Criterion Throwback Review: Powell and Pressburger’s ‘A Matter of Life and Death’

This review is by our guest writer, Laura Venning.

This month, A Matter of Life and Death is finally enshrined in the Criterion Collection, joining Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger favourites The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and The Tales of Hoffman.

While often eclipsed by the dark melodrama of The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus, A Matter of Life and Death is an equally ravishing film that explores nothing less than war, peace, life, death, and love on a personal and cosmic scale. In this time of violent nationalism and bigotry, it’s a film that gives hope to the viewer and one that certain world leaders would do well to see.

It’s 1945 and Royal Air Force pilot Peter Carter (David Niven)’s time is up. His plane’s been hit and he’s hurtling towards his inevitable death. In his final moments, he quotes poetry to American radio operator June (Kim Hunter), but then, he miraculously washes up unharmed on the shore. The heavenly bureaucracy responsible for processing the deceased realises they’ve made their first mistake in a thousand years and dispatches Conductor 71 (Marius Goring) to retrieve him. Unfortunately for them, these extra hours on Earth have meant Peter and June have now met and fallen in love. In order to stay alive, Peter must appeal to the heavenly court and prove the depth of his love while kindly Doctor Reeves (Roger Livesey) fears his celestial hallucinations are a sign of brain damage.

The film was conceived at the suggestion of the Ministry of Information to promote positive Anglo-American relations at a time when resentment in Britain was growing. The circumstances of its inception have led to it often being dismissed as a propaganda piece, but it’s far more thematically interesting than it might appear. The film was released in 1946 and portrays a hopeful vision of a post-war world of international unity, even highlighting Britain’s need to atone for its violent colonial past.

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This hopeful vision is signposted by the film’s extraordinary use of Technicolor. “Heaven” is shot in black and white, complementing the modernist bureaucratic “cloakroom” where a receptionist measures newly dead pilots for their angelic wings. In contrast, “Earth” is shot in rich colour. Legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff revels in the vibrant pinks and greens of the rhododendrons and the blue of the sky against the warmth of the sandy beach. The country house that has become an army base is adorned with Tudor paintings and hosts a rehearsal of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “Heaven” is utilitarian while “Earth” is romantic, Eden-like, a place of art, music, and poetry. Quite simply, a world worth fighting a war for.

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In the climatic heavenly courtroom scene, the recently departed Doctor Reeves takes the stand to defend Peter’s right to stay alive. He’s up against Abraham Farlan (Raymond Massey), the first American casualty of the War of Independence and enormously biased against the British. The scene is truly spectacular, as hundreds of observers fill an amphitheater suspended in the stars; but it’s also thematically radical in its unexpected criticism of Britain as an imperial power. It’s clear that the jury has been chosen to ensure maximum bias against Britain, from a Napoleonic French soldier to a Russian soldier from the Crimean War. While Farlan clarifies the historic enmity between Britain and these nations, for jury members from Ireland and India it isn’t necessary. “Think of India”, Farlan says simply. This reference to the devastation inflicted by the British Empire, and Reeves’ ashamed silence in a seemingly pro-British war film is startling. It’s relevant today as Winston Churchill’s status as a national hero remains when he was complicit in the Bengal famine of 1943, which killed millions. Reeves doesn’t attempt to deny Britain’s violent colonial past, while black and Indian soldiers look on from the audience.

A new jury composed entirely of American citizens is selected; all immigrants from all over the world. This jury requests that they hear from Peter and June in person, evoking the notion of America as the land of liberty, but not as exclusively dictated by white men, and as a nation that should celebrate its diversity. Ordinary people of different origins are united here and are positioned as literally the most important decision-makers in the universe. The lovers are tested but prevail: “Nothing is stronger than the law in the universe, but on Earth, nothing is stronger than love,” concludes Reeves.

“We won,” says Peter, as he awakens with June at his bedside. He has survived, love having defied the laws of the universe, and both his case and the war are won. Powell and Pressburger might chillingly allude to Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the prologue (“Someone’s been messing around with the uranium atom”), but ultimately, it’s an unashamedly romantic fantasy. The end of the Second World War certainly didn’t herald world peace, and Britain and America mustn’t be sugarcoated as noble freedom fighters when nations remain irrevocably damaged by Western imperialism. This film, however naively, imagines a world in which colonial violence is confronted, nations can live peacefully where unity and justice are the only ways to defy what can feel like inevitable conflict and death. It reminds me that collectively we can fight for what seems impossible, and maybe, just maybe, there’s hope of achieving it. A Matter of Life and Death might just be the film the world needs right now.

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