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Oppenheimer is Christopher Nolan's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
Two Wartime Epics About the Passage of Time
While watching Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell’s warm, satirical wartime epic The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, I couldn’t help but be reminded of another expansive wartime film, Christopher Nolan’s exceedingly bleak Oppenheimer. Their initial similarity, an admittedly surface-level parallel, stems from both films employing non-linear storytelling to inform us of their wartime protagonists. Indeed, both of these men, on their face, are initially vastly different: Robert J Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) is the master physicist at the heart of the Manhattan project, forlorn, perplexing, and distant as he works to build the cataclysmically destructive atomic bomb. Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey) — a relic of the Victorian era, the kind of man who believes in the antiquated and colonialist phrase, “the sun never sets on the British Empire,” is boisterous, outgoing, and quite simple.
The multi-decade Colonel Blimp and Oppenheimer, the latter a biopic, follow these men from their young, undeterred days — when they pushed against their era’s prestigious authority figures — to their older lives as hunted animals in a modern world that mostly finds them a nuisance. The use of time, the year of each film’s setting and what it says about their respective era, further binds the films together. When Pressburger-Powell opted to make Colonel Blimp, for instance, they were following up close on the heels of their previous British propaganda pictures 49th Parallel (1941) and One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942). Colonel Blimp represented a shift for them at a time when the war looked to be going against the UK. This film would be a critique of Blimp, a cartoon created by David Low that seemed to represent all of the antiquated traditions, elitism, and intransigence of the ruling class.
Nolan’s Oppenheimer is arriving at a similar point in his career. The director’s Dunkirk can be interpreted as in league with Pressburger-Powell’s pre-Colonel Blimp pictures, and its follow-up, the time-bending espionage thriller Tenet, is a war flick that pits past and present in a futurist Cold War package. Similar to Colonel Blimp, with Oppenheimer, Nolan is attempting to subvert the great man trope through a figure in Robert J Oppenheimer who at opposite ends of the spectrum represents both pacifist and warmonger, an innovative man imagining a theoretical future while tied to an all too crushing present. Nolan’s film also arrives at a moment where the world is at a similar existential precipice, through the effects of the global warming, of course, and the still looming threat of nuclear devastation (now nine countries have nuclear weapons).
While Nolan hasn’t directly named the Pressburger-Powell film as a direct influence, he has used Powell’s Peeping Tom as a joking reference to casting his own daughter, in so many respects, Oppenheimer is Nolan’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.
Colonel Blimp takes place over a longer span of time: We begin with the older Wynne-Candy, sporting a handle bar moustache, wrestling a younger Home Guard ruffian in a Turkish bath. Soon the film jumps back to the Second Boer War (fought in South Africa) in 1902. Recently awarded the Victoria Cross, Wynne-Candy is a war hero on leave when he receives a letter from Edith Hunter, a British expat living in Germany, who says a former prisoner of war is accusing him and the British Empire of war crimes in the Second Boer War concentration camps. The perturbed, jingoistic Wynne-Candy ventures to Germany to reclaim the Empire’s prestige. It’s telling that we never receive resolution about the merits of the accusation levied by this former pow; rather Wynne-Candy engages in a duel with Prussian officer Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook) after insulting the honor of his unit. In the early going of Colonel Blimp, Wynne-Candy’s illusion (the false purity of the British Empire) remains intact by way of simple tradition and discrete, personal violence, man versus man through the clash of saber blades.
Most importantly, the introduction of Ms. Hunter provides the film’s major subplot: An unrequited love that’ll forever haunt the romantic (in every sense of the word) Wynne-Candy. While Theo and Wynne-Candy eventually become friends, the former also falls for and marries Ms. Hunter. For the rest of life, Wynne-Candy chases women — like his future wife Barbara Wynne and personal driver Johnny Cannon — he believes looks and sounds like Ms. Hunter (all played by the kinetic Deborah Kerr).
Oppie (as his friends call him) is similarly obsessed with the memory of a woman. Oppenheimer opens a couple decades later than Colonel Blimp in 1926. Oppenheimer is a PhD student, first rebelling against his instructor Patrick Blackett, then absconding to Germany where he completes his schooling. Oppie finds a career at the University of California, Berkeley and participates in Communist Party meetings. It’s where he begins a torrid love affair with Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh). While their relationship is far from the unrequited romance of Colonel Blimp — many have critiqued the cold, mechanical sex scenes in Oppenheimer — when Tatlock dies by suicide, she becomes a kind of internalized ghost that is always weighing upon the physicist’s psyche.
