Disclaimer: Some time ago I promised my non-French-speaking friends (and myself) to try and translate my blog to English. I just found the time and courage to do so, knowing all too well that many subtleties, digressions and puns might get lost in translation - as fluent as my English can be, I'm not a native speaker and I don't pretend to be one. Just as I'm not a professional movie critic and don't pretend to be one.
Une version en français de ce post est disponible ici.
"War starts at midnight"
The movie opens on this absurd military order (indeed, who can possibly claim to start a conflict with such accuracy?) against a contrasting background of lively jazz music. Soon we understand that the "war" supposed to start at midnight is really a life-size military exercise that a handful of brazen young officers is going to derail by taking hostage the unsuspecting person in charge of the operations!
The first time we see colonel Clive Wynne-Candy (who has the booming voice and presence of Roger Livesey) is in the Turkish Baths. Everything about him evokes the seasoned trooper, the old fossil with an ample stomach and a possibly even wider chest for pinning his countless medals and decorations to, but with a comparatively narrow mind to all things different from "the good old days". In other words, here is a character that inspires more taunting than sympathy.
But as Wynne-Candy fights with one of the young officers we dive with him in the pool and re-emerge... forty years earlier, in 1902. The Clive Candy he is then is a celebrated hero freshly returned from the Boer Wars, for whom the world is (literally) his hunting ground. No doubt ever clouds his judgment, no re-assessment ever breaks his stride. In his opinion fair-play alone can make the enemy run for their lives and no victory can warrant the disgrace of breaking a single rule (especially when it comes to good manners). As we've just seen, the man is made of one piece and has not changed much in forty years: the same Victorian England certainties are as firmly set in his mind as his feet are on the ground (tea-time must be respected, and liquors should be savoured by the fireplace, a gentleman's worth can be measured through the number of hunting trophies on his walls, and defending one's honour is the only respectable cause).
Similarly, friendship can't be cut in slices for Clive Candy when he meets his match for idealism in Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook), although he is a Prussian officer and not an Englishman. This bond, formed while fighting each other in a duel, is going to outlast two World Wars during which their respective countries stand on opposite sides of the board. It will also overcome the disenchantment that is the fate of the defeated - conveyed through the heartbreaking monologue of the old Theo, seeking asylum in England while the only world he has ever known is being destroyed under the boots of the Third Reich. Backed into a corner by the twists and turns of History, the ageing Uhlan had to bend his noble principles to adjust to quickly evolving realities, whereas his victorious friend never had to.
The stubborn consistency of Candy and his way of being impervious to changes are possibly even more perceptible when considering his love affairs - or perhaps would it be more appropriate to say his only love affair with a woman he finds, then loses only to find her again? First she is Edith, a down-to-earth teacher and aspiring suffragette consumed with the desire to accomplish something greater than the domestic chores life has in store for someone in her modest condition. Unfortunately Edith falls for Theo...
Then World War One starts and draws the friends apart - but it also causes Candy to meet Barbara, enrolled as a nurse in the Red Cross. Barbara is the spitting image of Edith, he marries her but she dies a few years later.
By the time Theo flees to England Candy has hired Angela, who goes by the nickname of "Johnny", as his personal driver. And naturally Angela is another double of Edith - which causes quite a shock to Theo, Edith's widower. These three women are but the reflection of a single feeling that has remained unaltered through time; very appropriately all three are played by the wonderful Deborah Kerr.
As I write this summary I realize that it does not do justice to the romantic quality of the movie, nor to the emotions it triggers when it shows its main character struggling against the unavoidable withering of the things he believes in. He's terribly wrong about his times and the motivations of other people, he fails to follow the general movement, he's unaware of the possibility to compromise with reality. In a nutshell, he embodies the over-confident attitude of the contemporary England, and that is (in my opinion) the most likely origin of Churchill's annoyance after seeing this film. Indeed, Candy is narrow-minded and laughable and nevertheless, while we mock him we find him endearing because whatever mistakes he makes come from a true heart and the faith he keeps in his fellow man's honesty.
For those of you who are prejudiced against "old movies", I would like to add that the latest Blu-Ray restored editions of The life and death of Colonel Blimp (available in the UK from ITV Studios, in France from Carlotta and in the US from Criterion) are nothing short of breathtaking. I dare you to say that it looks like the 70 years-old movie that it is.