Globe-trotting, era-hopping epics are expected to be audacious in form and spectacle. But until Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger made The Life And Death of Colonel Blimp, a stunning Technicolor march through 20th century British warfare from the Boers to the Blitz that screens Saturday and Sunday at The Belcourt in a new 35mm print, few would have thought they could also be warm and intimate.
Roger Livesay plays Clive "Sugar" Candy, a young man who's not afraid to take diplomacy into his own hands, and who drives his superiors crazy doing it. When he meets Theodore Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook) while recuperating from a Berlin adventure, the German officer becomes a romantic rival for the hand of Candy's friend Edith (Deborah Kerr). Yet he also becomes a friend bound by affairs of honor.
World War I both renews and threatens their relationship when Clive, having rescued Theo from a prisoner-of-war camp, insists on a naive optimism about the treatment the defeated powers will receive at the hands of the Allies. Theo's darker views prove well founded when he flees Nazi Germany for an England where his old friend, now retired, struggles with the staid tradition of rule-governed warfare in a new age of previously inconceivable horrors.
Livesay transforms himself from a dashing duellist to a homefront bureaucrat in a feature-length flashback, and woos Kerr in the guise of three different women. It might sound like a bravura display of narrative structure and aging makeup, but Powell and Pressburger are far more in love with their protagonist than with their bag of cinematic tricks. They give him one sharply observed sequence after another; he grows, changes and reflects on a military life with both appreciation and regret. Like so many films made by this team — The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, A Matter of Life and Death — the result is bold invention on a grand scale that still vibrates to one single, strong heartbeat.