Wednesday night’s screening of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) at the Academy’s Goldwyn Theater was a revelation not only because of the superb restoration with the Academy Film Archive but also because it reaffirmed its dramatic greatness. Andrew Sarris was right: it is the Citizen Kane of British films. The depth of emotion is unsurpassed in the Powell & Pressburger canon. The enduring friendship between Roger Livesey’s English soldier and Anton Walbrook’s German soldier is extraordinarily moving, and the recurring image of Deborah Kerr as Livesey’s romantic ideal is surreal. No wonder it was Pressburger’s personal favorite — the structural complexity is the stamp of a writer’s film and Walbrook’s character was fashioned after himself. And it was adored by Powell as well. While it doesn’t rise to the magical heights of A Matter of Life and Death (the director’s personal favorite), Powell was falling in love with Kerr while making it and knew how important its subject matter was: the outcome of World War II was still very much in doubt in 1943 yet the humanity on display transcends geographical boundaries and political disputes. Like all Powell & Pressburger films, it is uncommonly romantic.
On Thursday, I had the opportunity to chat about Colonel Blimp with Thelma Schoonmaker, the Oscar-winning editor and Powell’s widow. She marveled at the outpouring of affection for the film at the academy. We both marveled at the many highlights, including the early duel that introduces the eventual best friends. What a bold choice to not even show the duel (see below). When I remarked that the view of Berlin and the falling snow after the camera pulls out of the gymnasium reminded me of Hugo, she admitted that Scorsese requested the same snow effect. She reveres how surprise and subtlety are on display everywhere from the use of Technicolor to the way the story unfolds. Livesey’s makeup and his performance as an old war horse astound her; She says Kerr was never more ravishing and spunky. And Schoonmaker sees something new every time she revisits the film. But her favorite moment is Walbrook’s impassioned plea to seek refuge in England (see below), the home of his wife and a place of happier memories. It’s mine as well. The whole film glides by so quickly and effortlessly, thanks to editor Reginald Mills, and yet it’s so dense.