Something I try to keep in mind when watching these films is whether or not my own background may be skewing my reaction to a film. We all bring a unique set of cultural, demographic, historic, and personal influences to anything we experience, all of which can affect how – or even if – we understand any of the references in the things we read or see or hear. In my own case, mostly it’s history that’s had the most impact – my reaction to Keaton’s The General would have probably been very different if I hadn’t been watching it only a couple days after the Charlottesville riots, for example. However, as the Crash Course starts introducing films from other countries, the likelihood of my not recognizing a particular cultural touchstone increases.
Like here. Before watching The Life And Death of Colonel Blimp, I had literally no idea that the “Colonel Blimp” name would be a touchstone for its British audience, and spent the entire first half of the film baffled about why we were following the story of someone named “Clive Candy” and wondering when we were going to meet this Blimp guy. It wasn’t until after watching that I learned that “Colonel Blimp” was a commonly-used character in English political cartoons in the 1930s and 40s; an elderly, chubby guy with a big walrus mustache who sat around in gentleman’s clubs or Turkish baths and spouted off reactionary, and often ill-informed, pronouncements about politics and affairs of state. The whole film was meant to be a sort of reformation and appreciation for the character and those like him – something which was completely lost on someone like me who’d never encountered that character before.
This isn’t to say, though, that I wasn’t able to follow the story. Our Blimp stand-in is Clive Candy (Roger Livesey), a career officer we first meet in his “Colonel Blimp” guise before flashing back to see him as a newly-decorated veteran of the Boer War, full of a forthright patriotism – and an even stronger belief in dignity and fair play. So when he learns a German military writer is spreading anti-English propaganda, he visits his superior, insisting that England make some kind of response. His superior disagrees – so Candy takes on the task himself, traveling to Berlin and tracking down the writer in a café to pick a fight with him. Candy is challenged to a duel – himself vs. “the reputation of the German Army,” represented by a randomly-chosen German soldier named Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook). The duel is dropped after both men wound each other – non-fatally, but still seriously – and both end up in the same hospital for several weeks, becoming fast friends.
But Theo takes an even greater shine to Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr), an English woman living in Berlin who first alerted Candy to the anti-British writer. Edith has been visiting Candy out of remorse, but meets Theo in the process, and the pair are married upon Theo’s discharge from the hospital. And it’s only after Candy arrives back in London that he realizes “…oh, wait, I think I fell in love with Edith too.”
Those events pretty much chart the course of the next 40 years of Candy’s life as he moves up the ranks in the military, with stations throughout the globe. He meets a nurse during World War I that looks strikingly like Edith Hunter (also played by Deborah Kerr) and marries her. Candy also reconnects with Theo now and again; things get tense when Theo is sent to a POW camp in Yorkshire during World War I, but their old friendship and Candy’s sense of fair play soon smooths things over. The old friends meet up again towards the end, when Candy is starting to realize that this devotion to “fair play” is sadly out of step with the modern world.
This was the point at which things really picked up for me. The film is trying to do two things at once – it’s trying to convince its British audience that the typical reactionary “Colonel Blimp” way of thinking is outdated, while at the same time humanizing a buffoonish character and making him more sympathetic. However, I’m someone who was already on board with the progressive approach and wouldn’t have recognized the Colonel Blimp character even if he bit me in the butt. So for me this was a tale of a nondescript career soldier bumbling along and reacting to the events of the early 20th Century, wholly unprepared for the scale of aggression the Third Reich was foisting upon the world.
Theo was the character that caught more of my attention, particularly in the third act. By 1939 he’s emigrated to London, and there are a couple scenes where he is urgently trying to convince Candy that the genteel sportsmanlike way of warfare is not going to work this time; some threats are too great to risk not getting your hands dirty, and Naziism is one such threat. Theo also gets one of the best speeches in the entire film – a three-minute monologue where he is in an immigration center, explaining to an immigration officer exactly why he wanted to leave Germany and come to the UK. He sums up for us all exactly what’s been happening to Theo while we’ve been watching Candy bumble along, and lays out for us exactly why he knows how grave a threat Hitler is and what is at stake. The reactionary Blimps and Candys have had it easy; he’s lost everything, and wants some measure of peace at long last. It’s a devastating scene.
Despite my distance from the Blimp backstory, I did come around to a place of sympathy for Candy by the film’s end. But I still wonder what a film with Theo as the main character would have been like.