12 Angry Men (Lumet, 1957)

A Matter of Life and Death (Powell & Pressburger, 1946)

"If not the most successful of all Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger productions, A Matter of Life and Death is certainly one of the most ambitious"
-Antony Slide

A Matter of Life and Death 1946
When I rewatched A Matter of Life and Death (Powell & Pressburger, 1946) recently at the Curzon Bloomsbury, it was introduced by film lecturer Charles Drazin who said that it acts as a perfect compliment alongside It's A Wonderful Life (Capra, 1946) as a film to watch during the festive season. This might seem like a strange thing to say, as there is no indication that A Matter of Life and Death, takes place during Christmas - but they're similar in that they explore the concept of a heavenly intervention in a person's life. Also, given that they were both released after the most deadly conflict in human history they both, more importantly demonstrated the importance of companionship between not just individuals, but also nations. 

Not all surprising, given that that was the aim all along with A Matter of Life and Death, a film commissioned by the British government to help ease British-American relations. In it, British air force pilot Peter (David Niven) finds himself falling for American radio operator June (Kim Hunter) after only hearing her voice over the radio in his doomed flight. Peter is forced to bail out of his plane without a parachute and inexplicably survives after his messenger from heaven (Conductor 71, played by Marius Goring) fails to find him though the "ridiculous English climate", leaving heaven with one less resident than they were expecting. What follows is Peter's fight with those in heaven, as he appeals to be allowed to stay on Earth, with the help of June's doctor friend Reeves (Roger Livesey). Powell, Pressburger and legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff differentiate between those scenes that take place in the clouds of heaven and those back on Earth by filming the former in black & white and the latter in Technicolour. 

A man going to court in heaven to appeal for his right to live - quite a remarkable premise, yes. The creativity of the two directors, Moore argues is down to their fascination with the unnaturalness of theatricality; they both had 'utopian yearnings which was a product of their dislocation from the mainstream' (2005: 14). Thelma Shoonmaker has shed light on the ambition of Michael Powell's vision, saying that it was her husband's favourite film because he could be a "magician and let his imagination flourish". She has also mentioned in the documentary Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff (McCall, 2010) that, given the success and popularity of The Archers (Powell's production company), he and Pressburger could "get away with murder". The two had a great deal of freedom when making this picture, especially when considering the 'privations' (Christie, 2000: 30) of 1930s filmmaking. All of this contributes to the incredibly inventive premise and the equally inspired choice to alternate between colour and monochrome. While it is presented as a welcoming, positive and more than pleasant place, the fact that the heaven scenes are filmed in black and white in comparison to the vibrant multicoloured Earth scenes serves to accentuate all that Peter will have to give up if he loses his appeal. Conductor 71, in one great, self-referential and ad-libbed line even says "one is starved for Technicolour up there" when he visits Peter back on Earth. 


Shooting began on the day of Japan's 1945 surrender; a coincidental and important fact to consider when looking at the political climate that the film was produced in. While there was obviously 'an element of cordiality between the allies who had fought the war together', the state of the world after those 6 years had left the fighting countries in an uneasy situation:  

"The world had been broken, and putting it back together again was a difficult task. The relationships between nations were in a constant state of flux...Britain had been remarkably close to America during WWII. Notwithstanding this, Britain was deeply disappointed at the American response to a number of issues in the post-war period" - Richard Wevill

This is not to mention the perception of the overseas Americans within the UK during the war itself, where they were famously seen as "oversexed, overpaid and over here". The disagreements between the nations extended even to the production of the film, where in America it was renamed Stairway To Heaven out of fear that American audiences wouldn't want to watch a film with the word "death" in the title so soon after WWII. The two directors responded angrily, saying that they were trying to make a film about two worlds fighting for one man's life, and that it was indeed "a matter of life and death". 

In the climatic court scene in heaven we see crowds of hundreds of people, made up of many different creeds and nationalities stretching back centuries, gathering to watch the outcome. Here, the indignation that Britain and America seem to harbour for each is evident for all to see. The case for the prosecution is led by Abraham Farlan (Raymond Massey), an American who died during the Revolutionary War. His resentment for the British is based on the hundreds of years of history between the two nations:

"When our men and women came to your country as allies, it was not to become your prisoners...I've been watching you English from upstairs, your wars, your politics, your busyness"

A Matter of Life and DeathReeves tries to argue that Peter does not represent the wrongdoing that the British have brought about to other countries, but Farlan counter agues by saying that "our ancestors had a deal in shaping us too". Each member of the jury (French, Chinese, Russian, Irish, Indian) too has their own pre-conceived opinions against the defence - to pick another jury, Farlan argues, is hopeless, as they will always be prejudiced against Britain no matter what country they are from. Reeves is not innocent of possessing an intolerance to America either; in one quite comical moment he expresses his distain for American culture by playing a piece of popular US music, to which he says that he has "no idea" what is being sung about.  A new jury is picked - one made entirely of American citizens.

