The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

In the opening sequence of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)— considered by some the greatest British film ever made—a young army officer commanding a mock invasion receives orders to attack at midnight but, citing the surprise assault on Pearl Harbor, instead moves in at 6 PM. When he and his men arrive at a Turkish bath in London and capture the enemy commander, a rotund old major general wearing nothing but a towel and a walrus mustache, the younger man can’t resist jeering at him and his quaint code of honor. Enraged, the old man charges him, and they go tumbling into a pool. “You laugh at my big belly, but you don’t know how I got it,” shouts the old man as he thrashes the younger one. “You laugh at my mustache, but you don’t know why I grew it. How do you know what sort of fellow I was when I was as young as you are, 40 years ago?” Forty years ago . . . The words echo as a flashback transports us to his youth.

Forty years ago,” began director Michael Powell when he rose to speak at a revival of Colonel Blimp at Britain’s National Film Theatre in 1985. By then he was 80 and his career was long over, but he’d acquired a powerful champion in Martin Scorsese, who was deeply influenced by the films of Powell and his partner, Emeric Pressburger. Now, three more decades have elapsed, and Scorsese is an old man himself; he and his longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker (who was married to Powell from 1984 until his death in 1990), were instrumental in restoring Colonel Blimp for a recent art-house tour and DVD release from the Criterion Collection. The two-disc package includes plenty of extras, but the truly extraordinary element is a commentary track combining Scorsese’s recollections with remarks that Powell recorded for a laserdisc release in the 80s. Like the movie itself, the commentary is a layered memory play and a poignant reminder that old age overtakes all of us.

The movie was inspired by a popular cartoon series by David Low that satirized the British military class and their hidebound conservatism; the title character, shown always in his little Turkish bath towel, dispensed such sentiments as, “We should explain to the natives in India that British troops are there only to protect them from massacre, and if they don’t accept that, then shoot ’em all down.” A buffoon like this was too simple for Powell and Pressburger, though, and when their old fart (renamed Clive Candy) climbs out of the pool, he’s a young officer himself, just returned from the Boer War (and played with great sensitivity by Roger Livesey). Over the next two and a half hours, they follow him through World War I and into World War II, touching on his thwarted romantic feelings for a series of women (all played by Deborah Kerr). By the end of the movie he’s become a lonely figure, with nothing to sustain him but the glorious traditions of the British army.

Scorsese’s commentary often made me laugh: his love for the cinema is so fervent that it’s endearing, and his memories of Colonel Blimp are so vivid that you’d think it was his first kiss. He discovered the movie one afternoon in the early 50s, when the original U.S. release, running a mere 90 minutes, was broadcast in black-and-white on a local TV station in New York. His fascination with the movie only grew years later when he saw a two-hour cut on public television shown in color this time from a badly faded Eastmancolor print, and then, on late-night TV in Los Angeles (while he was shooting New York, New York), a better print that revealed the movie’s bold hues. He finally managed to see the complete version—all 163 minutes —in London in 1978, and he helped bring it to the U.S. in the mid-80s for a limited release. I remember reading Dave Kehr’s review in this very paper and dragging my parents to see the movie at the Film Center of the Art Institute (now the Gene Siskel Film Center).

When Scorsese’s clipped delivery gives way to Powell’s enfeebled voice, the contrast is startling. One might chalk this up to simple biology—Powell was about ten years older when he recorded his commentary than Scorsese was when he recorded his—but you can also hear in their remarks the difference between an artist who’s still going strong and another who has nothing left to do but reminisce. Powell shows great fondness for some of the long-forgotten character actors in the film (Roland Culver, playing the starchy Colonel Betteridge; Muriel Aked, playing Candy’s sharp-tongued Aunt Margaret) and returns again and again to Deborah Kerr, noting her impressive maturity as an actress (she was only 20 at the time, playing characters that were considerably older). Powell even mentions that he’s just received a Christmas card from Kerr; only from a making-of documentary does one learn that, in a real-life echo of Clive Candy, Powell was madly in love with her.

Probably the movie’s most famous scene is the duel sequence between young Clive Candy and Theo Kretschmar-Schulfdorff (Anton Walbrook), who’s been chosen to defend the honor of a German nobleman whom Candy punched out in a Berlin restaurant. Researching this scene, Pressburger found an old book of dueling protocol, which is replicated in scrupulous detail: the inspection of the combatants’ clothing, the formation marching, the proper commands to begin and end the combat, the positioning of the sabers point to point as the two men prepare to face off. This rich sense of formality extends to the filmmaking, with its beautiful symmetrical frames, its pregnant quiet as boot heels resonate on the wood floor. Yet as soon as the duel commences, Powell and Pressburger cut to an overhead shot and pull away, cross-fading to an exterior shot and leaving us to wonder what happens inside the building.

This sort of thing didn’t make much sense to me when I saw the movie as a young man, but now it does. Back then I was more inclined to ridicule older people and their traditions, and thought I was mighty heroic for doing so; now I realize that the things I remember from years earlier—like this movie, for instance—are critically important, because they enable me to measure how much I have or haven’t changed. That’s not a comfortable position to maintain in a culture that prizes youth and lets history wither away as people hunch over their handheld devices, waiting for the next instant message. But time has a way of sorting that stuff out. “Let me tell you that in 40 years’ time you’ll be an old gentleman too!” fat old Clive Candy warns the cocky young officer in the opening sequence. The only justice in ageism is that its perpetrators inevitably become its victims.