Few names are more regularly associated with an impeccable standard of quality during the classical era of cinema more than Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the directorial duo that worked together under the name of The Archers. They were dominant creative forces throughout their career (both individually and as a pair), but were most known for their incredible output during the 1940s, when seemingly every film they produced was something of a masterpiece. What makes them so compelling is that, while there were common threads that persisted throughout their films (such as their heavy reliance on British culture), they were versatile enough to create a more diverse body of work, which manifested in several incredible films that share certain qualities, but were different enough to allow those who were perhaps not enamoured with one style to find sanctuary in another one of their masterpieces. Many consider their greatest achievement to be The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and while I am still very much partial to A Matter of Life and Death, it is almost impossible to resist the undeniable charms of this beautiful and poetic film that is popularly cited as not only amongst their best works, but one of the greatest films to ever be produced. Powell and Pressburger embody the rare phenomenon of an artist being so widely praised for their work to the point of carrying historical importance, but also managing to live up to that reputation, which is quite rare when looking back at filmmakers cited as being titans of the industry. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is a masterful accomplishment, carefully composed by a directorial duo that consistently pushed the boundaries of their craft, and produced work that has transcended geographical and temporal boundaries to be considered some of the most impressive and important of its era.
War films certainly are an acquired taste – for some, they represent solid, old-fashioned entertainment that satiates our primal desire for a combination of exhilaration and informative discussion, while others see them as dull and conventional, especially when they are not particularly interested in saying anything we haven’t seen before – and this isn’t even touching on the widespread trend for war films to lean into outright jingoistic propaganda in many instances. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is the rare instance of a war film that is very much in favour of the military and its conquests, but also artistically resonant and very much relatable to even those outside of the group being explored. This film is fiercely British, and proud of its background, showing very little hesitation in its endeavour to promote and celebrate the brave men and women fighting for His Majesty’s army in various capacities. This earnest candour is part of why we can actually find value in its message, since there is essentially a two-pronged approach informing the film. On one side, it is ferocious in its intentions to explore the trials and tribulations of those who stood in service to the army in its various international conflicts and showed themselves to be willing to lay down their lives in honour of their country, while on the other, it is an effervescent satire designed to demonstrate how, despite its strength, the British military was far from infallible, and that there were flaws within it that may not have been disastrous, but were a far cry from the supposed perfection promoted by many people across its history. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is certainly not an ordinary war film, and with its upbeat demeanour and willingness to look beneath the surface of a common set of tropes, it manages to be an absolute triumph in both form and content.
Drawing inspiration from David Low’s Colonel Blimp comic strip, from which the film gets its name, Powell and Pressburger find themselves confronted with a range of genres from which they could pluck potential material. To understand the method, we need to first leap back and look at the reasoning, which is intrinsically connected to the beloved comic strip. The concept of “Colonel Bli,p” is related to the idea of a generation that has grown increasingly out of touch with reality, despite seeing themselves as authorities. Regardless of how much one has achieved in their life, time doesn’t agree with accomplishments, and it marches on, regardless of who is joining them on the journey. For some, this presents an opportunity to reinvent and develop, while others see it as a hindrance that does not acknowledge those that came before. Powell and Pressburger centre the entire film on this concept, whereby a valiant and virtuous soldier finds himself confronted with the sad reality of ageing, which may allow him to claim status and earn unequivocal praise for his achievements, but ultimately causes him to be seen as a remnant of the past. These ideas are all beautifully woven together by a film that blends war epic with tender-hearted romance, soaring melodrama and the most gentle humour, creating a bold and ambitious film that is as fascinating when looking at the daily interactions of people on the battlefield as it is focusing on the events that transpire in times of peace. The perfect collision between these genres, and executed with the kind of precision that made their work so remarkable, it’s unsurprising that Powell and Pressburger managed to produce something of such impeccable quality and deep meaning, which is the cornerstone of this phenomenal and complex film.
