So... "Forty Years Ago..." as the Colonel in 1940 says first to an "impudent" officer who tells Blimp that the war starts right here and now - when of course Blimp declares that "War starts at MIDNIGHT!" - and then as Powell and Pressburger's camera moves along the water at this bath-house we hear the words repeated in a dreamy voice-over.
And suddenly, the man, Wynn Candy (Roger Livesly), appears forty years younger, sans walrus mustache and slimmer, and the film "begins" as it were. But really, it's the story of how a man goes through a whole life, faces changes (or tries to avoid them if possible), and about a particular time and place - old Europe at the turn of the 20th century - and the changes that come from two world wars. It's easy to call the film and its production ambitious, but what is most pleasantly surprising is how sheerlessly entertaining the whole thing is, and how it goes by at 163 minutes without feeling the least bit that long.
The story of Wynn Candy - called 'Colonel Blimp' not once I could really see in the film, though is loosely based on a comic strip by David Low - starts in 1902, with Candy's occupation as a professional soldier, a man of the military (the kind that, as is told by his superiors, is to never trust a politician), and his story goes mostly through the forty years in three parts: this portion, wherein Candy goes to Berlin to seek out a potential German spy, only to affront a German officer the wrong way and get himself in a Gentlemanly duel with another German, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (played by great Anton Wolbrook); in World War I, he is an officer and while we never see him on a battlefield (this is one of Powell/Pressburger's wonderful narrative tricks I'll get to in a moment), he is very much fighting this war, and runs into his old friend Theo and meets his wife, Barbara, who looks oddly like Edith, a woman he fell in love with only after she got married to Theo (though, as an old-time British gentleman, kept his feelings to himself); and World War II, as the now Major Colonel Candy gives speeches about the the Home-Front army, and has to realize how times, warfare, Nazis, have changed the Rules of the Game, so to speak.
Each section is meaty in terms of story, though what is so fascinating on the filmmaking duo's approach is that we get some of the big moments for Candy and the other characters - being accosted in the restaurant where he later is made to have the duel, giving orders in war-time, speaking to his superiors on some urgent matters, and Theo's drama in arriving from a Nazy-occupied Germany in the 30's - but not all of them.
While it would be too spoiler-like to give some things away that, ironically, are not shown, it's the kind of scenes or moments another filmmaker would do just because it seems dramatically resonant. But Powell and Pressburger are more interested in behavior, how the British military folks like Candy and other officers, or Theo, or the women in Candy's life (all the roles the 20 year-old Deborah Kerr plays, an ingenious bit of casting where every character does and doesn't feel like the others, hence the appeal to the protagonist), and in a sly satire of protocol and build-up.
The most memorable sequence in the film, to be sure, nails this most certainly (and as a bit of trivia, was what inspired a key scene in Scorsese's own Raging Bull): When Candy and Theo have to make their duel, they are in the room with other officers, there's the waiting for Theo to arrive, he does, then we see how painstaking it is to get the instructions for a duel (rip the sleeve of a shirt or no?) and then finally, as the duel starts between who we are led to believe are physically powerful men with these fencing swords, the camera rises up above them in a glorious over-head shot that lasts about five to ten seconds... and then it dissolves to the wintry night sky outside the building, as Allan Gray's music swells, and it settles back into a carriage where Edith is waiting outside to find out what has happened.
This would be unconventional filmmaking for today - for 1943, I have to think this would be almost unprecedented were it not for the creative freedom given to Powell/Pressburger at the time by the Archers, the production company that famously put out their films (i.e. Red Shoes, Black Narcissus). It's a way of still making this film an 'epic', but it's how it doesn't feel too long: we're always unsure what will come next, whether it's not seeing a particular character's death (media itself, newspapers and typing out details of things for military use on typewriters, become the communication of this information), or Candy going out on African hunts. This set-piece alone, a montage of animal heads shotgunned on to the wall of Candy's den, would make the film memorable on its own. Yet it's just another piece of what makes the film so remarkable and exciting.
The other major thing which must not go overlooked after how the filmmakers deal with the themes - the passage of time, the old chivalrous ways of military men (the kind seen in Jean Renoir's great Grand Illusion, which this feels like the British cousin), how does one live a respectable life and keep humanity - is the acting. Good Lord is Livesly, a rival to Laurence Olivier, who incidentally had to turn down the role due to wartime commitments, very good in this role. Every time period he plays convincingly, and beneath the grand British courtesy one might expect in such a time period, Candy is essentially a good person and kind and generous and it makes the audience like him more seeing him be so genuine.
Livesly carries this with subtlety in some scenes, and finds the humor that the filmmakers are after; this isn't vicious satire, but more gentle yet knowing of how humorous serious situations can get, like when Candy is first interrupted (his entrance in the film) at the bath-house, and is completely indignant. Here we could get all we need to know about a character, but there's more, lots more. Add on to that a sensitive performance from Kerr (also with some room for her to play indignant, a real early feminist character(s) in a British film), and Walbrook (watch for a monologue he gives about Nazism, maybe there are two actually), and you got a top-shelf cast.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is a VERY British film - even if you're American you may feel the need to have some tea during the run-time - but it holds up so extraordinarily because it understands the goodness in people, and finds an interesting path to showing the passages of time, in a person and the society around them and how they must co-exist or die off in despair (or try and cope I guess). It's smart, innovative filmmaking, and the only shame is the beating it took on its original release - Winston Churchill reportedly hated the film, thinking it was a caricature of him when really it was likely a more loving if skewering portrayal of his type - and how long it took to getting properly restored.