The plot ought not to work as well as it does, considering its range, but Pressburger knew how to cram a lot of story into a short amount of space through subtle layering, making it feel almost like several films have been superimposed into one. The movie is tripartite in structure, with an intro and a reprise—with fresh parts—as a coda. The titular fellow would have been familiar to all Brits as the subject of a popular cartoon strip. But this Blimp—a.k.a., Major General Clive Wynne-Candy, played by Roger Livesey—is a long way from the funny pages, even if his younger self likes a good joke.
We first see him as an old man, doing training exercises in WWII-era London, and being upstaged by a Johnny-come-lately officer. Then we journey back to the turn of the century, courtesy of a tracking shot across the waters of a Turkish bath that knits the present to the past. On leave from the Boer War, Candy, as just about everyone refers to him, goes to Berlin to try and put a halt to anti-British propaganda. There he meets Deborah Kerr's Edith Hunter, a fellow Brit, and ends up fighting a duel against a man he has never met. Said man—Theo, played by Anton Walbrook—and Candy convalesce in the same nursing home after carving each other up, and become close friends. That's even though Theo announces his engagement, in broken English, to Edith, the woman that Candy loves.
The build-up to the duel is both comical and terrifying in its detail, but when it's time for the rapiers to start flying, Powell's camera simply up and leaves through the roof of gymnasium where we have sat in so much expectation. You don't need to see this, it seems to say. Let me take you over here to what is more important. The blows do not matter; not physical blows, at least. But emotional ones—and recoveries from them—are why Blimp remains cinema's most convincing testament to friendship.
A middle sequence plays out against a backdrop of World War I. There is a falling out between the two men over cultural divides, divides made all the more pronounced in wartime. Candy meets a nurse, also played by Kerr, and seeing in her the woman his best friend married, he makes her his wife. Come the third part of the tableaux, she has died, Edith has died, Theo is an alien in England in the Second World War, and Candy has been axed from service, though he does have a driver who looks suspiciously like—yep, you guessed it, there's Deborah Kerr again.
One gets used to the romantic theme, and sees Kerr coming in her various iterations. Which, of course, is exactly what Powell and Pressburger expected. There is solidity there, firm footing for the movie's principal relationship to try and work itself out. The staging feels almost three-dimensional, like you've gained ingress into your television set, with the story playing out all around you. The backgrounds of Blimp invite you to look deep and hard at them: Snow, for example, has a knack of falling when characters are inside, and viewers can direct their gaze to the window to see the descending flakes. Those details are enhanced by a most ambulatory camera; we travel through the air, through windows, through walls. The visual sumptuousness mirrors the bounty of any true friendship, and a most delicate positioning along a line where the quotidian and the magical coexist. Few filmmakers knew how deeply unpredictability factored into friendship, which in turn led to Blimp's knack for making that unpredictability visual in a way no British movie—or any movie, for that matter—has. The camera is an all-seeing eye in the world of Blimp, but we never know, exactly, what it will share with us next, so that what is really a study in friendship gains an aspect of magic that would have made perfect sense to Walt Disney.