The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is a heartwarming story of love and friendship, heartache and regret, spanning decades of war and peacetime from the Edwardian era through to the Second World War. Shot in the UK at the height of WW2 with tantalizing glimpses of the streets of London, the film is also Emeric Pressburger’s love letter to Berlin.
Oscar-winning director and restoration consultant Martin Scorsese’s sums up his view of the film: “Every time I revisit The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, it seems to have become more resonant, more moving, more profound. You could say that it’s the epic of an ordinary life. What you retain from this epic is an overpowering sense of warmth, love and friendship, of shared humour and tenderness, and a lasting impression of the most eloquent sadness.”
Set in Germany and England, the story follows the path of a deep and enduring friendship between a German and English Army officer, from their idealistic youth in 1902 through to staid old age, set in 1943 – the year of production. Interwoven into the two mens’ lives is the wonderful portrayal by the beautiful Deborah Kerr, of the eternally youthful recurring incarnations of Colonel Candy’s first love. This is the most wonderful romantic concept of being able to recapture in later life the woman who got away and never ages!
The ageless nature of the film is described by British actor Stephen Fry, who says: “Everything about this film ought to make it seem dated, misjudged and peculiar. In fact the melancholy, humour, tenderness and farce with which the story is told make it one of the greatest films about friendship and the nature of war that I know. We can be grateful that one of the greatest achievements in British film-making made it to the screen, and now returns in all its glory to be discovered by a whole new audience.”
A daring film for its day, it originally faced opposition and caused concern to Winston Churchill that the Colonel Blimp character ridiculed the military, a view that apparently he modified after the release of the film. Michael Powell was advised, however, by government agencies prior to going into production that, “although not banned from making the film, as he lived in a democracy”, if he made the film he would never receive a knighthood. This was a prediction that sadly proved to be accurate.
The film was shot in Technicolor on three strip 35mm using a camera so large it was known affectionately by the crew as ‘the enchanted cottage’. This was also the film that gave the renowned British Cinematographer Jack Cardiff his big break as he came to the notice of the film’s director Michael Powell. There is one marvellous sequence to show the passage of time, achieved by using animal headhunting trophies. These appear on the wall with the sound of a gunshot heralding each arrival, and a plaque showing the location and date of each animal’s demise.
This was very tricky to light, and Jack stayed late on set to film the sequence, unaware that he was being closely observed by Powell. Seeing the skill of Cardiff’s camerawork, the story goes that Powell asked him there and then if he would like to photograph his next picture. This was the enchanting A Matter of Life and Death and, following this, Black Narcissus, for which Jack won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for his Cinematography.
Jack told the story of how Michael Powell had approached him to be his director of photography on the next Powell-Pressburger film and asked, 'Did he enjoy ballet?' Jack responded that he knew nothing about ballet and thought it was for sissies! Powell entreated him to learn about ballet and encouraged his education, the result of course being the beautifully filmed, award-winning Red Shoes.
The restoration process for Blimp began back in 2008 with research on the original elements by the BFI, ITV Studio’s Global Entertainment and Criterion all collaborating with the Academy Film Archive and the Martin Scorsese Film Foundation. The BFI released the original three strip 35mm negatives of the short version from their archives and ITV Global Entertainment loaned their 35mm protection elements from their Perivale Archive. These were all shipped separately to the US for the project to commence. Original prints from the year of release, including a dye transfer print from Martin Scorsese’s personal collection, were used for colour comparisons and reference for the restoration.
Michael Pogorzelski, the director of the Academy Film Archive, supervised the restoration with additional guidance and technical expertise from Schawn Belston, the Vice President of Library and Technical Services for Fox Home Entertainment.
One of the problems of the restoration was that the film had been cut for the original release and even put into chronological order for the US release, rather than depicting the circular story, as it was thought American audiences would be confused.
