In 1946 a remarkable British film was released. A Matter of Life and Death combined fantasy, romance and philosophy in a way only equalled ten years later by Ingmar Bergman.
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On 24 March 1944 21 year old RAF Flight Sergeant Nicholas Alkemade was on a bombing mission over Germany. A Messerschmidt 109 squadron attacked his group and his plane was hit, caught fire and spiralled to the ground. Alkemade had no parachute, as it had been destroyed by the fire. He elected to jump from the falling plane, preferring a quick death to a slow one from the flames. He fell 18,000 feet, blacked out from lack of oxygen, and landed in a pine forest. The trees broke his fall and tipped him into a snowdrift. Alkemade was unharmed.
(This survival story wasn’t unique. There are about a dozen such recorded, including that of Alan Magee, whose B-17 was shot down over France in 1943. Magee was blown out of the plane, fell 20,000 feet without a parachute and landed on the roof of St Nazaire railway station, a glass structure which broke his fall, though leaving him with severe injuries).
Alkemade’s story attracted the attention of British film makers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. They had a war film to make, one which it was desired would foster amity between British and American forces in the wake of World War II. Pressburger went to work on a script. The results were surprising. He wrote one of the most whimsical, romantic and profound films ever, the kind that producers don’t let film makers make, because they lose money at the box office. This time Powell and Pressburger were the producers (as well as writers and directors). It was a film about survival after death, and a statement of the importance of love in the world. As it happened A Matter of Life and Death was popular, and is now ranked as the greatest British film ever made. Some would remove the qualifying word ‘British’ as superfluous.
When Powell and Pressburger had finished their script they had incorporated much of the story of Alkemade in the imagined one of Peter Carter (David Niven, who even looks like Alkemade), a young Flight Lieutenant and promising poet, shot down over the English Channel. As Peter battles his disintegrating plane and cares for his crew he makes radio contact with a Boston WAC officer stationed on the shore below named June (Kim Hunter). Peter knows he is going to die. He sends his mother his love. He clings desperately to the sound of June’s voice, the last voice he will ever hear. And something unusual happens. These two people bond closely together, each helpless to aid but still helping one another. And then Peter jumps from his burning plane, to his death he thinks, and lands in the sea and makes his way ashore, seemingly unharmed.
The film explores the meaning of these apparently unrelated happenings. The bonding of two people suddenly face to face with death, which becomes a love affair; and the meaning of Peter’s miraculous survival. It uses a combination of styles: fantasy and magic, romance, whimsical comedy and melodrama, reminiscent of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There’s even a short scene of an amateur performance of this play featuring Bottom’s troupe giving the Pyramus and Thisbe routine about thwarted lovers, as if the film makers wanted to draw our attention to the resemblance of treatment. Farce with a message; serious comedy.
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The film has a famous disclaimer. “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 & imagination have been violently shaped by war. Any resemblance to any other world, known or unknown, is purely coincidental”. Throughout the film Peter’s experiences with an afterlife are handled with some irony and ambiguity. The word ‘heaven’ is never mentioned. Peter meets his angel, but he is a man of the French Revolution who “lost his head”, known as Conductor 71 (Marius Goring). He is transported to a judgment ‘up there’, but the place depicted is a futuristic city with all the conveniences shown in Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis or WC Menzies’ 1936 film Things to Come. Peter finds the place an enormous bureaucracy which is severely rattled at the thought something might have gone wrong with their procedures. With a Catch-22 gallows humour Peter is made to feel a nuisance because he is alive, when he is supposed to be dead according to the records. Throughout the film we are left in some uncertainty whether Peter is hallucinating as the result of delayed concussion or actually experiencing a spiritual journey on a matter of life and death.
The film’s American release title was Stairway to Heaven, which removed the ambiguity, and referred to the most startling and stimulating of the film’s sets, an enormous stairway between two worlds, or two states, a powerful graphic symbol of what happens, or what might happen, after death. Powell and Pressburger didn’t like that title, but were over ruled.
The opening sequence of the film is also famous, a leisurely survey of the universe, and its galaxies, as they evolve, explode, and sometimes vanish. Seventy years later this is still an awe inspiring sequence, one of the most beautiful views of the universe ever made. “This is the universe. Big, isn’t it?” says a narrator. “Thousands of suns, millions of stars…..and here’s the Earth, our Earth,…moving around in its place,…part of the pattern, part of the universe. Reassuring, isn’t it? (thunder) It’s night over Europe. The night of the 2nd May, 1945. That point of fire is a burning city. It had a thousand-bomber raid an hour ago. And here, rolling in over the Atlantic…(foghorn) … is a real English fog. I hope all our aircraft got home safely”.
