Wynne-Candy’s driver.
The film is primarily a flashback and it gets to the flashback in a delightfully creative way. Deborah Kerr, at the film’s beginning, is Angela “Johnny” Cannon, personal driver for retired Colonel Clive Wynne- Candy. She is dating a brash, young lieutenant, Spud Wilson, who is bored at his base, waiting for a practice military operation to begin at midnight. Retired Colonel Wynne- Candy, working for the Home Guard, has devised the operation and decided it should begin at midnight; the phrase,”War starts at midnight!” is uttered quite a bit in the film’s beginning. Lieutenant Wilson decides to turn the tables on old Colonel Wynne- Candy. He decides to take his men to London to capture the old Colonel at his Gentleman’s Club, thus ignoring the way the practice operation was to go down. Angela realizes what her boyfriend is about to do, and she rushes to London to try and warn the Colonel, as she knows that the purposeful ruining of his plan will upset him greatly. Lieutenant Wilson and his men are filmed in an exciting dash to London, set to jazzy, big band music, chasing after Angela in her vehicle. The younger men succeed in capturing the Colonel at the club. As Lieutenant Wilson and Colonel Wynne- Candy have words by the club’s pool, the angry Colonel grabs Lieutenant Wilson, scolds him for his rude dismissal of the elderly, throws the lieutenant into the pool, jumps in after him, pummels him all the while grousing about young pups, and then Colonel Wynne-Candy ducks under the water, the camera tracking to the far end of the pool, and out of that end of the pool, emerges Colonel Clive Candy, as a young Army Officer, fresh off of winning the Victoria Cross in the Boer War for gallantry. I found that unique pool scene, the way to introduce the flashback, as so creative and inventive the first time I saw the film.
The film moves on to 1902, after the Boer War. Colonel Candy meets Edith Hunter(Kerr), meets Theodor Kretschmar-Schuldorff who he has a duel with. They manage to become great friends with Candy calling the German Officer Theo the remainder of the film. Candy loses Edith to Theo, just as he was realizing that he loves her. Being the honorable British Officer, he doesn’t try to ruin his new friend’s love for Edith. Time marches on and the second part of the movie happens with the end of World War I. Colonel Candy has met a group of nurses who were serving the soldiers during the war’s end, and one of the nurses, a Miss Barbara Wynne(Kerr) catches his eye because she reminds him of Edith. Despite a 20 year gap in their ages, Colonel Candy successfully woos and weds Miss Wynne. No children are born to their union, but their love for one another is evident. As the war is now over, Colonel Wynne-Candy finds out his old friend Theo is in a POW camp near London. Colonel Wynne-Candy goes to the camp to see his old friend, who is surrounded by other POWs when the Colonel finds him. It is an interesting scene, as Theo is decidedly cold and unmoved towards his old friend, rebuffing the outstretched hand that is offered to him. The friendship is renewed soon afterwards, and Theo apologizes for his rudeness. Time marches on once more and now the film is at 1939, and World War II has begun in earnest. Barbara is deceased and the Colonel is alone. Theo is being interviewed by immigation officials as he wants to live in England and not go back to Germany. He sadly explains that his English wife, Edith, is deceased and that their two children are good Nazis who will have nothing to do with their father. Colonel Wynne-Candy arrives at the immigration office in time to save Theo from being sent to an internment camp. The good Colonel has by now retired, yet still wants to serve his country in some capacity. The War Office asks the Colonel to give a speech about the retreat at Dunkirk, and his planned speech isn’t thought well of by the War Office so the BBC contacts the Colonel to tell him his speech won’t be aired. Theo asks to read the speech and in a moving scene, he strongly urges his old friend to realize that the Nazis will stop at nothing to rule the world and to make it over in their desired fashion and that Britain must stop them with all means possible. In a lighter moment, Theo notices that Angela, the driver, resembles Barbara, the Colonel’s late wife, and yes, Colonel Wynne-Candy admits to Theo that he also loved Edith, but wasn’t about to take her from Theo, and that he does like having Angela around as she reminds him of Edith and Barbara. The film ends with the elderly Colonel sitting on a park bench across the street from his home, which has been bombed in the Blitz. At his old home’s site is now an emergency water cistern. He remembers Barbara telling him to never change, and he replied to her not ever would he change, unless their house would become a lake. He says aloud to Barbara’s memory that the house is now a lake, and yet he’s not changed. At that moment Theo and Angela join him as a new guard of soldiers is marching down the street to the strains of a military march and they salute the old Colonel as he salutes them passing by.
As I hinted at earlier, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his Secretary of War, James Grigg, were not happy about this film going into production. The title, mentioning Colonel Blimp, was the trigger that got their dander up. Colonel Blimp was a British politcal cartoon, depicting a bombastic, rotund, bald, retired British Army Officer, often depicted at his club in the sauna room, wearing a large towel, pontificating about social and political issues of the day. The cartoon Colonel Blimp was often contradicting himself in his speeches, and was quite the foolish character. Grigg, in a memo, wrote to Churchill that a movie about Blimp could put the British military in a bad light just as they were in the middle of a war and needed all of the public’s support. The second trigger that worried Churchill and Grigg was the “good” German in the film. Britain was at war with Germany, how could their be a “good” German in this film? The film began production in the winter of 1943 and The Archers were told that no British military advisors would be loaned to them, nor any military equipment. Fortunately, the Canadian military stationed near London, had no problems with loaning their equipment to The Archers! In May of 1943, government officials viewed rushes of the film and their fears evaporated. The film was released to the public that June, and it was a hit.
Many film reviewers immediately assumed that the idea for this film did come from the cartoon that incensed Churchill so much, but the idea actually came from David Lean when he was editor for an earlier Powell-Pressburger film, One of our Aircraft is Missing. Lean had to cut a scene in that film depicting an older crew member chastising a younger crew member for not knowing what it’s like to get old. When Lean cut that scene, he told Powell and Pressburger that that scene would make a fine film all on it’s own and that comment from Lean gave them the idea for The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.
Powell and Pressburger were proud of this film and rightly so. They would go on to make two more movies featuring Roger Livesey in prominent roles, I Know Where I’m Going, and A Matter of Life and Death. Anton Walbrook had already appeared in their film The 49th Parallel, and he would famously star as the ballet impresario Lermontov in their film The Red Shoes. Deborah Kerr would also later star as the main nun in another Archer’s masterpiece, The Black Narcissus.
Pressburger once said, ” I think that a film should have a good story, a clean story, and it should have if possible, something which is probably the most difficult thing-it should have a little bit of magic…” To me, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is an excellent example of what Pressburger was defining.
Be sure to read the other postings about other outstanding films by The Archers at