Wednesday 16 May 2012, 12:05
Editor's note: The Film Programme is broadcast at 4pm this Thursday 17th May. The programme this week is dedicated to celebrating the film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Presenter Francine Stock has written this blog to explain why this film from 1943 has an enduring appeal - CM.
Martin Scorsese pays tribute to Colonel Blimp
Very little in Powell and Pressburger's 1943 film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is what it first appears. The fleshy form of Major- General Clive Wynne-Candy, so similar in outline to David Low's satirical 1930s Blimp cartoons, does not in fact encase an inflexible and insensitive buffoon. The upright German officer he faces in a duel will prove a lifetime friend. The girl that the younger Clive Candy glimpses in a First World War hospital is not his lost love but a nurse who resembles her. And that lost love? Well, Candy thought she was a treasured chum - it's only later, too much later, that it occurs to him that he loves her.
This is the story of a soldier during three wars, Boer and two global conflicts which never shows a battle nor a romanticised love scene nor any great sentimental set-piece. Visually luscious, it is emotionally restrained and yet profoundly moving.
It's partly to do with perspective. So much of Blimp is suffused with hindsight. If only we'd known at 25 what we've learnt since. This is a film about the view from old age, made by two friends aged just under and just over forty: the Briton, Michael Powell and the Hungarian émigré Emeric Pressburger, had a prescient sense of what it might mean to look back at achievements, loves and friendships.
The film itself has also undergone a kind of revision. Churchill objected to its production, fearing it would ridicule the military and undermine wartime morale. Now it seems a greater testament of a particular kind of outdated British fortitude than the propaganda posturing of Mrs Miniver or the staginess of In Which We Serve (although Clive Candy shares with Celia Johnson's commander's wife in that film a certain resolution underscored with sadness).
For years, people have celebrated Powell and Pressburger's later films, such as A Matter of Life and Death or The Red Shoes, but Blimp with its forty-year span (a challenge of ageing met by Roger Livesey as Candy and Anton Walbrook as his friend -and enemy - Theo) is in many ways the most complex, the one that really gets under your skin.
Martin Scorsese says he's seen people weep in the sequence where Candy relates to Theo the history of his marriage, ending with his wife's death, yet it is a short scene that, far from demanding tears, dispenses facts with remarkable economy. A great champion of the film's recent glowing restoration, Scorsese claims to find more in it now, as he grows older. He can also trace its influence in his own work, including Raging Bull.
You might not think that a British buffer would have much to offer an American boxer but then it's far too easy to underestimate The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. And the title is not as misleading as it seems: the leading character may not die in the film. But our perception of him as a blustering old reactionary is blown - as he might say - to smithereens.
Francine Stock presents The Film Programme at 4.00pm on Thursday 17th May.