A Matter of Film and Glory: The Archers – Introduction


A long time ago, I watched and got hooked upon a weird old British film called A Matter of Life and Death (known in America as Stairway to Heaven, loooong before anyone had heard of the Yardbirds, let alone Led Zeppelin).
I expect it would have been a Sunday afternoon, when no other entertainment or excitement was permitted, and BBC and ITV would schedule films to stretch out the long hours between dinner and tea (even longer for those who went to Evening Service).
But one day, when we still had black and white TVs, when one of the more unusual aspects of the film would have been completely obscured, I found A Matter of Life and Death on, and watched it, and grew fascinated.
It was about a British bomber pilot, played by David Niven, who baled out of a crippled airplane without a parachute and woke up alive. He should have died, but Heaven made a mistake, and when they came to pick him up, he’d met and fallen in love with an American woman.
Because of his refusal to simply give in and die, the pilot went on trial for his life before the Court of Heaven.
A Matter of Life and Death was made in 1946, and was the first Royal Command Performance film. It co-starred Kim Hunter and a criminally underrated and undervalued British actor called Roger Livesey, and was written by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and directed by Powell. Livesey was a favourite of the pair and had a starring role in several of their films, including one which is known as probably the greatest English epic of all time.
Powell and Pressburger – the one from Kent, the other from Hungary – had teamed up to make films that represented their shared sensibilities in 1940. With their third film as a partnership – One of our Aircraft is Missing – they began calling themselves The Archers, and remained a successful Film Production team for almost twenty years, before ending their partnership in 1957, though they would work together again on two later productions.
In between, they made a number of visually splendid, artful, thought-provoking and, in one case at least, highly-controversial films. Over the years, I gradually worked my way through other works by The Archers, learning to relish the experimental, emotional and frequently quasi-mystical nature of Powell and Pressburger’s instincts.
In the mid-2000’s, a 9 DVD boxset of the duo’s works was released, a superb compilation that was deficient only in its inexplicable decision to exclude the astonishing Black Narcissus. Within a year, a revised 11 disc set was released, including that film. It contains all the partnership’s landmark and classic films, though One of our Aircraft is Missing was still omitted.
Though nearly every film from Powell and Pressburger has at least something to recommend it, I’ve always had my particular favourites among their work. In keeping with universal tradition, this should amount to a Top Five, which I will review in, of course, ascending order. However, as this would be to exclude the simply marvelous The Red Shoes, I shall preface this short series of posts with an Honourable Mention.

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