Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is epic in scope, though not scale, as it recounts over 40 years in the life of Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey), a British soldier who rose from Lieutenant during the Second Boer War to Major General during WWII. Although time has softened the film's commentary about Britain and war, its views were rather bold considering the country was in the midst of WWII when it was released.
The film opens during WWII as British troops are scheduled for training exercises. Tired of the way the higher-ups are running things, Lieutenant Wilson leads a group of soldiers to capture the generals relaxing at a Turkish bath. Candy shouts that the "War starts at midnight!" to no avail. He and Wilson tussle and fall into a bath. Through some brilliant staging of equipment and actors, the camera moves past the two men over the top of the bath and comes to a stop as a much younger and skinnier Candy emerges, sending the story back 40 years without a cut.
It's 1902 and Candy is on leave from the Boer War. He learns from Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr) that an anti-British propagandist is at work in Berlin. Although his superiors choose to ignore it, Candy takes it upon himself to handle the matter. Standing up for the honor of Edith and Britain, he creates an international incident with Germany that can only be resolved with a duel. His opponent is Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook), and the filmmakers made the interesting choice not to show duel because what follows and not the event is what's most important to the story.
Candy and Theo convalesce in the same hospital and grow to become such good friends that Candy makes no mention of his feelings for Edith after she and Theo announce their engagement. However, that decision haunts Candy the rest of his life, revealed by how much the two other important women in his life look like exactly Edith, accomplished by Kerr playing both parts.
All Candy's relationships are complicated and not just those with women. Neither Theo nor Britain give back the commitment and dedication they receive from Candy, leading to intriguing situations. During WWI, Candy attempts to reunite with Theo, but Theo is a P.O.W. of the British and he only sees the uniform and not his friend underneath. During WWII, Candy's superiors do not share his opinions of battlefield tactics and he finds himself silenced as a result.
Candy is a very interesting character as his principled views and actions often turn out not to be correct. He is based on cartoonist David Low's buffoonish British military character Colonel Blimp, but after reading some of the cartoons made available by Criterion in the extras, the similarities begin and end with the bald head and walrus mustache Candy sports in his later years. Blimp is a Conservative caricature that Low used to satirize the politicians and views he disagreed with. Candy has much more depth to him. The audience understands how his opinions and decisions are formed, and sees the character change and grow.
Roger Livesey's wonderful performance is a major factor behind the believability and likeability of Candy. Although Life and Death is lengthy at nearly three hours, Livesey creates a character worth revisiting. It's a shame he wasn't given another chance with a film or television show.
'The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp' (#173 in The Criterion Collection) is a 50GB Region A Blu-ray disc. The video has been given a 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at 1.37:1. According to the liner notes, "the digital master presented here was made from the Film Foundation's 2012 restoration. For the restoration, the original 35 mm three-strip Technicolor negatives were scanned at 4K resolution on an Imagica wetgate scanner." The colors are vibrant. The image offers great texture detail, such as the fabric of the tapestry seen during the opening credits. Some wide shots have soft focus around the edges, which is a source issue. No signs of defect or wear in the print. There is a LPCM 1.0 audio track. Dialogue is understandable throughout and is well balanced with the music and effects as expected on a mono track. No issues from age or damage were apparent.
The extras start with an Introduction by Martin Scorsese (HD, 14 min), who discusses his relationship with film over the years. Scorsese also appears on the audio commentary with Michael Powell in separate sessions edited together, and talks during the Restoration Demonstration (HD, 5 min), which shows the vast improvement after5 the work that went into fixing the mold and deterioration. A Profile of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1080i, 24 min) presents crewmembers second unit cameraman Jack Cardiff and art department worker Peter Manley alongside folks such as Pressburger's grandson Kevin Macdonald, actor Stephen Fry, and film historian Ian Christie to discuss the film. Optimism and Sheer Will (HD, 30 min) presents Thelma Schoonmaker Powell talking with Michael Henry Wilson about her late husband's film and career. There are two galleries (HD), one of production stills and another about David Low and Colonel Blimp. Would have loved more cartoons. There is also a 24-page booklet featuring the essay "The Life and Death and Life of Colonel Blimp" by Molly Haskell.
Powell and Pressburger's is The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp a charming British film about a charming British man. The film has been given a brilliant restoration that looks marvelous in high definition. Another feather in the cap for Criterion.