And there is Peter in his Lancaster bomber, franticly calling, and receiving a message much more important than he realises, telling him there is still, despite the awful destruction, still love in the world. Peter, we later learn, is a poet, and he is moved to quote a poem as he prepares for death.
“Give me my scallop-shell of quiet,
My staff of faith to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My bottle of salvation,
My gown of glory, hope’s true gage;
And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage.”
“Sir Walter Raleigh wrote that. I’d rather have written that than flown through Hitler’s legs.” says Peter.
Raleigh’s beautiful poem “His Pilgrimage” continues (not quoted in the film, but relevant}. It should have saved him from execution: it didn’t.
Blood must be my body’s balmer;
No other balm will there be given:
Whilst my soul, like quiet palmer,
Travelleth towards the land of heaven;
Over the silver mountains,
Where spring the nectar fountains;
There will I kiss the bowl of bliss;
And drink mine everlasting fill
Upon every milken hill.
My soul will be a-dry before;
But, after, it will thirst no more.
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The Blitz lasted 07 September 1940 to May 1941. One hundred tons of high explosive were dropped, and 40,000 civilians killed. Japan surrendered to the Western powers on 15 August 1945, which was the date production of the film started (it was completed and released 01 November 1946). On 06 August 1945 an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and on 08 August 1945 another atomic bomb on Nagasaki. The casualties of 225,000 were mainly civilians. Earlier in 1945, 13-15 February, a force of over 1,000 USA and UK bombers dropped 4,000 tons of explosives and obliterated the city of Dresden. Germany surrendered three months later. The war was effectively over before these last air strikes were made, but they contributed to WWII’s most alarming statistic. Of the 75 million casualties of the war, the highest in history, 50 million, or almost 70%, were of civilians. Soldiers lost their wives, wives their husbands, parents their children. Genghis Khan would have been pleased: he didn’t like civilians either. This was the background against which the film was made.
Peter survived his fall, and found his love. Then Conductor 71 turns up and tries to conduct him away to receive his angel’s wings. Peter demands a stay of sentence, and lodges an appeal. He believes that because he has found his love, and another person is involved, judgment must be waived. “Look, I’ve fallen in love because of your mistake”. The situation has changed, and it is not his fault but because of an error from on high. A surprising claim in a world where millions of families had been destroyed; but perhaps that made it all the more important to make it.
The [heavenly] council agrees to a reconsideration, and Peter goes before its court. His evidence, a tear from Carol’s eye, shed at fear for his safety as he is operated on for brain damage due to concussion. A tear, a little thing, rather like Rosebud, with great consequences. The trial takes place while Peter is between life and death on the operating table. We are being told the most precious things are almost invisible, and that it takes hard work to gain the freedom to see them, and harder work still to value and appreciate them. Self indulgence is a lot easier. “Here in this tear…are love and truth and friendship. Those qualities alone can build a new world today…and must build a better one tomorrow. That is my case…” says defending counsel Dr Reeves (Roger Livesey).
As the film progresses it turns into a court room drama. The charge that Peter has survived due to an error (Conductor 71 had missed his soul in that damned fog over the Channel) and should therefore be allowed to enjoy the continued existence he had gained becomes merely the backdrop to a dispute whether the content of his love for June, and June’s for Peter, is worthwhile. One is British and one American, and the more disgusting of each nation’s traits are emphasised by the attorneys, Dr Reeves for Peter and Abraham Farian (Raymond Massey) against Peter and, indeed, against Britain. Much is said by the attorneys, most of it uninteresting. But remember the tear? It is handed to the judge (Abraham Sofaer) on a rose, and Peter wins his case. We are left to wonder if Peter survived the free fall from his plane so he could fall in love with June.
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Two months after A Matter of Life and Death was released came Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. It too is a film that celebrates the selflessness of love. Obviously these things needed saying at the time. George Bailey (James Stewart) is a man who just naturally does good to others, but it seems to lead him to disaster. So a guardian angel called Clarence (Henry Travers) saves George from despair and suicide by showing him what his town would have been like without his seemingly ineffective presence. It’s not a pretty sight. This is a Capra film, made by a man who loved America passionately for the values it was fast losing at the time the film was made. It’s not a subtle film. The sentiment is laid on, the film takes place at Christmas time and the celebration is important. The film could have easily failed by its excess sentimentality, yet superb acting and direction make it a great film, one that makes its point triumphantly. Miles away from the whimsicality, pathos, ambiguity and staggering imaginative power of the British film.
A Matter of Life and Death may not really be the world’s, or even Britain’s, greatest film. Perhaps it’s only in the top ten. Now we’ve had peace for over 70 years, now all minority groups have gained equal rights and all groups live in concord and co-operation, we may no longer need reminding of what are the important things in life. But you should remember the tear lying so fragile on a rose. Your case might be heard next.
©2016 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.