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Movies, Reviews

Tuesday’s Overlooked Films: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

06.21.11 | 4 Comments

The other day, sportwriter Joe Posnanski was blogging on LeBron James, and how when we root against him, we’re really rooting against a character we see on TV, not against a real person. To make his point, he brings up a (very) minor character from the movie Casablanca. In the film he’s a figure of fun, a self-important ass to be humiliated. But what do we know of his real life?

I thought that would make an interesting story, the unexpected life of someone who to exist in order to be mocked. Then I realized it’s already been done, in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.

The film begins in 1945. Preparations for the invasion are well underway. A young officer decides to prove a point by launching a training exercise – and “attack” on London – a day earlier than scheduled. When he captures the Home Guard general staff relaxing in a Turkish bath he’s berated by a pompous old officer, whose outdated ideas about “honor” and “chivalry” he dismisses out of hand.

We then flash back forty years, to 1902, when the pompous old officer was himself a dashing young lieutenant named Clive Candy. Hero of the Boer War, winner of the Victoria Cross, now returned to England. He doesn’t stay long, instead heading to Germany, where he manages to insult the army, with the result that he’s forced to fight a duel. Candy’s doesn’t care much for duelling, and his opponent – chosen by lot – also thinks it barbaric, but it’s a matter of honor, so they fight.

As they recover from their wounds they become fast friends. The German, Theo, falls in love with Candy’s friend Edith Hunter, and fears they must duel again for her hand, but Candy is delighted that his two great friends shall be together. Only later does he realize his own feeling for Edith.

Years pass, and Candy remains idealistic and a bit naive. By 1918 he’s clearly an anachronism, the old man who doesn’t understand the new rules of war. His old friend Theo, freed from a prisoner-of-war camp, can’t bring himself to believe that Candy and the British really are the well-meaning souls they claim to be, and they part on sad terms.

By the start of the second World War he’s not just out of date but potentially embarrasing, yet he’s never lost his sense of dignity. When Theo arrives in England, a refugee now, Candy intervenes to keep him from being interned. When Candy’s regular radio address is cancelled he berates the government functionary who gives him the word before falling silent, then saying, “Sir, my deepest apologies. I know it isn’t you.”

A summary of the plot can’t do this wonderful film justice. Clive Candy is a gentleman of the old school, who prefer to fight fair and lose. Everyone tells him that he’s wrong, that this is a new kind of war, but he never wavers, he never changes, and in the end his side fights fair, and wins.

ADDED: It occurs to me that I think of this film in the same way as Goodbye, Mr. Chips, another film that follows a man through his entire adult life, and I think part of the appeal of these movies to me is that we all want our lives to add up to something. When we’re old and know that there are few days ahead, we’d all like to look back and say, “Yes, I did some good. I changed the world, if only a bit.” I know that sort of thing certainly plays to my own romantic nature.

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