For those combatant nations able to produce movies, World War II inspired all manner of morale-boosting epics. The Nazis conjured up the period extravaganza Kolberg; Japan released The War at Sea From Hawaii to Malaya. Hollywood uncorked Since You Went Away and, on behalf of our Soviet allies, Song of Russia. The Russians themselves had Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible. But none is more curious than Britain’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, a 1943 Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger collaboration so unambiguously satirizing the military mind-set that Prime Minister Winston Churchill tried to have it banned.
Newly restored by Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation and playing two weeks at Film Forum in its full length, Colonel Blimp is as stylized in its florid palette, lavish mise-en-scène, and obtrusive musical cues as Powell and Pressburger’s subsequent The Red Shoes. Beginning and ending in London under the blitz, the movie spans 40 years, tracking the career of General Clive Candy (Roger Livesey) from dashing young hero of the Boer War to the sort of walrus-mustached establishment fogy that political cartoonist David Low named “Colonel Blimp.”
The first movement is a tough slog: Young Candy charges off to Berlin to defend British honor against German accusations of atrocities against the Boers; there he falls in unacknowledged love with a proper young Englishwoman (Deborah Kerr) and fights a duel with suave German officer Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook). The movie only comes into its own with a dissolve to rainy Flanders field for the second movement, in the waning days of World War I. Separated from his men, General Candy wanders clueless through the muck and interacts with comic Americans (played by actual GIs) who have never heard of the Boer War.
Candy, too, is oblivious, convinced that the War to End All Wars was won by the British army’s correct behavior: “Right is might after all!” A disturbing encounter with Theo in a P.O.W. camp deepens the ongoing, somewhat cartoonish meditation on the enigmatic German personality—how can the Hun’s appreciation for exalted musical culture jibe with a capacity for barbarism?—and Britain’s naïve belief in fair play. There’s a further twist 20 years later for the final third when Theo arrives in the U.K. as an anti-Nazi refugee who encourages the retired Candy to join the British Home Army.
Colonel Blimp’s most mysterious accomplishment is the transformation of Candy from blustering fool to kindhearted windbag, personification of British generosity. The filmmakers originally wanted Laurence Olivier, but it seems unlikely that so acerbic an actor could have delivered so warm a performance.