Here, then, is my verbatim initial reaction to A Matter of Life And Death, as I shared it on Facebook with my friends: “Well. That movie was weird as all hey.”
On paper it doesn’t sound like it would be; fantastical, sure, but at its core it starts out as a pretty straightforward romance. It opens in the tail end of World War II, with RAF Squad Leader Peter Carter (David Niven) in a really tight spot; he’s just completed a bombing run over Germany, but his plane took heavy fire and is heavily damaged. The responsible Carter has ordered his crew to bail out, but his own chute is damaged, so he’s facing certain death. During what are about to be his final moments, he hails the motherland on his radio, to both let someone know what happened and have one last few moments of human connection. The radio operator who speaks with him is June (Kim Hunter), an American based in England, and the pair indulge in some flirtation during Carter’s final moments; he asks where she’s stationed, joking that “perhaps I’ll come as a ghost and visit.” Then he thanks the tearful June and jumps out of the plane, saying that he’d prefer that to crashing.
But – miraculously, Carter survives his jump. And equally as miraculously, he’s landed on the very English beach where June is based. Hooray! He quickly finds her, and the pair spend a day or so celebrating his escape and getting further acquainted. Then one of their whirlwind dates is interrupted by a strange little fellow dressed like a French aristocrat, who can stop time. Carter is the only one who can see him; this is because, the man explains, Carter’s supposed to be dead. The man introduces himself only as “Conductor 71” (Marius Goring), and he’d been charged with collecting Carter’s soul at the moment of his death – but Carter had been flying in heavy fog, and Conductor 71 had simply lost him. But now that he’s found Carter, it was time to go. …Carter, understandably, says “nothing doing” to that idea – and not just for the very human fear of death, but because he had fallen in love with June and was now determined to say. Couldn’t they just leave him be and let him enjoy some longer time with her? Conductor 71 takes Carter’s plea to his boss, and finally returns a few days later to say that Carter has been granted a chance for an appeal, in heaven, in three days. He can choose whomever he wants from among the dead as his defense attorney; if he wins, he can stay.
Now that doesn’t sound all that odd up to that point. Again, fantastical, but not weird. June doesn’t quite believe Carter’s supernatural threat, of course, and that sets up a subplot with her consulting a doctor friend (Roger Livesey) to treat Carter’s “delusions” with brain surgery, so there’s even some doubt raised as to what’s happening with Carter in the first place.
But then Carter’s trial in heaven begins.
I might even have been able to buy into the trial if it was indeed about the straightforward “Peter Carter: love or death” question the film had set up to that point. Instead, however, the trial was a deep dive into Anglo-American mid-1940s relations and an examination of each nations’ values, morals, and character. The script attempts to tie that to June and Carter by pointing out that Carter is from England and June is from the USA, but it reads way more like a grudge match between nations, as the counsel for the prosecution is ostensibly the spirit of the first man killed in the Battle of Bunker Hill and has stacked the jury with a selection of people who died in other wars with England over the years; an Irish revolutionary, a Chinese man who died in the Boxer rebellion, a French footsoldier from Agincourt…Then, when Carter’s defense counsel objects and asks to swap out the jury for one comprised entirely of Americans, each juror is replaced with an American whose ethnic background matches the nationality of the juror they were replacing, in a celebration of America’s melting-pot identity.
The trial finally and eventually gets around to discussing the actual case of Carter v. Death, allowing both Carter and June to make their testimonies thanks to some supernatural fiddling, and it is The Power Of Love that makes the more compelling case in the trial at the end of the day. Which, let’s face it, is pretty much how you’d expect a romantic fantasy like this to go. And that’s why I was so completely baffled that the film took that detour into An Examination Of The English Character, and why it took up nearly the full final act of the film. What did any of that have to do with Carter and June, really? Why did it go on as long as it did?
Interestingly, I think I found an answer. Filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were on the outs with the UK’s military propaganda department (the “Ministry of Information”) because of their previous film The Life And Death of Colonel Blimp. As sympathetic as Blimp ultimately was, the UK’s military still felt it made career soldiers look a little foolish, and were holding Powell and Pressburger at arms’ length a bit. The filmmakers wanted to get back into the Ministry of Information’s good graces, so when the Ministry’s head suggested they work on something that would “show the Americans we like them,” they jumped at the chance. In the later years of World War II, the UK was bristling at the behavior of American GIs stationed within their country; compared to the UK soldiers stationed in Europe, Americans had relatively cushy digs and spent a lot of free time flirting with (and often knocking up) the English lasses in the surrounding villages. English civilians complained famously that they were “overpaid, oversexed, and over here”. But the UK and the USA were still Allies, and the Ministry of information wanted to make nice.
The American GI/English girl dynamic lead to Carter and June’s love affair; this time it was the dashing English soldier sweeping the American girl off her feet. It also explains the heaping of praise on America itself, and the soul-searching of the English character. The sequence with the jury went on a surprisingly long time, and as weird as I thought it was, I was also fascinated at the clear-eyed admission about England’s frequently-tumultuous history. True, it could have been setting up the various jury members as being “prejudiced against England” by virtue of their people’s history, but even just mentioning those various wars throughout the life of the British Empire underscores that yeah, actually, England hasn’t had the most neighborly geopolitical presence. It felt like a surprisingly self-aware stance in the aftermath of the Second World War.
And that’s all just the script and plot; I haven’t even gotten into the look of the film, or any of the production elements. The film is a mix of both color and black-and-white sequences, but in a flip of what you’d expect, the color sequences are set on Earth, while Heaven – or, as the film coyly calls it, “the other world” – is entirely in black and white. And this appears to be intentional – during one of his visits to Carter, Conductor 71 stops to admire a rose, sighing that “One is starved for Technicolor where I’m from.” Most of the architecture of “Heaven” looks somewhat like an airport lobby, save for the courtroom – which has a central platform that looks weirdly like Pride Rock from The Lion King – and an enormous escalator, which connects “Heaven” to “Earth” and which is ostensibly the path that Carter should have trod after his plane crash. This apparently was where the production team really blew most of the budget; the filmmakers brought in engineers from London’s Passenger Transit Board to assist with construction, and the set crew started three months before filming began because it was just that big (each of the 106 steps was 20 feet wide and the whole thing was flanked by statues of famous philosophers like Plato and King Solomon). The eye-popping piece features in a few scenes, and also inspired the re-titling of the film for American audiences as “Stairway to Heaven”.
As strange as I thought this film was, I was even more surprised to learn that bits of it inspired scenes from two more contemporary film franchises. The design of “Heaven” influenced the look of the “Limbo” scene in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and the story goes that this is because both J.K. Rowling and Daniel Radcliffe were both big fans of Matter of Life and Death. And there’s apparently a very good reason why that first scene between Carter and June reminded me so much of Steve Rogers talking to Peggy Carter in the first Captain America film – it was a direct homage.