Film: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

"You laugh at my big belly but you don't know how I got it! You laugh at my mustache but you don't know why I grew it!"
Major General Clive Wynne-Candy

A film whose protagonist is alive when the credits roll, is not a colonel, and is not surnamed "Blimp". Despite this triple deception, it is very good.

Opening in 1943 in the midst of World War II, a group of enterprising British soldiers decide to launch planned war games early, contemptuous of the Home Guard's order that "the war starts at midnight" (they reason that the Germans wouldn't work like that). They capture the Home Guard's commander, Major General Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey), while he's in the Turkish bath, and mock his protests and his fat belly. An enraged Candy segues into the story of his life. Flashing back 41 years to 1902, we see a young Clive Candy, newly returned from the Boer War and wearing his new Victoria Cross. A visit to Germany to refute anti-British propaganda leads to a meeting with Miss Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr) and a duel with Prussian officer Theodore Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook). Over the next forty years, Clive and Theodore will meet several more times, including in World War One, and Clive will always be on the lookout for other women like his idol, Edith.

The film was released in 1943 in the United Kingdom, at the height of World War II, and two years later in the United States (in heavily edited form). At the time of its release it was attacked by many for being "pro-German". It has subsequently been considered one of the finest British films, and to have taken anti-Nazi wartime propaganda to a more subtle and ethical level. It was the fourth collaboration between writer-directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in their production company, The Archers. The duo would go on to make several more films, including The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. Also notable for being the breakout part for British actress Deborah Kerr, who was only 21 when the film was made.

Contains examples of:

  • All Germans Are Nazis: Averted! One of the main reasons Churchill disliked the film was the character of Theo, a sympathetic German (though explicitly anti-Nazi). He remained in the story thanks to Powell and Pressburger's artistic commitment. Anton Walbrook, the actor who plays Theo had Immigrant Patriotism for England noting the fact that their refusal to indulge in stereotypes was why they were better than Nazi Germany.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: When they're first married, Barbara begs Clive to "never change." Unfortunately, he takes this literally.
  • Big Fun : Clive Wynne Candy, as played by Roger Livesey is perhaps the embodiment of this trope at its finest.
  • Bittersweet Ending: A lovely one: Clive has lost the war game to Spud and his own approach has been shown up as outdated, but he's accepted that he himself can't change and that officers like Spud are what the war effort needs, so as Spud and his men march past, he salutes them, grinning.
  • Cool Old Guy : The film manages to make Clive Wynne Candy, a caricature of the Colonel Blimp cartoons, into this. Or as Johnny Cannon says, "a real old darling!"
  • Deadpan Snarker: Theo, Spud and Johnny, but even Clive gets in a couple:
    Barbara: We must go, darling, we're having the Bishop for lunch.
    Clive: I hope he's tender.
  • Deconstruction: The original Colonel Blimp character, created by left-wing cartoonist David Low, was meant as a satire of conservative Army officers, but Powell and Pressburger deconstructed it by examining how the character would have got that way in the first place—of course, giving him a rich and interesting early life made him much more sympathetic. Indeed, it is a Reconstruction by showing that even if Blimp is an outdated, old caricature, he still embodies some of England's greatest virtues of friendship, fair play and common decency.
  • Defeat Means Friendship: Sort of. Clive and Theo become lifelong friends after their duel, but the film never tells us who won (or whether either of them did). Later, Clive takes this attitude toward Germany after the 1918 Armistice.
  • Doppelgänger Replacement Love Interest: Undoubtedly a Trope Codifier.
  • Dramatically Missing the Point: Given that, unbeknownst to him, Van Zijl has used the threat of torture to get information from the captured Germans, Clive draws an entirely erroneous moral from the Armistice:
    Clive: Murdoch, the war is over. The Germans have accepted the terms of the armistice; hostilities cease at 10 o'clock. It's nearly that now. Murdoch, do you know what this means?
    Murdoch: I do, sir. Peace. We can go home. Everybody can go home.
    Clive: For me, Murdoch, it means more than that; it means that right is might after all. The Germans have shelled hospitals, bombed open towns, sunk neutral ships, used poison gas, and we won—clean fighting, honest soldiering have won.
  • End of an Age: The film covers forty years and is essentially the story about the end of the British Empire and its regimented class system and the breakdown of society that happened during the Second World War, essentially its about the Old Victorian and Edwardian England becoming 20th Century England.
  • Fatal Flaw: Clive's is a non-standard one, No Self-Awareness. He never realises what he wants until it's too late for him to have it.
  • Flanderization: The film is in part a Deconstruction of the process of Flanderization, showing how with each bad decision he makes (such as not telling Edith that he loves her, or failing to realise that the rules of war are constantly changing), Clive Flanderizes himself, turning from a romantic and impetuous young man with zero self-awareness into a lovable but self-important old fool. Fortunately, he acquires enough self-awareness that, by the end, he realises that it's happened and that the best thing he can do is give his support to those who can fight the war better than he can.
  • Good Is Old-Fashioned: Candy thinks of war as a gentleman's game with rules, but he lives into the age of Total War, where this is outmoded.
  • Honor Before Reason: Candy would rather lose the war than win by stooping to "dirty" methods. Theo points out that if the British did that, the only methods left in the world would be Nazi methods. The fact that the government doesn't share Candy's view leads to his being retired from service again.
  • Killed Off for Real: Barbara, Murdoch and Edith.
  • Long Speech Tea Time
  • Real Life Writes the Plot : Emeric Pressburger the screenwriter, a Hungarian Jew who lived in Berlin, modeled Theo's speech at the immigration bureau on his own experience entering England. Anton Walbrook the actor who played Theo likewise exiled himself from Austria (and changed his Embarrassing First Name Adolph to Anton) on the rise of Nazism and both had Immigrant Patriotism for England.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni : Despite being a Stiff Upper Lip, Candy is a solid Red (all red cheeks and nose) to Theo's Blue, to everyone's blue basically.
  • Replacement Goldfish : Candy's wife Barbara and his ATS chauffeur Angela (aka Johnny) are these for Edith, though in Johnny's case Candy is too much of a darling to make it more than platonic. What makes them this trope is that they're all played by the same actress. Theo lampshades it.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Candy is idealistic, Theo and most other people are cynical. Although it's inverted in that all of Candy's friends, including Theo love him for truly embodying his beliefs of fair play, friendship and Stiff Upper Lip. The film itself is very much on the idealist side.
  • Spiteful Spit
  • Stiff Upper Lip : Roger Livesey's Colonel Blimp embodies his country's national stereotype in the way that Theo with his angsty and serious demeanour embodies Germans have No Sense of Humor. Though it's highly subverted.
  • Token Enemy Minority: Theo.
  • When I Was Your Age : Candy invokes this at the end of the film, in his dealing with spud.
  • While You Were in Diapers : Candy takes this even further.
    "I was a soldier...when you were nothing more than a toss between a boy and a girl's name."
  • "World of Cardboard" Speech : The film's moving final lines...
    "Here is the lake...and I still haven't changed."