Beginning in a London-based Turkish baths populated by British army officers, through a series of flashbacks we are relayed the extraordinary life and times of Major General Clive Wynne-Candy (a towering performance from Roger Livesey, who places both younger and older incarnations), from his espionage exploits in Berlin during the Boer War to his formation of the Home Guard as Britain faces the very real threat of Nazi invasion. Along the way he meets lifelong friend and German officer Theodor Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook) and his eventual wife Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr), for whom Candy shares a lifelong infatuation.
Released mid-way through the Second World War prior to the Allies’ D-Day beach landings in Normandy, Powell and Pressburger’s own stance towards armed conflict, like Candy’s, is anything but straightforward. Accustomed to the pomp and ceremony of gentlemanly conflict (he meets best friend Theo after the two men duel in Berlin, following on from a diplomatic disagreement), the dishonourable use of chemical warfare by the German army during the First World War quickly disheartens the veteran soldier. Yet he continues to ask after his friend Theo on the front line – once again on the opposing side – even going as far as to comfort him on the future stability of his the post-war German nation as Britain emerges victorious.
What is perhaps most striking on a revisit to this restored edition is just how consistently humorous The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp remains to this day. Powell and Pressburger’s drama has far more laughs than most comedies, perfectly gelling with the bitter-sweet melancholy of Candy’s exuberant, yet ultimately unfulfilled life. The running “War begins at midnight” quip so prominent during the introduction takes on an unexpected, existential weight towards the film’s denouement, as the headstrong Candy struggles to come to terms with his advancing years and loss of influence – so abundant in his youthful heyday.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp demands recognition not only as one of Powell and Pressburger’s very finest cinematic achievements, but also – alongside Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion (1937) and Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove (1964) – as one of the greatest satires of war ever made. For those still yet to see this masterpiece of British cinema, now is the hour.