The Academy unveiled its breathtaking restoration of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s epic masterpiece “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” on June 27. Seven-time Oscar nominated editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who was married to Powell from 1984 until his death in 1990, gave an eloquent introduction on the making of the film and its profound influence on her longtime filmmaking partner Martin Scorsese.
The reputation of “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” precedes it. In her introduction, Schoonmaker noted that film critic Andrew Sarris preferred the prospect of repeatedly watching “Colonel Blimp” over “Citizen Kane,” and that “many consider this film to be the English ‘Citizen Kane.'” She added that Michael Powell would introduce the film to an audience by saying, “Oh, you lucky people.”
The film follows General Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey) from his hard-headed, cocky younger days as a soldier immediately following the Boers War through the dark hours of World War II, where he serves as an aging homefront general in bombed-out London. Candy’s tragedy is that he agreeably loses the woman he loves (Deborah Kerr) to his unlikely best friend (Anton Walbrook), a German soldier. These are the two people who mean the most to him, and they appear and reappear — in various forms — throughout his life.
The wonderful Livesey plays Candy with humor, yearning and his signature rumbling register. He believably ages forty years throughout the course of the film. Schoonmaker noted that the British actor “is Michael’s alter-ego, just as John Wayne was for John Ford.”
Walbrook is incredible in the role of Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff, a twinkly-eyed, soft-voiced Viennese who must flee to England when the Nazis rise to power. Schoonmaker told the audience that the character is based on Pressburger, who co-wrote and co-produced the film.
“Emeric was classified as an enemy alien because he had fled from Germany… Throughout the war, while he and Michael Powell were making masterpiece after masterpiece — films that were supporting the war effort — [Emeric] was forced to report to the police once a week, obey a curfew, and unable sometimes to go on location where the unit was filming. The beautiful speech he wrote for Anton Walbrook when he is pleading to be allowed to stay in England in the film is very much based on Emeric’s life.”
Kerr is equally impressive, deftly juggling three roles and making each one distinct. In Kerr’s characters one can see the striking influence of “Colonel Blimp” on Hitchcock. When Theo gazes, riveted, at chauffeur Angela’s profile from the backseat of a car, the film seems to be pointing ahead to Jimmy Stewart’s astonished street sighting of brunette Kim Novak in “Vertigo.”
Schoonmaker rightly pointed out that, in the film, “what you don’t see is sometimes as important as what you see.” This is never more true than in the brilliant sequences where taxidermied animal heads pop into the frame, filling the barren walls of a room. We don’t see General Candy once during these sequences, but we know what he’s up to: He’s lonely, filling space in his life with hunting, traveling and wars. He’s also sexually frustrated.
Martin Scorsese was instrumental in reintroducing Powell and Pressburger’s films to American audiences, and in rehabilitating Powell from a destitute life. Scorsese had watched many of Powell and Pressburger’s films as a young budding cinephile, albeit in beat-up and recut prints. Their work had a profound influence on his own filmmaking, particularly “Raging Bull.”
“There is a wonderful sequence [in ‘Colonel Blimp’] where a duel is to be fought,” Schoonmaker said. “Scorsese was stunned: You don’t see the duel itself. You see the build-up to the duel, but not the duel. The camera pulls up through the rafters and out into an overhead shot of Berlin in the snow. When Marty had to shoot the championship fight in ‘Raging Bull,’ he decided he wanted to do the same thing. Marty said, ‘Just the get the fight over with, I’m not interested in it. What’s interesting is what led up to the fight.'”
“The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp,” completed in 2011 with the Academy Film Archive, is the second of two Powell and Pressburger restorations spearheaded by Scorsese’s Film Foundation. The first was “The Red Shoes” in 2009 with the UCLA Film & Television Archive.
The Academy’s archive team had their work cut out during the two-year restoration process of “Colonel Blimp.” First, the 163-minute film was grossly re-edited for its original international release and 35 minutes of scenes from the three-strip nitrate negative had been cut out. (Suffice to say Winston Churchill was none too happy about a 1943 UK film production depicting the British army in a complex light.)
Second, the surviving negative showed light to severe mold growth throughout. Using digital tools, the restoration team was able to correct the corrosive damage of the mold and return the film to its vivid Technicolor palette. They also successfully restored the running time to its original, gloriously epic 163 minutes.
The restoration is now preserved as film elements at the BFI National Archive in London. The screening was a resplendent DCP (digital cinema package) of the restored film.