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  1. #1
    Senior Member Country: UK DB7's Avatar
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    Film-makers on film: Stephen Fry



    Stephen Fry talks to Sarah Donaldson about Powell and Pressburger's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)



    When choosing a favourite film, Stephen Fry – writer, actor, director, wit and all-round brainbox – heads straight for the heart of British cinema. "It has to be Michael Powell," he says. "And of his films, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, because it addresses something I've always been profoundly interested in – what it means to be English." Fry, mid-way through a gruelling day of interviews, looks tired and dishevelled, but he warms to his subject with the enthusiasm of a true movie buff.



    The essence of Englishness is something Fry has explored in Bright Young Things, his sparkling adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's satire of 1930s London socialites Vile Bodies (released on Friday and nominated this week as best debut in the British Independent Film Awards). Where Waugh – and Fry – examine the British bent for class divisions and snobbery, Powell's Colonel Blimp analyses our militarist genes.



    Made in the middle of the Second World War by the production partnership of Powell and Hungarian screenwriter Emeric Pressburger, Colonel Blimp tells the life story of Clive Candy (Roger Livesey), a stalwart of the British army. The film opens with the aged, fat, bald Candy being humiliated by a battalion of young soldiers. The action then unfolds in flashback, tracing Candy's life from his days as a young VC returning from the Boer War, through a triumphant First World War campaign and finally to the twilight of his career, as a Second World War colonel out of step with the new tactics of "total warfare".



    The concept – and name – of the film were inspired by a newspaper cartoon which satirised the jingoistic, old-school contingent of the army. But Colonel Blimp has a sentimental heart. It explores themes of love and loyalty through Candy's lifelong friendship with German soldier Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook) and his touching, if reserved, relationships with women.



    "Famously, Winston Churchill tried to have Colonel Blimp banned because he thought it painted Germans in a good light," says Fry. "He thought it was pro-German and would damage army morale. But it is about bigger things than the war. It takes a longer view of history, which was an extraordinarily brave thing for someone to do in 1943, at a time when history seemed to have disintegrated into its most helpless, impossible and unforgivable state.



    "In the film, the old colonel means nothing to the young soldier of the '40s. He smells of empire and old fashioned-ness. But if there is a man who symbolises Britain's shift from its imperial to modern Second World War identity, it is Churchill, and maybe that's one of the things he didn't like. He was a genuine child of empire, and fought in the last British army cavalry charge in Omdurman. But in the 1940s he was this big bald aristocratic figure who could be regarded as Blimpish."



    Shot in sumptuous Technicolor, Colonel Blimp leapt ahead of its time – as Fry says, "It seems more of the 1960s than the 1940s." Powell reinvents the syntax of cinema in memorable set-pieces, including the build-up to a duel between the young Candy and a German soldier which cuts away just as the fight begins, and an extraordinary metaphorical sequence in which, to denote a hunting trip Candy takes to Africa, animal head trophies pop up one by one on his wall to the sound of ringing gunshots.



    "Powell is an extraordinarily daring director," says Fry. "There's always a touch of the surreal in his films. I first saw them when I was a child and there are images in them which have stayed with me forever, like the extraordinary scene in Colonel Blimp at a German prison camp, with thousands of soldiers lying on a grassy hillock listening to a concert, or the image of his great bald head emerging from a steamy sauna.



    "And technically Powell was so assured. He swoops his camera with such ease. He expresses something that only exists at the level of the visual, the mixture of colour and movement and the human face. His shots draw you towards people's eyes and faces – and therefore to their inner lives. It's no accident that he is a favourite director of people like Martin Scorsese. It's just pure cinema, which is very rare in British film."



    For Fry, British film-making has for too long been "too busy self-consciously trying to be international or make do with clichés". Powell, David Lean and the great Ealing directors "were confident enough to make films about English things". But Powell stands alone in his ability to bore a psychological hole into his characters' souls: "For Lean the inner life is defined by what's outside, and the Ealing films look at identity in a comical way. But I think Powell understands the complexities of Englishness. He seems to have a high doctrine of the English soul – he sees the poetry and the desolation in it."



    And did Fry take anything from Powell when making his own quintessentially English film? "Gosh, I really wouldn't want to compare…" he says, embarrassed. "But I've never expressed the visual side of things before, and I suppose, like Powell, I put my trust in the landscape of the human face."

  2. #2
    Administrator Country: Wales Steve Crook's Avatar
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    Stephen Fry is interviewed in the documentary on the Carlton DVD of Blimp.

  3. #3
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    Anyone see it the other night on Sky? It's some years since my last viewing, but I'm sure this print was very heavily (and none too subtly) edited. The turkish bath scene was cut to one shot - the indignant reaction of Blimp to the soldier's deception was completely lost and this made him appear merely pathetic in the final scene rather than sympathetic. Shame!