After the the co-operative effort to fight against their common enemy, Winston Churchil believed that 'the wartime alliance with Roosevelt was the political expression of an underlying cultural unity between Britain and America, which he sincerely regarded as the foundation for future peace and order' (Self, 2006: 1). Indeed, by the end, Reeves and Farlan have put aside the bigotry that characterised the court scene and are speaking to each other as equals, as two people who have realised that it's pointless to continue acting on their petty grievances. They are finally courteous to one another, even apologising when one accidentally interrupts the other. Whilst earlier, Farlan was convinced that nothing in the Universe was stronger than the law, he is now assured of the love that the Englishman Peter and the American June share - "on Earth, nothing is stronger than love". Christie says that the acceptance of both sides to put away their past differences and forge a new relationship is 'symbolised by an American jury entrusting June to Peter's lifetime care' (2000: 68). 

After the the co-operative effort to fight against their common enemy, Winston Churchil believed that 'the wartime alliance with Roosevelt was the political expression of an underlying cultural unity between Britain and America, which he sincerely regarded as the foundation for future peace and order' (Self, 2006: 1). Indeed, by the end, Reeves and Farlan have put aside the bigotry that characterised the court scene and are speaking to each other as equals, as two people who have realised that it's pointless to continue acting on their petty grievances. They are finally courteous to one another, even apologising when one accidentally interrupts the other. Whilst earlier, Farlan was convinced that nothing in the Universe was stronger than the law, he is now assured of the love that the Englishman Peter and the American June share - "on Earth, nothing is stronger than love". 
A Matter of Life and Death
Other than tolerance and forgiveness, it seems that sacrifice is the main thematic thread of A Matter of Life and Death. In the end Peter is in fact willing to die in order to prove his love for June and she likewise; she steps onto the staircase leading to heaven in order to attempt to take his place. Thelma Shoonmaker herself has even remarked that such a choice is something that her and Michael Powell would have been prepared to make for one another. Not to mention, Doctor Reeves (although unintentionally) dies, which allows him to act as Peter's defence council in heaven - without whom Peter would have had no chance.

The selflessness of individuals under wartime environments was also explored by Victor Fleming in the 1943 film A Guy Named Joe, which too dealt with the idea of the supernatural, of romance in the aftermath of a protagonist's death. For a world traumatised by combat, they both assured audiences that the afterlife was waiting for those who had perished, an outlook that became useful in the face of all the 'widespread mourning and grieving' (Striner, 2011: 58). Spencer Tracy's Pete in A Guy Named Joe deliberately sacrifices his own fighter plane to destroy a German boat - like David Niven he accepts his death and the fact that he's leaving behind those whom he loves. Sacrifice, is of course fundamentally what war is; just as these two people from different nations are willing to die for one another, the selflessness of those who perished in the six years prior would have been etched into the minds of those who saw the film upon release: 

"16 million human lives have been sacrificed to overthrow one man and his lunatic ideas...Out of this enormous holocaust, Emeric and I were trying to create a comedy of titanic size and energy" - Michael Powell

Kim Hunter a Matter of Life and Death
In the end, the message of cooperation and the collaborative effort of nations working together is made clear. Drazin points out on his Curzon blog, that those involved in the production of the film itself were as diverse as those who witness the court appeal in heaven: 'Powell was an Englishman who served his apprenticeship in the cinema at the Victorine Studios in Nice, France, under the guidance of Irish-born director Rex Ingram who had first made his name in America. Emeric Pressburger was a Hungarian Jew who had been a screenwriter at UFA in Germany until the rise of Nazism in the early 1930s turned him into a refugee. A major collaborator on A Matter of Life and Death – the man who built Heaven – was the great German art director Alfred Junge, who had designed most of their previous films' (2017). Powell and Pressburger created not just a love story, but a film that was a cry for compassion and open mindedness.  

"Every time I saw The Archers logo, I knew I was in for something special" - Martin Scorsese


   

References:

Christie, I. 2000. A Matter of Life and Death. London: BFI

Drazin, C. (December 7, 2017) 'A Matter of Life and Death: A Warning from Heaven'. Curzonblog. [Online] Available at: http://www.curzonblog.com/all-posts/2017/12/6/a-matter-of-life-and-death-a-warning-from-heaven

Moor, A. 2005. Powell and Pressburger: A Cinema of Magic Spaces. New York: IB Tauris.

Powell, M. 1986. A Life in Movies. Portsmouth: William Heinemann Ltd.

Self, R. 2006. Britain, America and the War Debt Controversy: The Economic Diplomacy of an Unspecial Relationship. New York: Routledge.

Striner, R. 2011. Supernatural Romance in Film: Tales of Love, Death and the Afterlife. North Caroline: McFarland & Company.

Wevill, R. 2011. Britain and America After World War II: Bilateral Relations and the Beginning of the Cold War. New York: IB Tauris.

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