There’s a challenge faced by characters in two great recently restored films – Powell & Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (available in an exquisite Criterion edition), and Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (alas prematurely released, for the restoration work is incomplete, and copyright reasons mean it can only be bought on BluRay in Italy. But I still couldn’t resist buying it, so if you come to my house we can watch it together).
Blimp is about a British army officer living through three wars, failing to speak up for the woman he loves, and feeling out of time with his culture, while the most consistent relationship in his life is a great friendship with a German opposite number. America is about a kid growing up into a gangster living through family torment, failing to understand – and ultimately horrifically abusing – the woman he loves, feeling out of time with his culture, while the most consistent relationship in his life is a flawed friendship with an unstable comrade.
Roger Livesey’s Colonel and Robert de Niro’s operating partner gangster have much in common – they fight for a living, they lose the woman they love, they wonder what’s in it for them. Both films are staggering in scope – each a canvas of over 40 years in the life of one man. Both are about suffering and loss and what we do with it. Their protagonists make different choices – the Colonel endures with no sense of victimhood: he merely serves and feels sad, yet at his twilight he is loved and friended and proud; Noodles, however, struggles to grow out of childish, selfish impulses, can’t handle the responsibility of loving someone well (or letting them go), and his ultimate tragedy is to try to control every outcome. It blows up in his face, and the film’s flashback structure may belie one of the most disturbing first person narrative postures in cinema: our ‘hero’ may actually be dreaming most of the film, in which he gets the moral upper hand, while he’s actually hallucinating in an opium den, awaiting his own murder.
It’s in their reflection on what it takes to make a life, and their resonance with the achings and longings we all share – for love, for forgiveness, for security, for fame, for joy, for family, for the feeling of being part of a bigger picture, that Blimp and America become religious iconography, lenses through which we imagine God.
The Colonel is wise enough as a young man to know that one day he will be old; he has that ineffable sense of knowing that there are things he does not know. Noodles – sent to prison as a teenager for avenging his young friend’s murder – was mixed up to begin with, then stunted in confusing childishness with childlikeness. He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, and so he thinks he can do anything; without mentors or initiation, he is left grasping for how to be in the world – confusing a desire to possess with love, unable to ask for things instead of demanding them or worse.
The jazz of these films is exhilarating – the sequence in which the Colonel’s post-heartbreak life is portrayed as a decade or so of hunting exotic animals, so that wall-mounted dead heads is all he has to show for it; the first meeting of Noodles and his best friend/nemesis Max, when a pocket watch is switched between three guys, each of them telling the time at which they took it; the set-up for the duel in Blimp (which Scorsese homages in Raging Bull), that leads to deep friendship between two men whose countries are at war – a more courageous statement than most current storytellers have been willing to make in the context of our contemporary conflicts; the use of a muzaky version of “Yesterday” to evoke not only Noodles’ regret but the shallowness of the world he’s entering (or fantasizing); and most of all the last two minutes of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, which deserve to be seen without spoilers. Blimp’s co-director, Michael Powell, wanted to be eulogized as “film director and optimist.” The last line of this epic comedy of the human condition, manages to be both perhaps the saddest and most life-affirming one might imagine.
One of these films is thirty years old, the other seventy. One day everyone reading this will be older than both combined, should we find ourselves into eternity, or if Ray Kurzweil’s singularity proves to have sufficient tenacity. Whatever our age, we will form an identity partly from the leavings of our memories. How we interpret the story we’re telling ourselves about what has happened to us and what we have done yesterday will determine the shape of the story we choose to live in today.
If everything is autobiography, if storytelling is a way of life, then we actually do live in a magical, fairy tale world where we can construct our own meaning. Isn’t that what we all do? With reference to personal experience, sacred texts or wisdom, community traditions, and the exercise of reasonable discernment, we figure out a story that works (or doesn’t work until we find one that does).
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and Once Upon a Time in America are two sides of a coin – they could be about the same man making different choices. Both begin with the protagonist traveling through a door in time – the Colonel swimming in a Turkish bath, Noodles walking through a gate in a train station. The Colonel emerges from the pool younger – it’s 40 years ago and the story can start with limitless possibility; Noodles comes back through the door 35 years later, and his story is ending, filled with regret.
Emerging from the pool younger – I’d like that. I’d like to respond to a film’s evocation of a full life by choosing to reset my own path in the places where it lacks responsibility, or service, or rest, or community, or kindness. I’d like to respond to a movie that honors “protocol” by learning to take life seriously, but to not take myself too seriously. I’d like to respect the calling of a film like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, whose directors made some massive out of very little, who gave themselves over to the imagination and created something that will last.
I’d like to avoid living like the characters in Once Upon a Time in America. But I shouldn’t deny the resonance with Noodles’ brokenness. If you can empathize with (and learn something from) a fake colonel in Second World War London, why not with a fake gangster in Prohibition New York? If Colonel Blimp can emerge from the pool younger, can’t I do the same?
Gareth Higgins is a writer and activist from Northern Ireland. He writes regularly on his own blog, God Is Not Elsewhere, co-hosts the award-winning movie podcast, The Film Talk, and is the Executive Director of The Wild Goose Festival.