The reconstruction of the missing sections involved scanning separation masters as well as the original three strip camera negatives. This was carried out both at Reliance MediaWorks and Point 360 in the US. Following the scanning, the digital work was carried out at Reliance in Los Angeles, where the team spent many hours cleaning up dirt and scratches and painstakingly reconstructing the missing elements from the scanned separation masters to bring it back to the full 163-minute version.
The problems they incurred included mould damage on the nitrate camera negatives along with shrinkage, and mis-registration of the three colour strips causing softness and fringing around the images and colour breathing. Kimball Thurston of Reliance’s comments: “There were many challenges restoring The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. We were dealing with multiple sources of varying quality; some of the original negative had forms of degradation we hadn’t encountered before, and some of the original negative was missing entirely.
“We ended up adding some new tools to our proprietary toolset to address some of the ageing and the damage unique to this film. It was an honour to work on an important piece of British film-making history, and we hope that as a result of the restoration efforts, future generations continue to enjoy and critique this film that appears on many Best 100 Films lists.”
Reliance Media’s Ryan Gomez adds: “We scanned, at 4K, all surviving original negative as well as inter-positive for sections in which an original no longer exists. The sections from the original were compromised due to mould damage and needed to be scanned wet gate. The three- strip film exists in separate cyan, magenta and yellow records, which were scanned individually, then registered digitally.
“In a few cases, the magenta record was so severely damaged that several frames had to be entirely recreated using a combination of image processing and manual paintwork. The most significant example of this fix took place in the ‘beer hall’ scene. Some more typical faults of ageing films were repaired as well. Flicker, instability, dirt and physical damage were all treated digitally with proprietary algorithms designed here at Reliance MediaWorks.”
The digital colour correction was carried out at Warner’s Motion Picture Imaging by Ray Grabowski, the same colourist who worked on the wonderful Red Shoes restoration in 2008. The use of Technicolor is a very important component of the film and the results are quite stunning. John Polito of Audio Mechanics carried out the excellent digital sound restoration, working from three different sources, to match the full length picture version, two 35mm safety track positives and a nitrate track.
The restoration had its world premier in New York in November of last year at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) and was introduced by Martin Scorsese and his Oscar-winning editor and widow of Michael Powell, Thelma Schoonmaker. There was also a star-studded UK premiere at the BFI London Southbank, again introduced by Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker.
In the audience were the widow and son of the cinematographer Jack Cardiff. The grandsons of Emeric Pressburger – film producer Andrew MacDonald and film director Kevin MacDonald – brought their families along to the screening, and this event was also attended by George Harrison’s widow Olivia, whose Material World Foundation provided the bulk of the funding.
The European premiere took place in February of this year at the Berlin Film Festival introduced to a whole new audience by Thelma Schoonmaker. Kevin MacDonald, who was at the festival to premiere his film Marley, and who had previously proclaimed The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp to be his favourite of his grandfather’s films, also attended the screening.
This was the first time the film had been sub- titled in German and screened theatrically in Berlin. It was gratifying to see a large audience fill the wonderfully refurbished 1960s Kino International Theatre in former East Berlin, and to observe the very warm reception given to the film.
The film will be re-released in cinemas in the UK by Park Circus Films in May and released on DVD and Blu-Ray by ITV Studios Global Entertainment in June.
THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP 1943
Written, directed, and produced by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Production company: Archers Film Productions
Starring Roger Livesey as Clive Candy; Anton Walbrook as Theo Kretschmar- Schuldorff; Deborah Kerr as Edith Hunter; Barbara Wynne; Johnny Cannon
Restoration credits Restored by the Academy Film Archive in association with the BFI, ITV Studios Global Entertainment, and the Film Foundation.
Funding credits Restoration funding provided by The Material World Charitable Foundation, the Louis B Mayer Foundation, Cinema per Roma Foundation, and The Film Foundation.
Technical credits Digital picture restoration: Reliance MediaWorks Colour by Warner Brothers Picture Imaging, Colourist Ray Grabowski 4K scans: Point 360; Digital audio restoration: Audio Mechanics Consultants
Technical consultants: Michael Pogorzelski and Schawn Belson
Restoration consultants: Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker