Looking Back At A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Tony’s in Heaven.
“This is the universe.
Big, isn’t it?”
There are movies in this world, and then there are movies.

Movies which, if only you knew it going in, would dissect your life into the time before you saw them, and the time afterwards. Movies that manage to say something profound, without ever being overly worthy. Movies that, once you’ve seen them, you know… you just know you’ll watch with the same unfolding delight time, and time, and time again.

Movies like a Matter Of Life And Death.

If, like me, you’ve never seen this film before, and you’re a geek, and right deep down in the darkness of what, for the sake of argument we’ll call your soul, you believe in the potential of a happily ever after, you’ve got a treat in store.

If you like Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, if you like Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens, if you like anything Douglas Adams ever wrote – you’re going to love A Matter Of Life And Death.

The whole nature of comic fantasy is to take serious concepts and flip them on their head for laughs, and we tend to think the decades between the 1970s and the 2010s somehow re-invented the wheel in this respect. From Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect setting off into the universe in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, to Crowley and Aziraphale trying to stop the Biblical Apocalypse in Good Omens, to Lucifer Morningstar making us laugh like the damned in Lucifer, and Rumpelstiltskin promising us a deal in Once Upon A Time, we really rather like to think we’re the masters of this game.

Not a bit of it.

The 1940s is where it’s all happening in the re-invention of some of our society’s most sacred cows, for the sake of humour, certainly, but also to teach us important lessons and connect us to our fellow human beings.

1942 – CS Lewis publishes The Screwtape Letters, re-imagining Dante’s Inferno as a bureaucracy, with Senior Demon Screwtape writing out memos of advice to his diabolical nephew Wormwood, who’s out in the world on his first temptation mission.

1945 – Noel Coward sees his Blithe Spirit released as a movie, tackling death, grief, secrets and the afterlife in blistering comic form with Rex Harrison and Margaret Rutherford making the whole thing sing.

And then in 1946 came two spectacular takes on the bureaucracy of Heaven, the mistakes it might make, and the unspooling consequences for some mortals below. In the US, Jimmy Stewart, Frank Capra, Donna Reed and Henry Travers geared up to tell us that angels needed to fulfil rescue missions to get their wings in It’s A wonderful Life (just as CS Lewis’ Wormwood had to complete a temptation mission to advance in his career in Hell).

And in the UK, David Niven, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger delivered a less schmaltzy version of the bureaucracy of Heaven. A bureaucracy that is less than infallible, and that drops a ball that leads to a court case against the Powers-That-Be, as a man fights for the right to go on living, having found the love of his life in a pocket of time in which he should be dead.
The situation is simple, but beautifully constructed. David Niven, who seems to move around the Earth with a gracefulness beyond the hope of most human beings, is Squadron Leader Peter Carter – once an academic and poet, now a Lancaster bomber pilot. The movie opens with him as the last man alive in his plane. Most of the crew have bailed out on his orders, his friend, Flying Officer Bob Trubshawe (Robert Coote) has just been shot and killed, and Carter has no option but to bail out over the English Channel.

There’s just one snag – he has no parachute. It’s a one-way trip to a sudden death, but before he goes, he radios in and speaks to an American radio operator by the name of June, played by Kim Hunter.

Their chat is both poetical and light, funny and moving, and they sense an immediate attraction. Carter is brave, but not in a showy, “Look at me being brave” sort of way. Rather, he’s brave in a simple “has to be done” way that makes us root for him immediately. If you’ve never seen David Niven at the peak of his powers, this first handful of minutes will blow your mind. In the hands of many another actor, the dialogue with June, likely to be Peter Carter’s last words on Earth, could have been lumpen and heavy-handed, but from Niven, it flows like water and easy conviction. The two fall almost instantly in love over the radio, and Carter does what he has to – slipping out of his cockpit to what can only be certain death.

Erm…certain death!


This is where the film takes us into its fantasy setting. Bob Trubshawe is in Heaven’s reception, waiting for his squadron leader to show up. He raises concerns that Carter’s not arrived yet. Surely he wouldn’t have gone to…The Bad Place?

He hasn’t – but there’s been a SNAFU. The Conductor who was supposed to guide Carter up to Heaven (a French aristo who lost his head in the revolution, played with a magnificent twinkle by Marius Goring)… missed him in the fog over the Channel. It’s a bureaucratic cock-up (as compared, for instance, to Clarence’s purposeful mission of mercy in It’s A wonderful Life), and the Conductor pops down to Earth to rectify his error.

