A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
David Niven plays a British bomber pilot who was supposed to die, but files an appeal in the court of heaven for more time. Stories of this kind are pretty familiar, from “A Guy Named Joe” to “Heaven Can Wait” to “Always.” Even Albert Brooks’ “Defending Your Life” — a criminally underrated film, in my humble opinion — contains similar notes about an orderly afterlife, complete with a celestial, fallible bureaucracy and innocent souls striving against its capricious strictures.
It’s a tantalizing notion, which is probably while filmmakers keep returning to it.
But this well-regarded film from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger — the writing/directing team better known as The Archers — is a daffy, dippy rendering that ends up defending True Love as its central theme. The big court trial in heaven, which was what made me interested in seeing the movie in the first place, is a disappointing and bizarre affair in which British and American ideals are weighed against each other.
Niven plays Squadron Leader Peter Carter, a 27-year-old budding poet who knows he’s going to die. As he pilots his flaming wreck of a plane back across the Chanel, with all of his crew dead or bailed out, he speaks to an American girl on the radio. In these few minutes of insistent chatter — in which Peter does almost all of the talking, I might add — we’re to believe they formed a lifelong bond that cannot be broken.
The official story is that Peter’s angel, otherwise known as Conductor 71 — a foppish French Revolution-era aristocrat played by Marius Goring — lost him in the fog and failed to transport him to heaven. As a result, Peter ends up alive on the beach, where he comes across a girl riding a bicycle and lo! It’s June (Kim Hunter), the gal he fell in love with over the phone.
Conductor 71 appears 20 hours after the oversight to collect his charge, but Peter objects on the grounds that he fell in love as a result of a heavenly mistake. The conductor agrees to file his appeal up the chain of command.
The military medical staff thinks Peter’s gone bonkers, of course, led by an unctuous doctor named Frank Reeves, played by Roger Livesey. Frank humors Peter’s story, determining he needs a brain operation or he’ll die. On the way to the hospital, Frank is killed in a motorcycle accident during a violent storm, which conveniently allows him to be appointed Peter’s counsel for the trial.
The metaphysics of the story are beyond silly. An angel can’t find his soul because of fog? Pretty shoddy work for divine beings. I also found silly the trick of Conductor 71 stopping time whenever he’s on earth, allowing him to do things like plucking a tear from June’s cheek to use at the trial.
What I really couldn’t stand, though, was the mawkish idea that two people can fall irrevocably in love in a matter of hours. And that this would be the entire basis upon which Peter’s case stands. He can’t leave Earth because he loves a woman? What about the millions of women (and men) who lost their true love during the war? Don’t they get an appeal?
The actual trial is a just plain weird affair. The prosecution is taken up by a Boston patriot who died during the American Revolution, Abraham Farlan (Raymond Massey). His arguments are based entirely around his hatred of the English, referring to the many nations around the globe who have suffered in wars of the British empire. His pride veers beyond American exceptionalism into outright bigotry and Anglophobia.
“A Matter of Life and Death” still stands for its excellent cinematography and special effects. The Archers used Technicolor for the earthbound scenes, while the heavenly sequences are in a twinkling black-and-white — essentially a reverse of the technique used in “The Wizard of Oz.” The film was titled “Stairway to Heaven” for its American release, a reference to the stunning image of Peter and his conductor riding a massive escalator up into the sky.
Although it’s undeniably a great-looking film, I just found “A Matter of Life and Death” to be too harebrained to take seriously as a piece of important cinema. I was astonished to learn via the film’s Wikipedia page that it was named the second most important British film ever in a 2004 magazine survey of critics.
All I can say is they must have also suffered a conk on the head, resulting in overly ambitious delusions.