Pow­ell and Press­burger’s ex­is­ten­tial ex­am­i­na­tion is much more im­por­tant than that

Empire (Australasia) - - Review - 1946 / RATED PG WORDS JOHN NU­GENT

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.


Squadron Leader Peter Carter (David Niven), on the stair­way to heaven with Con­duc­tor 71 (Mar­ius Gor­ing).

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