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The Powell & Pressburger Pages

Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.

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Submitted by Nicky Smith

Colonel Blimp - A gay icon?
From: "Brief Encounters : Lesbians and Gays in British Cinema 1930-1971"
By Stephen Bourne

The casting of Walbrook - whose appearance is cunningly delayed - gives the central relationship its sharp emotional edge, though Livesey is (in superbly convincing make-up) not far behind. While both actors communicate with astonishing power and precision, Walbrook is mesmerizing. He delivers a speech (to a cold and untypically malevolent AE Matthews as the president of the tribunal), about the destruction of his life by the Nazis in a continuous five minute take. In its colour and intensity this must rank as one of the greatest pieces of screen acting ever. What the words mirror in the actor's own life as a gay man adds another few layers of pain and passion to this scene. What makes the film so extraordinary is that Walbrook is presented in the most sympathetic light throughout. He looks gorgeous, through youth and age, he is intelligent and sensitive. And he ends up with the guy !
[I feel I must point out that this same speech should also be studied as a mirror of Emeric Pressburger's situation as a Jewish refugee in Britain]

While Livesey is supposed to be a caricature (his role is based on David Low's cartoon Colonel Blimp), the man is fully drawn. He may be insensitive, humourless, a colonialist, but he is also a man of honour and integrity. True to his nickname, "Sugar", he is a "sweetie" and believably transcends the prejudices which would have been rife during -and between - two world wars against the Huns. However, Livesey's subtle body language immediately transmits his racism against the black soldier (Norris Smith) who drives him to the convent across no-mans land. [NB - there is more on this in Bourne's book on black performers in British films - Nicky]

Apart from the homoemotional relationship of the two central characters, there are all manner of queer references throughout the film. For example "Babyface" the character played by Frith Banbury is a Wildean dandy, and another gay actor, Robert Harris, surfaces as the embassy secretary in suits which are always adorned by carnations. There are mentions of Holmes and Watson, of a plays called the Last of the Dandies, and of an aria from Mignon (mignon was a French slang term for homosexual) Walbrook's proposal to Deborah Kerr finds him - and Livesey - wearing a women's hat! Allan Gray's music strikes up a lilting waltz them for Walbrook and Livesey's first meeting after the duel.

Throughout the film the maleness of Candy's world is stressed : the camaraderie on the battlefield, the Turkish baths, a men-only dinner party, sleeping at the club, ex-public-school allegiance. The acceptability of this culture makes the film's central relationships both more acceptable to censors and audiences, and more invisible. Because of Deborah Kerr's triple presence in the film, it is easy for people to ignore the heart of the matter. As Candy says of the Indian Rope Trick : "You hear about something. And then you 'see it' ". Audiences (and critics) have been trained to see heterosexuality. So they always see it.

Striking exactly the right balance between picaresque satire and lyric romance (mainly male-male) Powell and Pressburger created a film for all time and all nations. The timelessness of this film was perfectly caught by Chris Peachment in "Time Out" [London arts magazine - Nicky], when he said "Like much of Powell and Pressburger's work, it is a salute to all that is paradoxical about the English : no one else has captured their romanticism banked down beneath emotional reticence and honour. And it is marked by enormous generosity of spirit :in the history of the British cinema there is nothing to touch it"

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