Matter of Life and Death is planted in its era. It carries the vague notions of a war film, it’s certainly a romance, and it revels in the throes of fantasy. But on the whole Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s film functions outside the typical confines that are put on film as a medium. The scope it dares to take on is far more expansive.
The plot is made in the first few minutes when a pilot looks to eject amid the fog engulfing his failing bomber. It’s in that single moment where he picks up the signal of a radio dispatcher down below and their lives are never the same. Believable or not they fall instantly in love — in that moment of heightened emotion — they find a connection. She, never to see his face and he, never to make it out alive.
The Conductor (Marius Goring) from the other side is already looking to pick him up. Except something goes terribly wrong, or terribly right for the pilot, depending on your perspective. In other words, he doesn’t die. He escapes death. It causes a bit of a stir and Conductor 71 must try and rectify the situation.
But of course, Peter David Carter (David Niven) quite by chance is reunited with the woman from the other side of the wire, the American named June (Kim Hunter) and they are allowed a happy life together. Except with his reservation with the afterlife still up for contention, Peter finds himself being visited by the Conductor who coaxes him to accept his death. Instead, Peter calls for an appeal and his case is set to be brought before the highest authorities to decide once and for all if he must accept his death as ordained or have it postponed so that he might continue to cement his love for June.
It evolves into a wonderfully fantastical courtroom drama, wrapped up in romance, with a bit of time travel, purgatory, special effects, and color all mixed together in a tirelessly imaginative arc. It’s true that the ambitions of the conceptual narrative are really unlike any other cinematic creature as it cycles so lithely through time and space. Freezing images, moving characters about this way and that, and cutting back and forth between worlds most easily differentiated by their color schemes.
Still, in some way, I was gripped more with the furious emotion of The Red Shoes (1948) and yet with its phenomenal conception and immaculate staging, A Matter of Life and Death manages to be an extraordinary picture by most accounts. If its waves of romance did not seize me instantly, its sheer inventiveness was nevertheless breathtaking. And if the concept enthralls me even more than the narrative does then so be it. It shares a world akin to Seventh Heaven (1927) or Wings of Desire (1988) and that alone is worthy of praise — carving out a place in the pantheon of transcendent films — featured on the conveyor belt that makes its way through the years.
Fantasy films were made to be like this, arguably functioning in a realm that only films could facilitate and Powell and Pressburger examined near unfathomable realms. Not only with scripting but the selection of shots, and developing fascinating spectacles out of the Other World from the stairway to heaven to the infinite courtroom where Peter’s case is debated. Jack Cardiff’s photography takes on the monumental task of balancing two worlds with equal import — the world we know and the complete other realm that has yet to be revealed to us who are still among the living. It leaves us feeling enamored with both. Not simply because of beauty but sheer size and scale.
The storyline comes down to the final moments where Peter and June are asked to make the kind of choices we have been expecting. Right about now we can hear the words ringing in our ears, there’s no greater love than to lay down one’s life for the ones you love. Their actions say as much. But as we might just come to find, give and it will be given back to you more abundantly than you could ever imagine. Sacrifice all that you have and you will find yourself gaining so much more.
It brings to mind a dialogue that emerged from the courtroom when the prosecutor (Raymond Massey) notes that “nothing is more important than the law. The whole universe was built on it.” But his learned opposition (Roger Livesey) ascertains that “this is a court of justice not of law.” The implications being that the law is good and must still be fulfilled but justice is the key here, where right is done by all men and love reigns supreme.
There are a plethora of interesting topics that arise from The Archers’ film but one of the foremost is the sentiment of not only the post-war but of an entire millennium. It’s a belief that could arise from many marginalized points of views suggesting that there is a great deal of prejudice and ill-will that could be exacted against the English (and certainly Americans too), anyone who has been a major world power.
The jurors put up against the defendant all have grievances they could hold against the English people, but then again, we are not our fathers’ fathers and we cannot necessarily turn back the clock on their past sins. But what this film does suggest more powerfully still, relevant in a post-war era or any age really, is the idea that people can reach out across the sea and really across the world to be united by something. We’ll give it a name to it and call it love in its many forms — more specifically as the Greeks might call them, storge, philia, eros, and greatest of all agape.