  4. #4
    Administrator Country: Wales Steve Crook's Avatar
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    I didn't bother watching any of the recent Powell & Pressburger films on Sky Cinema - because I don't get Sky Cinema :)

    They don't show gems like this often enough to warrent me paying them anything, and of course I have them all on tape & DVD.



    But as for an edited version, there were various ham-fisted edits made in the 1940s when distributors though that the full 163 mins would be too much for some people. It usually isn't, but distributors don't (or didn't) have a very high opinion of their audiences.



    The worst one was the initial US release when it was hacked back to 120 mins. The flashback idea was removed and the story was just shown as a stright line starting with Theo & Hoppy at the Bathers Club.



    There were other edits at about 140 mins but I'd be surprised (horrified) if that's what Sky showed. The full film was restored in the 1980s and has been easily available since then. In fact it's now hard to find any of the cut versions.



    Can anyone confirm if it was cut?

    How long did it run for (approx)?



    Steve

  5. #5
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    Just a comment on the film,this was my first viewing of col blimp,and i must say i found it an instantly enjoyable watch,i've struggled with a few p+p's recently,i didn't know much about them before i started checking the forum out,in fact the only recolection i had was the same as jim posted a while ago,the ubiqitous ping pong ball scene in amolad,i cant dissmiss anything out of hand yet as i'm going to revisit what i've seen so far.



    cheers Ollie.

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    The American DVD has a commentary by Michael Powell and Martin Scorcese originally for the laserdisc. Powell and Pressburger deserve the same treatment on DVD as Charlie Chaplin.



    My favourite moment in Blimp?



    "Warm for January."

    "Damn cold I call it."

  7. #7
    Administrator Country: Wales Steve Crook's Avatar
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    Clinton Morgan:

    The American DVD has a commentary by Michael Powell and Martin Scorcese originally for the laserdisc. Powell and Pressburger deserve the same treatment on DVD as Charlie Chaplin.



    My favourite moment in Blimp?



    "Warm for January."

    "Damn cold I call it."
    Hello Clinton,

    Blimp was shown last October in Canterbury as a part of the Powell Festival. It was introduced by local musician & artist, Billy Childish, and one of the things he pointed out that made him love it so much was that it has some very serious moments but that it's also a very humerous film. There are some great exchanges, often with the punchline just as the scene fades out.



    Steve

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    One thing that's always struck me is how modern it seems and not just because its that rare breed, a British wartime film in colour. It could easily pass as a film made 20 or 25 years later both stylistically (the choreographed motorcycles especially) but also the sympathetic German theme (incredibly brave considering the shift in propaganda from 'Good Germans, bad Nazis" in 1939 to "the only good German is a dead one" official line of 1943)Its not my favourite PnP film but I think its their best.

  9. #9
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    By the way what is Baby-Face writing on the carriage window?

  10. #10
    Administrator Country: Wales Steve Crook's Avatar
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    Clinton Morgan:

    By the way what is Baby-Face writing on the carriage window?
    A very good question :)

    It's one of the questions in The Great Powell and Pressburger quiz. He's writing it on the steamed up window from inside the carriage so it's in "mirror writing" when viewed from outside and as soon as he writes it he wipes the window.



    What do you think it looks like he's writing?



    Steve

  11. #11
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    I checked in my Faber&Faber copy of the screenplay. Interestingly the script does not mention Baby-Face writing anything at all which suggests that the brief window-graffiti was a piece of business improvised on set.

    So I've dug out my VHS copy and fast forwarded to that particular scene and playing it twice I've come to the conclusion that the word is 'Jade'.



    To watch Colonel Blimp for the umpteenth time is a joy because it is a film full of 'favourite bits'. A scene pops up and you think, "Oh great it's this bit." I never tire of the film and it is a treat for me when I watch it.

  12. #12
    Administrator Country: Wales Steve Crook's Avatar
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    Clinton Morgan:

    I checked in my Faber&Faber copy of the screenplay. Interestingly the script does not mention Baby-Face writing anything at all which suggests that the brief window-graffiti was a piece of business improvised on set.

    So I've dug out my VHS copy and fast forwarded to that particular scene and playing it twice I've come to the conclusion that the word is 'Jade'.



    To watch Colonel Blimp for the umpteenth time is a joy because it is a film full of 'favourite bits'. A scene pops up and you think, "Oh great it's this bit." I never tire of the film and it is a treat for me when I watch it.
    That's the joy of most P&P films, they stand repeated re-watching and you can often see something new in them every time - or even just enjoy the same thing again & again.



    That book is very good in the way it show you how the script developed, but that was only until they started filming it. If they found that something wasn't working as well as they'd intended or if anyone else came up with a good suggestion then they were quite willing to change and adapt as they made the film. Because Emeric was always close at hand they could make sure it fitted in to the story.



    But "Jade", that's an interesting suggestion.

    Was there a bottom horizontal stroke on that 'E'?

    Or was it a full stop?

