This week, I had some extra time, since I was off for Thanksgiving, and I decided to cover some much longer movies than I usually do. This week’s movies are:
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger – The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
Marcel Carne – The Children of Paradise (1945)
I’d seen The Children of Paradise before, and it was an incredible experience. And I’ve had The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp on my shelf for years, and never managed to give it a view. But that’s all changing this week.
Let’s get into it.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
This film follows the story of Clive Candy, a career soldier, as he lives through the various British wars of the 20th century. The film covers 40 years and we see how the wars and society change as Candy moves through the world, trying to find his place.
The film is written and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, some of the most famous British directors of all time. I’ve seen a few of their other films, including The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, and Peeping Tom. The two are legendary, and their films have a certain style that is unmistakable. Their films are warm, but realistic, and sometimes even dark. I’m no expert on them, so I can’t say they were always credited together, but the films they worked on together are some of the greatest of all time.
The film stars Roger Livesay as Clive Candy, and Deborah Kerr as several women that Candy met and interacted with throughout his life, Edith, a young love, Barbara, his wife, and ‘Johnny’, his aide as an old military man. Livesay plays Candy through the entire film, from young to old, and the makeup they use on him is pretty impressive. We see the old version of Candy in the first scene, and then flashback to him as a young man. I was certain it must be different actors portraying the same character, but in fact it was Livesay all along.
The film starts in a strange place. We’re tossed into preparations of a war game on British soil, put on by the Home Guard. I’m sure everyone in Britain knew exactly what this was, but for me, it took a few minutes to understand it’s essentially an army designed to repel the Germans if they crossed the English Channel and invaded. The war is planned to start at midnight. But a young Lieutenant decides that the enemy wouldn’t give advance notice of a starting time, and decides to start early to shake things up. He and some troops travel to the location of General Wynne-Candy and capture him at 6pm. Candy is furious and attacks the young soldier, telling him he doesn’t know what it was like 40 years ago.
This leads us to the flashback which takes us back to 1902. There’s a fascinating camera move here. Both scenes take place in the same Turkish Bath, where the general is resting. When the general attacks, he tosses the lieutenant into the water, then follows him in. The camera goes over the water, through a curtain into the next room, where we’re now 40 years in the past, and a young Candy comes out of a small changing room.
We get more clues that were in the past, based on the topics of conversation and the uniforms the men are wearing, which I’m certain a British viewer would have picked up on immediately, but I’m not familiar with British military uniforms from the turn of the 20th century. But I caught up quickly.
The film moves along here, where Candy gets a letter from a friend, mentioning a spy spreading anti-British propaganda in Germany, turning the people against the British. Candy knows the spy from his time in South America, and believes he can expose the spy as a fraud and asks permission to go to Germany to find him. He is refused, but he decides to use his 4 week leave from the army to go anyway. There he meets Edith, the person who wrote the letter, who is the sister of a friends governess. She is a governess herself who moved to Germany thinking that her ability to speak English would be in higher demand.
This film is close to three hours long, and covers a huge swath of time. I’m describing the above scenes quickly, but they cover more than 30 minutes of screen time. In a film this long, scenes get a chance to breathe, we get details we’d otherwise never get. We get a long scene with Candy and Edith at dinner, waiting for the spy to show up, and a bit of a farce where Candy bribes the band to play a song he knows the spy hates to see how he reacts.
Candy gets the reaction he wants, but unfortunately the Germans love the spy, and are insulted at Candy’s treatment of him. They demand a duel, a common practice in the German army at the time. The British army wants nothing to do with it, but agree to set it up to avoid a larger incident.
Here we meet Theo, the German officer chosen for the duel. They both injure each other badly and end up spending weeks in the same hospital. Edith is there, helping the army keep up the fiction that the duel was over her. While recovering the men begin talking to each other, forming a significant friendship. At the end of their stay, Theo admits he is in love with Edith, and she with him. Candy is thrilled for them.
This is the section of the film where we learn what it’s really about: the humanizing of war. Wars are started by nations, but fought by people. People who aren’t necessarily evil, but believe that they owe their country a debt. The divide between their two countries can’t keep them from seeing each other as people. They’re both professional soldiers. Neither of them question their role in the wars they must fight, or that they must duel as representatives of their countries, but they also never question that underneath their role as soldiers, they’re good people that deserve respect. In their off hours, they are friends.
That’s the message of the movie. It is profoundly pro-soldier, but deeply anti-war. A tough needle to thread, but the film does it. When we reach World War 1, we see Candy traveling around a decimated region of countryside, just trying to find some dinner. But when he comes across some German prisoners, he immediately asks about his old friend Theo. Even in a war zone, he is still concerned with the safety of his friend, even though his decisions in the war might lead to the death of Theo.