For both of these men, Ms. Hunter and Tatlock are ferociously independent women spelling a new wave of feminism and female political activism that both men are ill-equipped to handle, and are windows into the internal identity Oppie and Wynne-Candy hide. Through these women the two movies move through time and tone (from sincere to grave to stingingly comedic for Colonel Blimp) and also through reality and dream: The doubles of Ms. Hunter sometimes only looks like her through Wynne-Candy’s desperate eyes, while Oppenheimer’s projections of Tatlock reveal his guilt. The appearances of these apparitions are of course tied to each film’s individual aesthetic. Confined to the intoxicatingly technicolor world of Colonel Blimp, the vivid recurrences of Ms. Hunter is a confirmation of the fragile nostalgia Wynne-Candy warms himself in. Tatlock in the harsh gradient picture of Oppenheimer deepens the varied ways that film is entirely concerned with death, destruction, and the crushing of independent spirits.
Of course, what ultimately binds Pressburger-Powell and Nolan’s visions is the naivete of their respective protagonists amidst a vicious imperialist world. Oppenheimer oversees the creation of the atomic bomb, which he foolishly believes will only be used against Nazi Germany. He further becomes a bureaucratic arm for the government to control the politics and morals guiding the scientific community, eventually prizing his own popularity over the welfare of humanity. Oppie, initially, refuses to acknowledge the possible horror he’s unleashed until it’s too late, until he’s been outmaneuvered by worse men bent on dominating the world at any cost.
Oppenheimer’s censored vision guides what we (can’t) see: He plainly can’t fathom the cost wracked upon Indigenous people, which is why he volunteers the space around Los Alamos for the Manhattan Project as he banks that the government will eventually give it back to its rightful inhabitants. The same happens with the toll the bombs will inflict upon the Japanese people: When the physicist is shown the footage of the bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and their resulting damage, he winces as he looks away.
The rally at Los Alamos is another brutal moment, revealing his limited worldview and his narrow empathy. The sound during the sequence, a reverberation of stomping feet matching the seismic and sonic echoes of the bomb, gives us a hallucinatory link to the impact of a ravenous zealotry for nationalism that overtakes the country and Oppie. In the physicist’s imagination, crowd is consumed by a blinding white flash and a woman, played by Nolan’s daughter, disintegrates into dust. This is arguably Murphy’s best sequence; his gaunt, sunken mien gives us this character’s moral reckoning. The fact that he can only recognize the devastation when it’s slapped upon familiar white faces gives this wordless scene an avalanche of spoken meaning.
Likewise Wynne-Candy struggles to imagine Great Britain’s intentions as anything but pure and benevolent. Unlike Oppie, the jingoistic Wynne-Candy is the furthest thing from a wolf in pacifist’s clothing. He also isn’t nearly as intelligent. Brought up with an imperialist mindset, you could understand his ignorance as opposed to critical failings of Oppie. His earnest dumbfoundedness, an equally complex personal failing, is what makes our relationship with Wynne-Candy — a character we have some affection for — especially tragic.
Importantly, unlike Oppenheimer, in Colonel Blimp we’re not wholly tied to Wynne-Candy’s perspective. The big break from his point of view takes place during World War I. By virtue of their allegiances, Wynne-Candy fighting for Britain and Theo for Germany, the friends become adversaries. In one pointed scene, Wynne-Candy hears about prisoners of war from Theo’s unit. He goes to question them, eventually chiding these soldiers for using torture — a tactic he claims his country would never use — to obtain intel of Britain’s maneuvers. Unbeknownst to him, however, when he leaves, the South African soldier in league with the British does torture these men for information too. We can suggest the South African soldier did this of his own volition. But that’s not what Pressburger-Powell are implying. Consider how the Boer War took place in South Africa and how that war produced the accusations of war crimes we hear from the German pow at the beginning of the war (did this South African soldier learn torture techniques in that conflict? And how aware was the government? We can guess they were very much aware).
