“This is the universe. Big, isn’t it.”
The camera pans across a galaxy of stars and planets, novae, and nebulae twinkling in the blackness. Man won’t walk on the moon for another twenty-three years but we’re already deep in outer space. A celestial voice booms out. “This is the universe. Big, isn’t it.” And so begins A Matter of Life and Death. Rare is the film that invites you to wonder at its scope and majesty in such an unassuming manner. Atypically British in its scale and ambition, quintessentially British is the self-deprecating humour that runs through the core of its makers’ work. Strange then, that the comically understated prose was supplied by Emeric Pressburger, a Hungarian émigré, and the grand cosmic vision by Michael Powell, a country boy from Kent. Welcome to the magical, topsy-turvy universe of the Archers.
A Matter of Life and Death, Powell’s self-professed favourite of his films, represents the pinnacle of his and Pressburger’s art. Known collectively as the Archers, the duo’s production logo comprised an arrow being fired at a target. The Archers never missed the target, all their previous efforts had been hits with audiences, but this was the first in which the insignia preceding the film had the arrow land in the bullseye, an implicit judgement on the movie from its own makers. A kaleidoscopic whirl of colour and ideas, A.M.O.L.A.D. is an extraterrestrial romance swathed in theological debate that began life as a propaganda piece to help improve Anglo-American relations strained by war. And that’s not even the half of it. To synopsise a film so rich seems futile but here goes anyway . . .
David Niven (charming as ever) is Peter, a World War II fighter-pilot forced to abandon his burning aircraft sans parachute. Before bailing he recites poetry over the radio to June (Kim Hunter), a pretty American girl positioned in the R.A.F. control tower. Washed ashore, Peter awakes the next morning. Thinking he’s in Heaven (despite the fact surely even the most patriotic soul’s idea of Heaven doesn’t resemble an English beach), he soon realises his mistake and encounters a girl cycling home; it’s June, and naturally it’s love at first sight. Only there’s been a mix-up. Peter’s time was up, he was meant to have been taken to Heaven but (cue another sly but tender joke at the English nation’s expense, this time concerning the dire climate) he got lost in the fog. A “Conductor” (a deceased French aristocrat, played with devilish glee by Marius Goring) is sent down to fetch him but Peter refuses to go; after all, he argues, his heart and soul now belong to June. A battle commences between this world and the next which can only be decided in one place: the divine court. Will love conquer? And is it really happening or is it all just in Peter’s mind?
A.M.O.L.A.D. was chosen for the inaugural Royal Command Film Performance in 1946 and one can only guess the reaction of an immediate post-war audience starved of colour. Reversing the trick from The Wizard of Oz by shooting the other, possibly imagined world in monochrome and our own world in glorious Technicolor, the effect is pleasantly life-affirming, reminding us of the earthly beauty that surrounds us. When the Conductor first returns, he picks a rose; and as he lifts it to his nose to smell it, colour floods into the screen — it’s a moment of sensual overload, one of the most exquisite scenes ever committed to celluloid. A.M.O.L.A.D. is full of such clever illusions, but artifice never overwhelms emotion; we share the Conductor’s thrill at feeling alive again, a sensation postwar audiences would have felt even more keenly.
The Archers very nearly surpassed themselves with their next two pictures, the visual symphonies Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, but for all the drama of those films they lack the humour and compassion that make A Matter of Life and Death such a joy. With this masterpiece Powell and Pressburger proved they could do fantasy and spectacle as well as Hollywood ever has, and in the process blazed a trail for what British cinema could have been. It’s a shame future generations looked down at the kitchen sink rather than up at the Heavens.