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.”
Fonte: Telegraph (2003)
Which filmmaker do you consider the most underrated?
Blimey, there’s a thing. To some extent in the modern world I’d say Michael Powell. He’s underrated by the general public in as much as he should be up there with David Lean and Alfred Hitchcock as three of the greatest British film directors there ever were. I think Powell and Pressburger, who made films under the banner of The Archers, made some the best films ever made – and not just British films. I’m not alone in that. Martin Scorsese has written extensively about films like The Red Shoes for example, which is one of his favourites – a huge influence on him, and on Spielberg and that whole generation of 70s wunderkind. Amongst filmmakers he’s very highly rated, but I would say amongst the public Michael Powell is underrated.
What are your three favourite films and why?
Oh, Lord! I change my mind about those all the time. Well, I’ve mentioned Michael Powell, so I have to say The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp, which I think is a truly great film. The Godfather films are fantastic. You know you can’t get enough of them.
Nota: Lendo isso lembrei-me de uma coisa engraçada, obviamente assisti O Poderoso Chefão antes de Sapatinhos Vermelhos e quando vi este pela primeira vez nem sabia de toda essa coisa Coppola-Powell, quando chegou na parte de Monte Carlo eu pensei imediatamente: “Wow toda essa atmosfera é exatamente a Sicilia dos Chefões!”, passou mais um pouco e vi o Walbrook na estação e pensei “Wow, isso é Dirk Bogarde em Morte em Veneza!”, mas isso foi há séculos, hoje a quantidade de filmes que dá para encontrar em Red Shoes é quase infinita. Com Black Narcissus é a mesma coisa.