Soon after the war ends, and Candy credits the fact that the British fought fairly and honorably. The Germans used poison gas, and other underhanded methods, but the British used conventional methods and still won. To his mind, this is total validation of his worldview, that soldiers are honorable, and that there is a right way to win a war. In the first scene of the film, when they young lieutenant starts the war early, he claims it’s fair game because the enemy doesn’t play by the rules, and if they want to survive, they have to adapt to what the enemy is doing. But Candy rejects this entirely. We see the genesis of that idea in this scene, where he tells his aide Murdoch that by winning the right way, they have proven to the world that there is a right and a wrong, and that right will always win out. This is a secondary theme of the film. Candy refusing to change his ways, while everyone around him sees how the rules are changing.
After the war, Candy is married to Barbara, another woman played by Deborah Kerr, a fact that doesn’t escape his notice. He knows know that he was in love with Edith when he was younger, and has found a woman who he can love like he loved her. We see very little of their relationship, but what we see is lovely.
We also see the reunion of Theo and Candy. Theo has been a prisoner of war in Britain, and while he refuses to see Candy while surrounded by his fellow German officers, he calls to apologize and is invited to a dinner the night before Candy’s wedding. The dinner is filled with British officers and higher ups, and it feels very uncomfortable for Theo. All of the officers are kind to him, and Candy in particular assures Theo that the British will help the Germans rebuild.
But on the train back to Germany, Theo tells his officer friends that the British don’t understand what they’re going through, and that the war isn’t over.
The film covers three time periods, two of which we’ve discussed. But to transition between these, the film has an interesting montage style. We don’t see adventures or things happening in between, what we see are animal heads appearing on the walls, with dates underneath them. This gives us a clear passage of time and Candy’s travels in a quick shorthand. The film could have delved into this, but chose to focus on different aspects of their main characters life. We also see press clippings informing us of various events, including the death of Barbara off screen. After this we notice that Clive is always referred to as Clive Wynne-Candy, and indication that Clive has changed his name to honor his wife.
Finally we land in 1942. The midst of World War 2. Here we’re treated to the most stunning scene in the film. Theo has arrived in England as a refugee from Germany. We see him sit with the immigration officer, asking him questions about his life and status. He speaks of his family, of Edith, who has died, and their two sons, who are both ‘good nazis’ now. It’s heartbreaking. His country and his family was stolen from him by evil forces, and we can see he has no home left, not really. The immigration officer asks him if he knows anyone in Britain who can vouch for him. He sadly says that he wrote to his old friend Clive, and hoped he might come, but perhaps it’s been too long. But just as we can feel him giving up, the door opens and Clive enters, as dedicated to Theo as ever. It’s an emotional scene for both the characters and the audience.
For Candy though, he doesn’t really fit in with the army he’s dedicated his life to. He’s retired unceremoniously. Theo now lives in England and his is regular companion, along with Johnny, Candy’s female driver, again played by Deborah Kerr, although thankfully there is no romantic subplot with her. Theo acts as the conscience of the film, giving an excellent speech that perhaps finally gets through to Clive.
Clive Candy: I heard all that in the last war! They fought foul then – and who won it?
Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff: I don’t think you won it. We lost it -but you lost something, too. You forgot to learn the moral. Because victory was yours, you failed to learn your lesson twenty years ago and now you have to pay the school fees again. Some of you will learn quicker than the others, some of you will never learn it – because you’ve been educated to be a gentleman and a sportsman, in peace and in war. But Clive! Dear old Clive – this is not a gentleman’s war. This time you’re fighting for your very existence against the most devilish idea ever created by a human brain – Nazism. And if you lose, there won’t be a return match next year… perhaps not even for a hundred years.
That line “This is not a gentleman’s war,” is devastating. It completely turns Clive’s worldview on it’s head. Sure, if everyone agrees in advance to how the war will be fought, then everyone can be honorable. But if only one side agrees, they will inevitably be exploited.
Clive joins the Home Guard as a general, and builds it from the ground up, into a strong force. Which takes us back to the beginning of the film. After the training exercise is ruined, Clive rants and raves, but eventually decides that he will invite the young soldier to dinner, to talk it over. He says he wishes he had taken that kind of opportunity when he was younger.
The film ends with him remembering his wife, and something she said to him earlier in the film. It’s another powerful moment in a film full of powerful moments, but I’ll let you experience it yourself.
This film blew me away. It’s a 160 minute movie, but it really feels like it flies by. Interestingly, the structure of the film plays like separate films. The story of a young British officer going to Germany to stop a spy lying about his experience, being forced into a duel, becoming friends with his dueling opponent, and then losing the woman he loves to him and having to pretend he’s happy would make a great movie all on it’s own. But this film isn’t really about Clive Candy. It’s about Britain, and how they stand up to Nazism.
