How “war starts at midnight” never became a catch phrase denouncing underhanded tactics I’ll never know. In the frantic moments that open Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1943 film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, part of the Criterion Collection, an enterprising young officer decides to launch a preemptive movement against his opposition in a Home Guard exercise by capturing them before the maneuvers officially begin. His men storm the Turkish bath where the generals are relaxing, leading to an explosive confrontation with the plump, balding head of the Guard, General Clive Candy (Roger Livesey).
Candy wrestles him into the pool for his impudence, but only one emerges in the next scene: we’ve traveled back forty years to the start of Candy’s career as a soldier and to a period that the film tells us is gone forever, when fair play and rules of engagement still had relevance during war time.
As messages go, it’s a fairly provocative one, and it’s no wonder that in the DVD extras you find that the War Office tried repeatedly to suppress the film’s release and distribution abroad by an “illegal ban” according to the correspondence between Churchill and the Ministry of Information. Like Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, there is a sense of urgency that this message gets across in no uncertain terms. But the film’s watchability lies in the fact that like Renoir’s Grand Illusion, Blimp is also a kind of elegy for the loss of honorable conduct, even during wartime.
Although the producers secured the rights to title the film after political cartoonist David Low’s signature character, he is never referred to in the film as Blimp, even in jest, and Candy both as written and as portrayed by Roger Livesey is anything but a caricature. What appears as bombast in the cartoons (graciously provided for perusal in the DVD extras) in the film comes across as idealism. He may be out of touch, but he is not represented to be a fool.
The Great War is regarded in the film as the turning point. When Candy remarks on the inefficiencies he sees around him, the Americans running a seized train depot joke that Candy’s experience in the Boer Wars and Somalia amount to no more than “summer maneuvers.” After unsuccessfully questioning a group of captured German soldiers, it is made clear that they will be tortured for information despite Candy’s admonitions before he left the scene. Another great strength of the film is that the actual bloody business of war in all its forms happens off-screen. They are instead implied in moments like the interrogation scene, which ends with the interrogator staring at his watch calmly noting that the prisoners have thirty seconds to answer. Although his cool detachment provokes revulsion, there is the subtle fact that the side of his face is criss-crossed with scars, suggesting simply labeling him a villain is too simplistic a conclusion.
For my money, the best moment in Blimp is when Candy finds himself forced into a duel after inadvertently insulting the whole of the German army. There is a prolonged sequence that obsessively recreates every step of the ritual involved.
Then up steps Anton Walbrook as Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff. Because the insult was a general one, Candy’s opponent has been selected from the officer corp. Walbrook’s expression, as he studies the face of a man he has never seen before which duty now demands he kill is surely one of the best representations of the absurdity of war in cinema.
Given the reaction of the world after the Second World War with the revelation of the Holocaust and the ensuing war crimes trials, following in an unbroken line to the institution of the ICC, perhaps poor old Blimp is due for a reprieve. Indeed, at the end of the film, he reaffirms the promise that he hasn’t changed, and by now, the old codger has probably completely won you over. Candy’s contempt for the use of mustard gas in World War I actually was one shared by the international community which enacted the Geneva Protocols. During the Gulf War, the suspicion that Saddam Hussein used biological or chemical agents was roundly condemned. The question of what kind of conduct is acceptable during war time never became a closed one, and in recent years has been debated strenuously by those who believe that compromising our principles erodes our liberty against those who claim that our tactics must change, as the world has changed (again). So Blimp has become surprisingly (or disappointingly) relevant once again, and despite its overt bias, is worth viewing both to meditate on the film’s theme as well as for the pleasure of its craftsmanship (I am convinced that Spielberg had Blimp’s opening sequence in mind when he shot the motorcycle chase sequence in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade). And of course, there’s always Deborah Kerr…