THE EMPIRE MASTERPIECE A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH
Powell and Pressburger’s existential examination is much more important than that
ON THE SURFACE, A Matter Of Life And Death is the most English of films — a wartime romance between a plucky pilot and his rosy-cheeked sweetheart, bursting with afternoon tea, cricket on the village green, and unironic uses of the phrase “What ho!” But it is also, inversely, the most un-english: co-written by a Hungarian, it boasts a cast of international players, and cinematic ambitions that are pure Hollywood — and all the result, indirectly, of a few rowdy Americans.
In 1942, the US Army landed in Britain. Three million GIS would pass through Britain’s borders during World War II. Many were fond of a drink, or more; their conservative, warweary British hosts soon came to describe the visitors as “overpaid, oversexed and over here”. Dismayed at this downturn in morale, the Ministry Of Information’s Head Of Film turned to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the filmmaking duo known collectively as The Archers (after their production company), and asked: “Can’t you two fellows think up a good idea to improve Anglo-american relations?”
That “good idea” became A Matter Of
Life And Death, a war movie elevated beyond mere propaganda (it was never officially funded or endorsed by the government) to become a sparkling philosophical examination of love, mortality and — yes — Englishness. By the time it was released in 1946, the war was over and most of the Yanks had made the return journey across the Atlantic — but Powell and Pressburger, two fiercely intelligent filmmakers of
immense depth and vision, had their sights set on loftier aims than Anglo-american relations. The first shot of the film depicts no less than the entirety of existence, with the immortal opening words from an unseen narrator (an uncredited John Longden): “This is the universe. Big, isn’t it?”
Then the focus narrows to the foggy
English coast, where we find Squadron Leader Peter Carter in a spot of bother. Played by David Niven — who had been an officer in the British Army during the war — Peter is the epitome of Englishness: pencil-moustachioed, unfailingly polite, the most received of pronunciations, the stiffest of upper lips. In the cockpit of a shot-to-hell Lancaster bomber, he stares certain death square in the face yet remains positively chipper. Over a crackly radio, he begins a conversation with June (Kim Hunter), an American radio operator on the ground he’s never met. Sparks fly, in every sense. With a romantic flourish typical of The Archers’ work to that point, he cites the poetry of Marvell and Raleigh, and hearing the last voice he thinks he’ll ever hear, falls in love with it. “I love you, June,” he states, matter-of-factly. “You’re life, and I’m leaving you.”
But he doesn’t leave her, and what follows is a fight for that love, in this world and another. Peter jumps from his plane without a parachute and miraculously survives. Meanwhile, in an audacious afterlife (filmed in hyper-real monotone to distinguish from real-world Technicolor), the “Department Of Records” wonders where the bally hell Peter is. Conductor 71, a farcically foppish Frenchman played by Marius Goring, attempts to correct the clerical error of his survival.
As the title card is at pains to point out, this Other World is not heaven. In the US, the film was renamed Stairway To Heaven by prissy distributors fretting over the word “death” in a title so soon after the war. Powell and Pressburger were infuriated. This was not some fanciful fantasy folly. “No artist believes in escapism,” affirms the Archers’ Manifesto, their de facto artist’s statement, and indeed,
The Other World is a fully realised realm all of its own, governed by its own fictional rulebook, and granted real-world logic as the “organised hallucination” of Peter’s brain injury. It’s visually jaw-dropping, too, exquisitely filtered through the keen eye of legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff, who summons an Art Deco vision of paradise in a Buckinghamshire film studio. The effects still inspire awe today. Exhibit A for those who demand proof that British cinema is anything other than kitchen sink miserablism and cuddly inoffensive romcoms.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, A Matter Of Life And Death baffled critics of the time; a sniffy Daily Mail review called it “an elaborate joke that doesn’t quite come off ”. A celestial escalator, a French angel, and a cosmic courtroom drama might have seemed all a bit far-fetched for audiences used to war movies of straightforward heroism and derring-do. But for Emeric Pressburger — a Hungarian who sought refuge in Britain from Nazi Germany — it was an opportunity for an imaginative and rousing defence of his adoptive homeland. For Michael Powell, on the other hand, it was an argument against the austere, unambitious British films of the time, and a treatise on death, love and sacrifice. It remained his favourite Archers film. From the wreckage of a devastating war, a Brit and an immigrant conjure reassuring familiarity and dazzling possibility. You can’t get much more English than that.
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Squadron Leader Peter Carter (David Niven), on the stairway to heaven with Conductor 71 (Marius Goring).