Between 1941 and 1957 Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, known when their powers combined as the Archers, delivered so many undisputed classics of British cinema that any attempted list of greatest British films would have to be viewed with great suspicion if it didn’t contain a generous handful of their efforts. THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP (1943), A CANTERBURY TALE (1944), BLACK NARCISSUS (1947) and THE RED SHOES (1948) to start with, and this list doesn’t even contain one of my personal favourites ILL MET BY MOONLIGHT (1957), the true story of the kidnapping of a German General on Nazi-occupied Crete (if it didn’t have you punching the air at the end I’d suspect you of Nazi sympathies), nor PEEPING TOM (1960): an extraordinary, unforgettable Powell solo effort so mired in controversy that it destroyed the director’s career.
But I can choose only one. All of the Archers’ films possess a strong British sensibility, but for me the one that most successfully mixes the cozy Ealing stiff upper lip with a much grander ambition is A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH. As if to declare this from the off it begins, similarly to IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE which was released the same year, with a panning shot across galaxies and starfields with a voiceover delivering a line that would later be appropriated by Douglas Adams, “This is the universe. Big, isn’t it?”. After some frankly dubious nuclear and astrophysics we zoom into planet Earth and are plunged into the firestorm above 1940’s London. Squadron Leader Peter Carter (played by the quintessential English gentleman David Niven) is hurtling towards Earth in flames with no parachute after seeing the rest of crew to safety. He establishes radio contact with a young American radio operator named June (Kim Hunter) and believes he is sharing his last moments with her. The conversation that follows has been much parodied over the years but it’s a brilliant piece of screenwriting: in turns moving and funny, in five minutes it manages to establish a relationship between the two leads that most films can’t manage over their duration.
What happens next can only be described as a proper bally old cock-up as Peter wakes, apparently alive and unscathed, on a British beach where he happens to meet June in person. But in the afterlife the machines of bureaucracy are in overdrive as it’s realised they’ve made a mistake and Carter was not intended to live. This sets the scene for the trial: through no fault of his own Peter has fallen in love in the extra time granted to him and must defend his right to remain on Earth. In an inversion of the effect used in THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) the scenes in the afterlife are shot in black and white whilst those on Earth are in glorious technicolour; mention must go here to the cinematography of Jack Cardiff who gives depth to the infinite halls of paperwork in the afterlife and sumptuous colour to the scenes between Peter and June. But the film is made, in my eyes, by two brilliant performance from Marius Goring as “Conductor 71” (some more dubious physics here: “She cannot wake. We are talking in space, not in time”. The only correct response to this is the one Niven gives: “Are you cracked?”) and Roger Livesey as the Doctor who suspects there is a rather more down-to-Earth explanation for Peter’s visions (that he’s cracked).
I have some minor problems with the third act or the actual trial sequence of the film: the American revolutionary acting as counsel for the prosecution goes off on a rant about the English that so spectacularly misses the point of the trial you wonder why he’s not thrown out of court; once Livesey’s Doctor dies and confronts the fact that Peter really was seeing messengers from beyond then his unnecessary brain surgery becomes rather horrific; and though it’s a striking image it’s unsettling to see that racial segregation seems to be alive and well in the courtrooms of heaven. But all this is blown away once Kim Hunter steps onto that staircase.
There is a brave noncommital stance on the nature of life after death that is quite appealing also. The film contains little overtly Christian imagery or mention of God and the opening introduction tells us:
This is the 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. Any resemblance to any other world, known or unknown, is purely coincidental.
leading us to question whether, dead or alive, the whole thing might not be in Peter’s head after all. A young Richard Attenborough appears briefly in the afterlife and on seeing the infinite hall of records declares “It’s heaven isn’t it?”, the film’s only use of the word. One of the attending “angels” sardonically remarks “You see? There are millions of people on Earth who’d think it heaven to be a clerk.” In America the film was renamed STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN, a horrible title which seems to wilfully miss the point, as well as being presented in a more saccharine cut before it was rescued and toured in its original version by Martin Scorsese. Apparently the film was designed as war-time propaganda to improve relations between Britain and the US: if that was one of its intentions I have to say that I find the American barrister such an irrational, odious character, especially when compared to his counterpart, the enigmatic Roger Livesey, that it completely fails on that score for me. In fact I see it in almost the opposite sense: as an acknowledgment of Britain’s fading spotlight on the world stage but an act of defiance against the US on the way out. True, David Croft and Jeremy Lloyd probably got half of their inspiration for ‘Allo ‘Allo from this film but what of it? All in all, it makes you proud to be British.