A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

“Members of the jury, as Sir Walter Scott is always saying… In peace, Love tunes the shepherd’s reed; In war, he mounts the warrior’s steed; In halls, in gay attire is seen; In hamlets, dances on the green. Love rules the court, the camp, the grove, and men below, and saints above; For Love is heaven, and heaven is Love. Will you please consider your verdict.”

‘A Matter of Life and Death’, directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in 1946, is a British fantasy starring David Niven, Kim Hunter, Roger Livesey and Marius Goring . Niven plays Squadron Leader Peter Carter, an airman who, at the end of a bombing run, is forced to jump out of his plane without a parachute. As the plane burns around him he forms an instant attachment to June, an American radio operator played by Hunter. Miraculously he survives, but when he is visited by an aristocrat from the French revolution, it transpires he is only alive owing to a cock-up with his transition to the afterlife. The rest of the film is divided between scenes on Earth, as Carter is operated on for a concussion, and scenes in the afterlife as a court case convenes to assess what to do with him. It’s a multi-layered movie that manages to explore complex themes including nationality, war, death, Britishness and love, all framed by a deceptively simple plot. Powell and Pressburger’s direction is elegant, demarking the two locations in the same way (although reversed) as ‘The Wizard of Oz’, one, the afterlife, in black and white, whilst the ‘real’ is in colour. They also play surprisingly play with the courtroom drama, keeping the defendant Carter absent for much of the proceedings and instead focusing on the vast audience of the deceased. This is what struck me most about the film, not the melodramatic focus on bravery or love, but rather on the matter-of-fact approach to death. So soon after the end of the war, it says a lot that the deaths of characters, and the cheerfulness they show when passing over to the other side, is presented as merely a part of the story and not as a shock or surprise. The shots of the crowds of soldiers from the world, although tellingly not from Germany or Japan, is a sobering reflection of how the notion of mortality became normalised during the war.

Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s a tidy, effective and, at times, witty film. It doesn’t have the weight of a film like ‘Les Enfants du Paradis’, made a year earlier under conditions that were as miraculous and profound as the subject matter of this film, but it would make an excellent double bill.


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