At the heart of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp stand performances by three actors which are almost entirely definitive of the film as a whole. The sprawling cast is all centred on a trio of performers who turn in strong work, and help create the magnificent and enchanting world in which this story takes place. At the forefront is Roger Livesey, who plays the central character of Calvin Wynn-Candy, a principled soldier whose commitment to his national military saw him dedicate his time to fighting across many wars in defence of king and country, stretching from the earliest days of the Anglo-Boer War, to the Second World War (during which this film was produced, meaning that it could not have had a conclusive ending). Livesey was truly one of our most unheralded performers, a dedicated actor who found the perfect balance between brooding masculinity and sweet sentimentality. It is hardly surprising that he would become a regular collaborator for Powell and Pressburger, who effectively drew on this fascinating quality in several other films, including I Know Where I’m Going! and A Matter of Life and Death, both of which are masterful achievements in their own right. This film was also the first collaboration between the Archers and two of their other regular collaborators, with both Deborah Kerr (playing three roles, each one distinct in their own way) and Anton Walbrook, both of whom would go on to get major roles in some of the directors’ later masterpieces. War films of this scope are not always known for containing strong performances, so the impeccable work by the entire cast is to be commended, since it not only complements the ambitious film, but helps define it at the same time, becoming all the more memorable as a result of these strong performances.
There are many narrative and conceptual strands that were used to bring this film to life, and one has to wonder to what extent the success of the film is a result not only of its broad ambition, but also of the gifted directors that stood at the helm. Sometimes, it wasn’t enough to just have a good concept, but also a strong sense of direction, which would ultimately guide it to where it needed to go in order to flourish. Powell and Pressburger were auteurs in every sense of the word, and while they did employ a crew of wildly diverse individuals, their films were undeniably crafted from the combination of their individual talents, as well as a burning desire to push the boundaries of what was possible in cinema. Narratively and visually, their work on The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is an absolute marvel. The Technicolor photography is incredibly lush, and while the directors did manage to do a lot of black-and-white photography in some of their other films (which are all gorgeous in their own right), there’s something so unforgettable about this vivid imagery. It’s not the kind of war film that lends itself to extravagant depictions of battle (the directors show a much-needed sense of restraint in this regard), but rather where the visual landscape is used to show a version of the world that is rapidly changing, developing along at a pace that is so fast, those from the older generation can barely maintain their stride without falling behind. The elegant but striking cinematography, which was developed in collaboration between Powell and Pressburger and director of photography Georges Périnal, is just as integral to the success of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp as the story – and perhaps even more so, with the sheer volume of iconic images found throughout this film proving to be extraordinarily influential for future generations of filmmakers.
The exact quality that makes The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp such a remarkable film is not entirely clear, and it really does differ between viewers. Some are enamoured with its vibrant colours that draw us into this world, while others focus on the memorable characters, who represent different archetypes that we encounter throughout our daily lives. However, something that the film embodies that nearly everyone agrees is perhaps its biggest strength is the extent to which it goes to explore some very complex themes. On the surface, it appears like a relatively conventional, by-the-numbers war epic that offers us the kind of exhilarating excitement we’d expect from a well-crafted film with this subject matter. However, the more time we spend with it, the clearer it becomes that there is something deeper here, a quality that is much more enduring than simply the story of a senile old soldier looking back at his past triumphs in relation to present attempts to usurp him. This is the starting point for one of the most reflective and poignant meditations, not only on the history of Britain, but the entire concept of humanity as a whole. Somehow, whether intentional or not, Powell and Pressburger made a film that managed to condense the human condition into only a few hours of enthralling storytelling. It looks at themes such as ageing, the process of falling in love and the importance of interpersonal connections, each one executed with the kind of respectfulness and honesty that has frequently been seen as the directors’ most significant strength. It’s a film that moves at a glacial pace, but its ability to be both soaring and intimate allows it to be so much more complex than we’d expect, leaving us in a state of absolute euphoria, having witnessed a truly unforgettable experience.