It’s particularly apropos to watch it at this moment in American history, where bizarrely, we’re having to stand up to Nazism again. How will we do it? And what happens if we don’t?
The Children of Paradise (1945)
This film follows a group of struggling theater performers in France in the 19th century. Garance is in peep shows, sitting naked in a tank of water while men watch her. Frederick is a frustrated theater actor, who can’t catch a break. Baptiste is a young mime, who’s father keeps him from performing because he believes he’s not ready yet. Both men fall in love with Garance, along with two other men, a thief named Pierre-Francois, and an aristocrat, the Count. Their lives revolve around how Garance affects them as they see their careers expand over time.
The film is directed by Marcel Carne, a French director. I’ve never seen any of his other films unfortunately, but it seems like this is the film he’s known for. The film is also filled with wonderful French actors who probably aren’t very familiar to American audiences. They weren’t familiar to me, at any rate. Regardless, the acting is excellent. Garance is aloof and detached, Frederick is pompous and brash, Baptiste is shy and sensitive. In addition, the actual performances they give on stage are impressive as well.
Baptiste is a mime, which is a performance art that in today’s day and age is largely a joke. But watching Baptiste perform is utterly stunning. It might sound crazy to say this, but if you’re of the opinion that miming is ridiculous, you’ve just never seen good mime work. In a lot of films that portray someone who is amazing at their job, it just doesn’t work. The actor they have just can’t be as amazing as the character, and it falls flat. But in this film Jean-Louis Barrault, who plays Baptiste elevates the performance so that his skill is completely unmistakable.
If you don’t know what mime is by some chance, it is a type of acting wherein the actor doesn’t speak, but portrays the scene entirely through their movements. If you’ve watched a lot of sketch comedy, you probably recognize some of the joke versions of the act, like a man trapped in a box, or walking against the wind.
We see his skill from the first scene he is in. On the main street for theaters, Baptiste’s father Anselme does a little mini performance to draw in the crowds. Baptiste sits to the side of the stage in costume, but his father has deemed him not worthy to perform. Garance has already been introduced as a nude model, and Frederick as a struggling actor looking for a job. We’ve also met Pierre-Francois as a scoundrel who works as a scribe when he isn’t robbing people.
Garance stands watching the show while Pierre-Francois, unbeknownst to her, is picking the pocket of the man next to her. He gets the watch and slinks away. When the man realizes his watch is gone, he blames Garance. A police officer is nearby and asks for witnesses. Baptiste immediately speaks up from the stage, and then recreates the entire scene in pantomime. This convinces the officer, and Garance is freed. But they don’t meet in this instance.
Frederick’s story follows him going around town, trying to get into a theater to talk to a manager about a job, without much success. He meets Garance on the street and flirts with her shamelessly, before she goes off to meet Pierre-Francois. Frederick finally manages to get into the Funambles, where Baptiste works. The backstage is chaos, with actors ready for every type of performance. A pantomime play is currently going on, when one of the actors hits another a bit too hard, and a brawl begins on stage. This results in one of the actors quitting, and taking half of the troupe with them. Frederick sees his opportunity, and Baptiste steps up as well. The one chance is all they needed, as they quickly become regulars on the stage.
The two men become quick friends, and celebrate their success with drinks. Baptiste even helps Frederick get a room at the boarding house he lives at. Frederick wastes no time flirting with the landlady, while Baptiste goes out. Baptiste encounters Garance that evening, and he walks her home, learning that she doesn’t have a home since she quit her peep show job earlier. He of course offers to get her a room at his boarding house, and offering to get her a job at his theater.
He goes with her to his room, but he wants to be in love with her, not just have an affair. Garance is complicated, not being as forward as Baptiste, but not refusing him. Baptiste just doesn’t know how to respond, and tells her he’ll see her tomorrow. But as she looks out the window, she sees Frederick in the next room over. Frederick immediately begins flirting, even though it’s heavily implied he has just slept with the landlady. Again, Garance doesn’t offer herself, but just accepts Frederick’s advances. He comes over, and it seems Baptiste has lost his chance.
As time continues, we see Baptiste, Garance, and Frederick become a force on stage. Garance is more of a model, and Frederick is not a pantomime actor, but it’s staged so that Baptiste can shine. During one of these performances, Baptiste sees Garance and Frederick flirting backstage, and loses the thread of the performance. It appears he was the last to know.
Complicating things further, another performer, Nathalie is in love with Baptiste. This all comes to a head in a scene backstage where several things happen. First, Garance is approached by a count who likes her. He brings her a massive bouquet of flowers. He offers to take her away from the theater to live in comfort with him. She refuses. Then Baptiste comes in once he leaves. He tells her that the night he met her might as well have been his funeral. He loses control, destroying the flowers, telling her that he hates everyone, especially Frederick, and especially himself. Garance tells him that she might love him, but Nathalie enters, ready to fight for Baptiste. She tells Garance that she loves Baptiste so much that there’s no room for anyone else to love him.
