Matters of life and death were not hard to come by when Powell & Pressburger’s classic love story was released in 1946. Every family across Europe and beyond had become far too familiar living their daily lives with both in the balance. A Matter of Life and Death may have been written as the Second World War was drawing to a close, and commenced shooting the day it ended on September 2nd 1945, but it was no simple piece of propaganda. Powell and Pressburger were far too empathetic and generous filmmakers for that. What people really needed now the war was won, was a way to grieve and process its senseless loss.
The film opens with that infamous radio call between Peter D. Carter (David Niven) and June (Kim Hunter). One a dying airman, crashing towards death; the other a radio operator, doing all she can to bring him some comfort in his final breaths. In that hair-trigger moment where a last fragile connection with another person means everything and nothing, they fall in love.
To modern eyes and ears, it can’t help but feel a little naïve or desperate. But then our modern lives aren’t so prone to being snatched away at the drop of a bomb or squeeze of a trigger. To contemporary audiences, such whirlwind romances weren’t impulsive or reckless – they were the defiant act of a people determined to claim everything life had to offer from under the shadow of death.
But death still comes. Unless you’re in the movies.
With its luminescent technicolour film, fantastical plot, and open-minded visualisation of another world after death, A Matter of Life and Death offered an escapist manifesto of hope for a world still scarred by smoke and rubble.
Powell & Pressburger take a traumatic loss – the death of a hero pilot – and turn it into that most British of accidents, a benevolent bureaucratic error. Caught between a rosy and vibrant real world, and a grand and modernist afterlife, Peter is given the chance to argue for a full return to reality. His defence? He’s fallen in love.
The premise alone is heart-breaking in its purity and hopefulness. Peter and June believe that if they love each other enough they can cheat death. For millions of people across the world that blind hope was all they had.
Coming so soon after the close of war, Powell & Pressburger correctly judged it too soon for painful truths and authentic worlds. The Britain they depict may be at war when the film is set, but you wouldn’t know it from the peaceful rural village in which June lives and Peter recuperates. This is a world of wandering vicars and afternoon tea, not barbed wire and Luftwaffe.
Their rosy image of a nation on the verge of peace wouldn’t be half as effective if it weren’t for Jack Cardiff’s incredible technicolour photography, saturated with the glow of life. The 4k restoration returning to cinemas from the 8th December is so crisp and vivid it’s enough to remind you of the importance and brilliance of film photography all over again. These images might be 70 years old, but they look as if they were shot yesterday.
Forced to choose between an idyllic, exaggerated image of reality and a simple, modernist image of an afterlife, one thing is clear: either is preferable to war. It’s debatable whether the time Peter spends in ‘reality’ after his crash is real or a fantastical dream in his final moments. It’s uncertain if the visits he has from Conductor 71 (Marius Goring) are real or a side-effect of a near-fatal crash. It’s up to the viewer to decide whether Peter lives happily ever after with June or if he died jumping out of his plane sans parachute, as all reason would suggest. A Matter of Life and Death is not concerned with questions of fact or fiction: its one currency is hope.
Applied to real life, its message – that love, and raw bloody determination can defeat death and keep loved ones together – is nothing more than a comforting lie. But sometimes, when times are toughest, white lies are better than the grim, black truth. When fact and fiction, reality and fantasy, and life and death are all put to the side, this film is an echo and a reminder of the most popular mantra of the time:
“We’ll meet again. Don’t know where. Don’t know when. But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day.”
A 4k restoration of A Matter of Life and Death will be released in cinemas from 8th December. A list of screenings is available at http://www.parkcircus.com/in_cinemas?title=a%2Bmatter%2Bof%2Blife%2Band%2Bdeath