Written & Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Starring David Niven, Kim Hunter, and Roger Livesey
UK, 104 min – 1946.
“A weak mind isn’t strong enough to hurt itself. Stupidity has saved many a man from going mad.”
When A Matter of Life and Death begins, there is seemingly no hope for RAF pilot, Peter Carter (David Niven). His plane has been shot at, while returning from a bombing run in May 1945. His crew safely bails out, but he remains. Peter gets on the radio and speaks to American operator, June (Kim Hunter) revealing that these are his last moments. He talks to her of love and loss and of his readiness to die and then jumps out of his burning plane, sans parachute. This is supposed to be his time of death, but unfortunately Peter’s heavenly Conductor 71 (Marius Goring) misses him in the English fog. Safely landing on the beach, Peter sees June and the two fall in love. When Conductor 71 goes to fetch Peter, he is no longer ready to die and asks to argue his case in celestial court.
Powell and Pressburger’s film could easily be another sappy romance, where “love conquers all, even death.” It is not. Two things make A Matter of Life and Death different from other stock romance movies of the 1940s. The first is that the film mixes notions of heaven and religion with the popular psychology of the day. During the opening credits, there is a note about the “worlds” explored in the film: “This is a story of two Worlds – the one we know and another which exists only in the mind of a young airman, whose life and imagination have been violently shaped by war.” It goes on to say that “any resemblance to any other world known or unknown is purely coincidental.” Although this would suggest that heaven only exists in Peter’s mind, the film cuts between the two worlds (with characters appearing in both) so seamlessly that heaven’s existence, or lack there of, is ambiguous. Peter could really be in this courtroom arguing for his life or he could be receiving life saving brain surgery in an English hospital. The film lets the audience decide what to believe.
The second difference is the undertone of allied patriotism that drives the film. An Englishman falls in love with an American. The conductor is French and the final court room scene finds an Englishman arguing against an American prosecutor still angry for his death during the American Revolution. The actual court room scene turns into a propagandized history lesson of grievances that England has committed, eventually propelling Peter’s defense, Doctor Frank Reeves (Roger Livesey), to say “I submit that this court is concerned with the life and death of Peter Carter and not with past history or present plumbing.” The ultimate decision of Peter’s heavenly jury must not only decide Peter’s fate, but also bring together diverse nations under a common belief.
A Matter of Life and Death has a little of everything. It’s a wartime story, a lovely romance, and even a study of a soldier’s psyche and beliefs of the afterlife. Without this kitchen-sink of elements, the film could have easily been a stereotypical romance or wartime propaganda. Instead, Powell and Pressburger weave everything into a story that is ultimately about the importance of love and life, especially during times of war.