I was once asked to provide a tribute to Michael Powell at the Cannes film festival. It was at short notice – Dirk Bogarde had cried off – and my audience was extremely distinguished. Powell himself was there, and I took my courage into my hands and said that there were a good many people present from the British film industry who had once done their best to decry the work of Powell, one of Britain’s most justly celebrated film-makers.
It was after the making of 1960’s Peeping Tom, Powell’s most controversial film, that he was attacked not only by the industry but by most of the British critics. Even before that, however, his extraordinary capacity to make utterly British films – but with some of the imagination and sensibility of Buñuel – made him more suspect than contemporaries such as Hitchcock, David Lean and Carol Reed. His achievement, mostly in partnership with the writer and producer Emeric Pressburger, was immense, and his reputation is now finally secure, thanks in part to the consistent advocacy of Americans such as Martin Scorsese .
It would be perfectly in order to choose any of five or six of their films to present among one’s personal best. I choose The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp not because it is perfect. Rather, it stands out because at the time of its making during the second world war it raised so many awkward questions that Winston Churchill even tried to have it banned. It typifies Powell’s unorthodox approach to the conventions of British film-making, and it was the film that one American critic has called “the British Citizen Kane”. But in truth it is more of a tribute to the paradoxical nature of the British character.
The film uses flashbacks to trace the lives of a young British officer and his German counterpart from the time when, as young men, they fight a duel in the Berlin of 1902 right up to the middle of the second world war. By then, Roger Livesey’s Major General Clive Wynne-Candy VC has become a Blimpish old buffer (the character is based upon the cartoonist Low’s Colonel Blimp). Then, Anton Walbrook’s gallant German officer arrives as a sad refugee from the Nazis. The two are now fast friends, even though Candy lost his one true love (Deborah Kerr) to the German. Kerr also plays the other two women in Blimp’s life, neither of whom are ultimately obtainable. It is this that gives the film its romantic and elegiac, if pessimistic edge.
Churchill’s reaction was furious. He is said to have stormed into Walbrook’s dressing room when he was appearing in a West End play demanding: “What’s this film supposed to mean? I suppose you regard it as good propaganda for Britain.” But the film, although it mourns the death of the Blimps of Britain with their old-fashioned virtues of decency and generosity, admits the necessity of their demise. We should, it suggests, finally leave the past but never forget its better aspects. This was interpreted as “black-hearted bitterness against Britain” in some quarters but, when the film was revived during the British Film Year of 1985, it received almost unanimous acclaim, although several critics mistakenly praised its recognition of a time when there was pride in being British. The truth is that it is the emotional tensions in Powell’s work that renders it exceptional.
All this would be as nothing had Powell not been, admittedly much aided by Pressburger, a film-maker of great technical and imaginative ability. He could shape his stories with such flair that you could not recognise a cliche even if it stared you in the face. Admittedly Colonel Blimp is too long, but Powell’s almost expressionist use of colour (aided by cinematographer Jack Cardiff), his feeling that fantasy often holds more truth than reality and his generosity of spirit towards both his central characters triumphs over the film’s flaws. So too does the magnificent performance of Livesey as Blimp, a part once scheduled for Olivier who would surely have made into more of a parody. It’s a great British film, and there haven’t been too many of those.