After some stern but gentlemanly questioning of the German soldiers by Wynne-Candy, which yields no information, he turns to the South African officer wishing he could get more information. “Oh, I think I’ve got the idea, sir,” says the intimidating South African. Wynne-Candy leaves the room. The camera then opts for a close-up revealing the multiple facial scars on the South African soldier. “I am in command here, now,” he says, “and I know how to deal with you scum.” We’re meant to assume that heavies like this man have always done the dirty work the Brits would rather not admit to. Nevertheless, much like the Second Boer War, after World War I, Wynne-Candy claims his country won the conflict the right way.
The other instance where we break from Wynne-Candy’s perspective happens when a defeated Theo, a prisoner of war returning to Germany, dines with Wynne-Candy and other government officials. If Oppie’s stern and cutting wife Kitty (Emily Blunt) is the practical side to the scientist, warning him of the viciousness of the US government, then the far more worldly Theo — a man who understands the souls of men, and the worst souls of governments — is the mirror of her for Wynne-Candy. Theo warns his good friend the fate losers suffer at the hands of the victor; but the idealist Wynne-Candy ignores him. The camera later switches to Theo’s perspective, this time surrounded by other German prisoners of war: He predicts the economic and nationalistic forces that’ll eventually lead to World War II.
It’s during the second world war that Colonel Blimp and Oppenheimer’s closely touch (the former filmed in early 1943, a considerable portion of the latter takes off in late 1942). There remains, however, a clear casual separation between their unique tragedies. The refusal to adopt a win at all cost directive ultimately undoes Wynne-Candy; whereas Oppenheimer experiences the consequences of fully embracing such a strategy — putting the protagonists’ respective cause and effect in direct conversation.
Through their individual, life-altering decisions, Oppenheimer and Wynne-Candy ultimately become gadflies trying to warn their respective country of the escalating tools of war. Oppie’s protests land him in the crosshairs of the knavish bureaucrat Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr), who creates a sham trial that will decide the fate of Oppie’s security clearance. Wynne-Candy, who in the aftermath of Dunkirk, plans to read a statement on radio that he’d rather lose the war than employ the same tactics as the Nazis, is shoved into retirement.
Tellingly, it’s what these men do, once their luster leaves that further makes them fascinating foils. Oppenheimer might use the trial to self-flagellate for Tatlock’s death and his own hand in the atomic weaponry, but it does little to abate his guilt. Wynne-Candy finds renewed vigor and popularity by training the home guard only to be outsmarted by a young, punkish officer using underhanded tactics during a training exercise. The two men are left equally unfulfilled. Oppie is showered with lifetime achievement awards in his later years, which only worsens his guilt and further reminds him of his bygone influence.
Much has been written about the scene where Einstein warns Oppie that he too will live to see his consequences and a new generation make their name upon his. Oppenheimer ends on the visibly shaken physicist, standing by a pond, regretfully lamenting that he is the destroyer of worlds, a recalling of his premonition earlier in the film. It’s a significant way to end this biopic, one that recalls the conclusion of Colonel Blimp, which also hinges on a prediction. A dejected elderly Wynne-Candy stands in front of his former home, now rendered a water supply cistern. He remembers how he said to his wife, “No fear. Even if there’s a second flood, this house will stand on its solid foundation.” “That’s a promise, you’ll stay just as you are until the floods come,” she says. “Till the floods come,” he promises. Decades later, during the 1940s, Wynne-Candy finally realizes he must change. His final scene, crucially, also happens by a body of water; he looks down forlornly at the cistern that now fills his exposed, former basement. The passage of time has killed this Colonel Blimp, but unlike Oppie — left to live a lonely life beset by regret — Wynne-Candy experiences a rebirth by letting go of past mistakes, philosophies, and pride so he might live clear-eyed in this hostile world.
While Nolan’s film doesn’t wholly aim to critique misplaced nostalgia, it does similarly explore the passage of time, how the people who lived through a different type of war were refracted and remade by decisions guided by blind zealotry. Pressburger-Powell’s picture, which, by virtue of when it was shot, ends before the dropping of the atomic bomb and the later discovery of concentration camps. In it, there is still hope to learn and evolve from prior errors, there is still, even in its satirical bent, a strain of nationalism too. Wynne-Candy might be evolving personally, but what is he changing into? In Nolan’s film, a response to what occurs when one embraces deadlier tactics, no such hope exists. It’s fitting then, that the events in Oppenheimer stretch to 1963, the year when the dreamy influence of technicolor began to die.
Stream The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp on Criterion Channel.