Criterion // 1943 // 163 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // March 19th, 2013
"An incomparable film about war, love, aging, and obsolescenes."
It's fun sometimes to imagine what a premiere audience must have thought of famous movies. Were there gasps when the black-and-white scenes of bleak Kansas gave way to color in The Wizard of Oz? Did Citizen Kane seem as momentous as current polls would have us believe? What about Vertigo? Did audiences realize they were getting perhaps the Hitchcock masterpiece? We can imagine, but it's always a leap, and it's not always positive. Released in 1943, at the depths of World War II when the Blitz was on and Germany seemed unstoppable, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp must have seemed an odd film. Made by the famous duo of Powell and Pressburger who to that point had only found fame making propaganda films (The 49th Parallel), the film confounds expectations to this day. It's a war comedy, a love story with three beautiful women all played by the same actress, and it's a film that seems to be about the futility of war even as it realizes the necessity of fighting for some values. It is also, of course, considered by many to be the greatest masterpiece of British cinema. The folks at Criterion have already taken a shot at releasing the film on DVD, but with a new The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Blu-ray) double-dip, they give fans a reason to upgrade with improved audiovisual material and some new extras.
The Life and Death of Colonel blimp is an epic, and that's like saying The Odyssey is about trying to get home. Giving any simple summary of Blimp does it a grave disservice. What I can say is that the film focuses on Clive Candy (Roger Livesey, The Pallisers) the eponymous "Blimp" and the film follows him through flashbacks from the Boer War through World War II, introducing us to the three loves of his life (all played by Deborah Kerr, Black Narcissus) and his Prussian friend Theo (Anton Walbrook, Gaslight).
In terms of all-out wars, Britain's empire building was surprisingly bloodless (though I don't want to discount the violence done to native peoples all over the world), and at various points in its history the British military was seen as aristocratically hide-bound and un-modern (if not anti-modern). Thus emerged the cartoon figure of Colonel Blimp, a bloated, ineffectual figure intended to point out the flaws in Britain's military hierarchy. It is this figure that Powell and Pressburger chose to center their film around, if in title only.
This might lead viewers to think that The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp will be a satiric sendup of the British military establishment. That would be a weird thing to do at the height of the Blitz. Instead, using some satiric elements, Blimp instead tries to catalog the changing of the world between the turn of the century and World War II. Given the absurdity of many of the events in those forty or so years, a comic eye is absolutely necessary. However, the film is also an exploration of war (since there are three major ones in the narrative) and the burdens it places on society.
Ultimately, though, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is an impossible film to review, as it defies standard categories and is a film in a class by itself. That phrase gets thrown around a lot, but in the case of Blimp, it's accurate: there is no film quite like it and a review that did it justice would be the size of Don Quixote. Whether you love it or hate it, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is the kind of film that pushes the boundaries on what moving pictures can show us, and is therefore worth watching for anyone with a dedication to cinema.
The film has undergone a pretty massive restoration since the release of the first Criterion DVD, and that's perfectly evident on this 1.37:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer. Print damage has largely been done away with, and the innovative colors that the Archers were known for are intact. The level of detail is astonishing, keeping grain appropriately rendered and filmlike. Overall this transfer is a triumph and, other than seeing a restored print in an art house, this is as good as the film is going to look for a long, long time. It's easily worth the upgrade. The audio restoration is nearly as complete on this LPCM 1.0 mono track. Dialogue is clean, clear, and well-balanced, with no hint of hiss or distortion.
The extras from the previous Criterion release are carried over. We start with a commentary featuring Powell and Scorsese (sadly recorded separately) that covers a lot of the film's production and reception in a very warm, personal way. There's also a 24-minute featurette on the film, and a set of stills (including original "Blimp" cartoons). New for this edition are a 14-minute intro by Scorsese detailing his love for the film, a 30-minute interview with Powell's widow, Thelma Schoonmaker-Powell, and a short restoration demonstration. The usual Criterion booklet includes a lovely essay by critic Molly Haskell.
My favorite Archers film will probably always be The Red Shoes, and I don't care how many times I hear that The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is the greatest British film of all time. Great or not, it demands a certain patience to get through its 163-minute running time, and viewers unaccustomed to non-genre fare might have difficulty with the way this film switches from comedy to tragedy to satire and back again.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is an amazing example of British filmmaking and one of the world's cinematic treasures. Unsurprisingly, the folks at Criterion have treated it as such and given fans a reason to double dip with the Blu-ray release. They've taken the restored print and given it a lovely transfer. That would have been enough to warrant an upgrade, but they've also doubled down on their already excellent supplements to add some new material as well. The film is a masterpiece and worth tracking down for any fan of cinema.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 163 Minutes
Release Year: 1943
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Image Gallery