All of this is left up in the air as Garance goes home. Unfortunately, Pierre-Francois has been cooking up another plan. This time, he has attacked a bank messenger, hoping to rob him. He has setup his plan next door to the building Garance lives in, and the landlady remembered that Garance recognized him. When his plan goes sour, Garance is questioned by the police, who are all too happy to arrest her as a co-conspirator.
Garance does the only thing she can think to do, she gives the police the card of the Count she met earlier, and takes him up on his offer of protection. This ends the first part of the film.
When we rejoin the group, several years have passed, and everyone is in a very different place. Frederick is opening his own show as the star, and Baptiste sells out the Funambles every night. Garance hasn’t been heard from since she accepted the Count’s offer, and Pierre-Francois has spent some time in jail. The second half of the film follows each character individually before bringing them all back together.
We start with Frederick, who carouses his way through his performance, essentially sabotaging it to humiliate the writers of the play, who challenge him to a duel. Baptiste is now married to Nathalie, and they have a small son named Baptiste. Pierre-Francois is picking fights all over town, starting with Frederick, who invites him to be the second for his duel and continuing to the Count, who challenges him to a duel, but is denied.
Since Frederick is fired from his play, he goes to see Baptiste. While he doesn’t have a ticket, there is a society woman who sees every performance from a private box. We as the audience of course know that it must be Garance, and of course it is.
Here is where things begin to fall apart. Garance does something very selfish, and asks Frederick to tell Baptiste she is there and she would like to see him. But Nathalie is several steps ahead. She hears that Garance is the mystery woman, and sends her little son to tell Garance that his mommy and daddy are happy together.
Garance leaves, but when Baptiste hears that she is there, his obsession kicks in, and he leaves the stage in the middle of a performance. He falls into a deep funk, getting a room at his old boarding house and canceling performances. Nathalie is sure he will come back to her once he has calmed down.
There are two at fault here, of course. Baptiste for dropping everything to pursue Garance, even though he has chosen Nathalie, and Garance for inserting herself back into Baptiste’s life. The question for the audience becomes will he be able to resist Garance, and return to his family, or will he chase her to his detriment. I think I’ve written enough on this one, so let’s move on.
This is a complex film, with lots of characters that all have important storylines. But at it’s heart, it’s about Garance and Baptiste, his love for her, her response, the things keeping them apart, and the big question: should they even be together at all?
Baptiste is portrayed as incredibly talented, but naive about love. He seems to believe in fairy tale love. But Garance is a survivor. She’s a cold person. She wants love too, but it’s almost as if she doesn’t trust it. It doesn’t seem real to her. Baptiste says he loves her, but when she gets a better offer, she takes it, even though she might love him. And when she appears to be in legal trouble, her first thought is to essentially sell herself to a powerful man in exchange for his protection.
In some ways, Frederick and Garance are perfect for each other. When she disappears for years and he sees her again, there is no scorn or anger. He’s happy to see her, and they talk about old times. He sees love as a game. He lost the game with Garance, but he’s won many rounds since then.
The movie is heartbreaking in a lot of ways. But spectacular as well.
The Double Feature
I thought these two movies were excellent. But I think I would reverse their order if I was doing it again. Colonel Blimp is a film that’s quite uplifting by the end, while Children of Paradise is a bit darker. I think I’d prefer to have the more uplifting film at the end of that sequence.
It’s interesting to me when films have totally different plot lines and characters, but still feel like they fit together. These two did that. One is a character study of a soldier, and the other is a love story between a woman and the many men that love her. I suppose you could make the argument that Candy is in love with the military, but I don’t think it’s an important distinction here.
I normally watch films back to back, with just a short break between, but since these were so long, I watched them on back to back days. I think I prefer the other way, but I might give myself permission to do it this way a bit more often.
The semester is almost over. Two weeks left. Three if you count finals week, which I probably will. I’m presenting my quals in January. My goal is to have the document completely done before Christmas break. That way I can just take the entire Christmas break for myself. Not sure if that will happen. But three weeks of heads down work should wrap that up. That will be another checkmark off the list of things to do. But if I have to work over Christmas break, it probably won’t be a significant amount of work. That will be nice. Just need to stay focused.
So next week’s films. For the 40th post, I’m going to go back to animation. Last time I did a couple of seminal animated films, but this time, I’m doing some films that have just come out recently. Next week’s films are:
Travis Knight – Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)
Ron Clements and John Musker – Moana (2016)
I have yet to see either film, so it should be a good time. See you then.