    And did you get the 'A' and 'd' the right way around? Remembering that it's mirror writing as he's inside the coach & we're outside.



    The members of the Powell and Pressburger Appreciation Society are just about agreed (with only a few dissenting voices) that it's "T.d'A.F." - but what does that mean?



    The best suggestion is that it's Baby-Face's initials, something like "Theodore d'Arcy Fitzroy".



    But even that's only an opinion :)



    Steve

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    I saw it written as JadE. But 'Theodore d'Arcy Fitzroy' in intialised form is an interesting one. That sounds plausible to me.



    Actually

    J (if written in linear fashion as opposed to curved) can look like T

    F is similar to E in design.

  14. #14
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    Hello

    My question is was this film said to be disliked <hated> by the late Sir Winston Churchill.

    i recently obtained a vhs copy VCI and wondered what he could object to in this film .

    Was it also considered to be their greatest achievement

    ?p and p

  15. #15
    Administrator Country: Wales Steve Crook's Avatar
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    Originally posted by anthony chubb@Mar 9 2005, 05:57 PM

    Hello

    My question is was this film said to be disliked <hated> by the late Sir Winston Churchill.

    i recently obtained a vhs copy VCI and wondered what he could object to in this film .

    Was it also considered to be their greatest achievement

    ?p and p
    He objected to the connection between the film and "Colonel Blimp" which was a cartoon strip that made senior Army officers out to be a bunch of old duffers. He also thought that it might bring the Army, certainly the Army high command, into disrepute.



    But that was all before he'd even seen the film, certainly before he'd read the script.

    The book edited by Prof. Ian Christie includes all the Government papers & memos about it from the time and also shows you the changes that were made during shooting.



    As to if it's their greatest film?

    It's a close call between that one, I Know Where I'm Going! (1945), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948) - or maybe some of their other films. They made so many great films it's hard to put them in order


    Steve

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    I've never seen the film before but took a chance and bought the DVD last week. So far I've watched the documentary which is good, and in the film I've just got to the part where the duel is taking place. Certain parts of it give me a feeling of deja vue, so I probably have seen the film, or parts of it, as a child but the title never struck any chords!



    The amazing thing is the technicolor because it looks so modern. The only other Roger Livesy film I have is The Entertainer, in black and white, when he was playing Archie Rice's elderly father and that was made some 17 years or so after Colonel Blimp!

  17. #17
    Administrator Country: Wales Steve Crook's Avatar
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    Originally posted by samkydd@May 9 2005, 11:52 AM

    I've never seen the film before but took a chance and bought the DVD last week. So far I've watched the documentary which is good, and in the film I've just got to the part where the duel is taking place. Certain parts of it give me a feeling of deja vue, so I probably have seen the film, or parts of it, as a child but the title never struck any chords!



    The amazing thing is the technicolor because it looks so modern. The only other Roger Livesy film I have is The Entertainer, in black and white, when he was playing Archie Rice's elderly father and that was made some 17 years or so after Colonel Blimp!
    Roger's other masterpieces for The Archers (Powell & Pressburger) were I Know Where I'm Going! (1945) (b&w) and A Matter of Life and Death (1946) (technicolor with some trickery)



    Steve

  18. #18
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    Originally posted by SteveCrook@May 9 2005, 11:36 AM

    Roger's other masterpieces for The Archers (Powell & Pressburger) were I Know Where I'm Going! (1945) (b&w) and A Matter of Life and Death (1946) (technicolor with some trickery)



    Steve
    I will give the other P&P films a try as well I think. I can't believe I have lived for so many years without coming across any of them! I'm practicing Roger's voice at the moment, so I'll try it out in the pub on Thursday!

  19. #19
    Administrator Country: Wales Steve Crook's Avatar
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    Originally posted by samkydd@May 10 2005, 05:47 PM

    I will give the other P&P films a try as well I think. I can't believe I have lived for so many years without coming across any of them! I'm practicing Roger's voice at the moment, so I'll try it out in the pub on Thursday!
    Good luck, but you won't come close. He was a one off.



    I'm almost envious that you have so many wonderful films to look forward to. They do stand repeated viewing more than most but there's nothing quite like that first viewing.



    Steve

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    Originally posted by SteveCrook@May 10 2005, 07:50 PM

    Good luck, but you won't come close. He was a one off.



    I'm almost envious that you have so many wonderful films to look forward to. They do stand repeated viewing more than most but there's nothing quite like that first viewing.



    * * Steve
    I'm about half way through Blimp at the moment and I am enjoying every minute. If there were more Clive Candys in this world today I think it would be a much happier place!



    I've now finished watching the film and thoroughly enjoyed it. I will add some more Archers films DVDs to my hit list and hopefully enjoy a few more Livesey characters amongst them.



    I didn't realise that Deborah Kerr was still alive. How marvellous to have lived and worked through most of the the memorable parts of the 20th century and the glory days of the British film industry, and still be around to remember it all.

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