Except in the meantime, Peter Carter has landed, unbroken and very much not dead, and has run into the real June. The two have confirmed their love, giving Carter something brand spanking new to live for. Meaning that when he’s asked to leave her behind, he refuses, getting gloriously stroppy about it and, if not exactly demanding to speak to the manager, certainly demanding his right to an appeal. He was only given the opportunity to find love by Heaven’s cock-up, so it’s on them, he argues.
June, worried that Peter seems to be convinced he’s been talking to a French aristo who’s told him he needs to die, introduces him to her friend, Dr Frank Reeves (played with power and a light touch by Roger Livesey), and between them, they set about the task of working out how Peter can win his appeal against the powers of Heaven. Which, in the end, will prove to be more powerful – the rule of universal law, or the gentle ferocity of human love?

There’s not a poor performance anywhere in the movie, and you’re utterly hooked into it from start to finish. But perhaps the interesting thing is the difference of approach. In It’s A Wonderful Life, Clarence the angel seeks to change George Bailey’s mind about his life by showing him images, scenes of what the world would be like if he had never been alive within it, hammering home the importance of one life in any tapestry. In A Matter Of Life And Death, there’s a lot more telling than showing, as the last third of the movie is literally the presentation of arguments in a Heavenly courtroom. Life, death, love, morals, the rule of law and the rights of the individual are all batted back and forth as (slight spoiler alert), Livesey’s Dr Reeves takes control of the case of his new friend, standing against Abraham Farlan, the first man to die in the American War of Independence and a fiercely anti-British advocate, played with mind-bending presence by Raymond Massey (struggling with the name? Arsenic And Old Lace, Jonathan Brewster, the guy who looks like Boris Karloff).

So whereas It’s A Wonderful Life appeals to the emotional response, A Matter Of Life And Death gives you full-on philosophical courtroom drama, with a man’s life and love hanging in the balance. The two together are practically companion pieces. George Bailey’s a man who was ineligible to serve in World War II, who wants to die and has to be swayed by the intervention of an angel. Peter Carter’s an experienced young airman who, once prepared to die, is now determined to live because he’s found someone new to live for. In It’s A Wonderful Life, the system of Heaven is benevolent, sending an angel to save one man’s life. In A Matter Of Life And Death, the system of Heaven is flawed, and potentially prepared to roll right over a man’s life to maintain its rules.
You can see the through-lines in British comic fantasy, too – in A Matter Of Life And Death, a cock-up by the Heavenly Powers-That-Be leaves one man fighting for his right to life. In The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, a cock-up by the Galactic Powers-That-Be leaves one man almost alone in the universe with his planet needlessly destroyed. In Good Omens, a cock-up by the Powers-That-May-Possibly-Be leaves Armageddon and the Antichrist effectively unsupervised until it’s far too late, leaving the middle-powers (each of whom you can imagine fitting into the bureaucratic worlds of CS Lewis’s Screwtape and Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life) to scramble a last-ditch solution and save the world.

Clearly, there’s a preoccupation in British comic fantasy with the little guy up against the monolithic forces of the universe, the underdog in a great big pound.

Peter Carter in A Matter Of Life And Death is probably the most fluid and the most fluent of these everyman heroes, and a lot of that is down to David Niven’s extraordinarily adept performance. He never reaches for a laugh, he’s just funny. He never strains to push an emotional point home, you simply believe in what Peter Carter feels. When you come to this movie for the first time, it might actually shake you when you see quite how effortless many of the cast make their performances look, in what is clearly a metaphysical fantasy that feels like it was decades ahead of its time.

The point is, it wasn’t decades ahead of its time, we just all too often forget the amazing re-framing of Heaven and Hell as a literal divine comedy by some stunning writing and performances back in the 1940s.

You can be forgiven for thinking it’s ahead of its time though, because even the tone has a familiarity from later works – the quote at the top of this piece is the first dialogue we hear in A Matter Of Life Or Death. Divorce it from context though, and you could be forgiven for thinking it’s The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy’s ‘Space is big. Really big…’ entry.

The design is sumptuous, including a heavenly escalator, a bridge between worlds, and some grand conceptual design that sets the piece in place and differentiates the worlds of Heaven and Earth.

A Matter Of Life And Death has everything you could want in a divine comedy – it has touches of Life On Mars, touches of Sapphire and Steel, and even touches of Rentaghost in Marius Goring’s Conductor 71, besides the other similarities we’ve mentioned.

But A Matter Of Life And Death came before them all, and supersedes them all. It’s a thing of beauty, and 75 years on, it remains a joy forever.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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