Sunday, 29 January 2012

How We See Ourselves

I was going to write about Hampton Gay today, but the Oxfordshire mists have descended and made photography impossible - and it really needs photographs.  So, instead, it's film matinee time.

I wrote last year about Powell and Pressburger's lyrical hymn to England, A Canterbury Tale.  Although I think overall ACT edges it as a film, Englishness was a theme they returned to in colour in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.

Starring P&P regular Roger Livesey in the title role, the film conducts a microscopic dissection of what it means to be English in the age of total war; by following the life of Clive Candy from dashing war hero just back from South Africa, through the Kaiser's Berlin and the Western Front to the period after Dunkirk when, as a general, his carefully planned military exercise is finished before it has properly begun by the actions of a young army officer who refuses to play by his rules.

Candy is everything that the British capacity for self-mythmaking would have the ideal army officer be - chivalrous, brave, kind to defenceless women, honourable.  P&P's point in the film is that ultimately this is not enought to beat forces driven by evil ideology - a theme returned to slightly less successfully in Brownlow and Mollo's "It Happened Here" ("the terrible thing about fascism is that you have to use fascist methods to defeat it.")

The portrayal of Blimp is sympathetic, but underscored with the thesis that his time has passed and that a new approach is required to secure Britain's safety.  This was not an opinion that went down well with Churchill, who tired to have the film banned as unpatriotic, but it is one that they advance very powerfully. The core argument is essentially that much of what Britain/England values about itself will have to be sacrificed to ensure that any of it survives at all.  In one of the most poignant scenes, when Candy realises that his frontline military career is over, it is explained to him by his friends that this is a new kind of war, it's not a rugby match, and there will be no peace with honour for the loser - just a descent into darkness.  Therefore, given that losing is not an option, you can't choose how you want to fight.

Although these days P&P are rightly lauded for their cinematography and direction, one of their bravest strokes in this film is the writing of a sympathetic German character as second lead, played brilliantly by Anton Walbrook.  That even in the depths of the Second World War they were able to put a German army officer centre stage says a great deal for both their readiness to take risks, and their absolute humanity. 

This is a film that will make your hair stand up on the back of your neck on several occasions, but never more so than when Walbrook's character, making his case for political asylum in a 1939 London police station, relates the story of how his children became Nazis, and howm therefore, with the death of his English wife, his life has essentially come to an end.

The female lead is Deborah Kerr, who plays no fewer than three parts spanning 45 years - Theo's wife, Candy's wife, and Candy's ATS driver.  She carries a lot of the weight of the film and makes it look effortless. 

Of course, being Powell and Pressburger, there has to be at least one scene of jawdropping technical achievement, but this one provides two.  The real film technicians get very excited about the duelling scene (again, typical of P&P, you never actually see the duel) where the camera pans down over a snowy Berlin and in through the gymnasium skylight in a single take, but that's not the high point.

For something utterly dislocating the film takes the viewer into a First World War POW camp.  But one in England, full of German officers.  Candy goes to visit his German friend and finds the officers sitting by the side of lake listening to a concert.  During the interval he picks his way through the prisoners and catches sight of his old friend just as the music starts up again.  Walbrook looks straight through him before turning away, kicking off a beautiful shot of groups of Germans turning in differenct directions to face the music to the opening bars of Fingal's Cave.  It's powerful, magical, heartbreaking, and utterly captivating.

The film was mauled by unsympathetic postwar editing, but is generally now shown essentially as Michael Powell intended.  It's long, but there are fewer more genuinely pleasurable ways to spend a Sunday afternoon than to watch it.  As a portrayal of friendship it's unmatched, as an examination of national values, and whether these should be set in stone, or adapted to changing realities, it stands alone.

No comments:

Post a Comment