This short series is a consideration of my personal Top 5 films by The Archers, being the film production company composed of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, active from 1939 to 1957. It has nothing to do with the BBC’s long-running radio serial about simple farming folk.
A long time ago, I watched this film for the first time. It was far enough back that I simply saw it as a film, did not register it as a production by Powell and Pressburger, by the Archers. I would likely only barely have registered the cast: David Niven, Kim Hunter and Roger Livesey, with a substantial and vital supporting role from Raymond Massey. I certainly would not have registered any other Archers’ films as a result of that first viewing.
I don’t remember when. The odds are that it was a forgotten Sunday afternoon, when a film was all there was to entertain on television: maybe I only saw the film in black and white, which would have destroyed one of the principal elements about the film.
But I’ve watched it many times since. For a long time it was my favourite film by the Archers, once I learned to distinguish between their work and others. I even played it one night when my teenage stepdaughter was around, and was delighted to see her fascinated concentration upon the film through to the end.
A Matter of Life and Death is a film of some significance. Though set during the Second World War, it was filmed after the conflict was over and was commissioned as the first Royal Command Performance. The Archers were asked to write towards a theme, that of post-War Anglo-American co-operation, but no-one expected the film they delivered, though it’s entirely in keeping with Powell and Pressburger’s individual, lyrical, frequently quasi-mystical approach.
Given the issues they had had with the British Government only three years earlier, over the controversial The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, it’s remarkable that they were chosen for this performance at all.
The film begins with its only awkward section, a voice-over introduction. We are in space, moving towards the Earth. The voice-over acknowledges it: “This is space. Big, isn’t it?” Thankfully, it settles down quickly after that and we move towards Earth, and towards the lights and explosions of a battle taking place in the air over northern Europe. A bomber flight is returning home from a raid on Dresden. It’s leading plane is piloted by Squadron-Leader Peter Carter (Niven). The plane is badly damaged from enemy action: its under-carriage has been shot up, making landing impossible, its navigator, Bob Trubshawe, is dead, and Peter is nursing his crew home to over the shores of England, where they will bail out, to home, safety, family and freedom.
Peter doesn’t have that option. He’s on the radio, reporting back to England, holding his last conversation on Earth with a complete stranger, a young, American, radio-operator, June (Hunter). He explains his position: once his crew are gone, he will head his plane back out over the North Sea, to crash safely, whilst he will simply jump out, in the dark, without a parachute.
He will die. He’s ready for it, his mind composed. He’s made his peace and now he is eager to see if Heaven is what he expects. June tries to arrange help, but it’s not on. She takes his farewell messages of love to his mother and sisters, she is the other half of this brave man’s last conversation, the intensity of the situation burning through both. Peter praises her voice, a fine voice, one that in another situation he would have wanted to meet.
And then he’s gone.
The scene shifts. Long escalators reach into the night sky, lines of people in uniform queued as they move ever higher. The scene is in black and white, making it look cold, and sterile. This is Heaven, or rather Heaven’s ante-chamber. Hundreds of servicemen, the dead of the War, thousands of them, are progressing to the collection point, where they are issued with wings. American airmen fall upon a Coke machine. Despite the efforts of a pretty, but stern and starched woman in uniform, Bob Trubshawe insists on waiting for the Skipper. Carter is never late. These are the dead, entering Heaven. Heaven is never wrong, Heaven never fails, but on this occasion, the first in millennia, the counts do not tally. Peter Carter is AWOL.
On Earth, in colour, Peter washes up on an idyllic beach at dawn. It looks like the Paradise he is expecting, down to the goat herd and the naked boy herder, playing the pan pipes. Until a Spitfire tears over his head. Peter is alive. The station is over there. And cycling across the edge of the sands, on her way home after her tour of duty, is a young American servicewoman, a radio operator.
It’s an implausible coincidence, but this film will ask its audience to swallow bigger and bulkier gnats than that, for it is essential to everything we are going to experience that the girl in the bicycle is June, and that the wild-haired airman who accosts her, exhausted, soaked and grinning, is Peter, and the crazy, improbable circumstances of this meeting be the foundation for the meat of this story.
But the situation cannot be allowed to last. In Heaven, the culprit is identified as being Collector 71 (Marius Goring), a foppish Frenchman recruited during the Revolution after he ‘lost his head’, who has failed to find Peter in the fog over the Channel. He is immediately despatched to Earth, to collect Peter. The Squadron Leader is a reasonable man, he will understand that his time was up and that he must now come along. After all, only nineteen hours have passed.
The Collector arrives on Earth, commenting wrily that they are so starved of technicolour in Heaven. It’s a glorious summer evening in the woods. Peter and June have been picnicking. Kissing has been taking place and quite clearly it is going to feature heavily over the lazy, light-drunk hours until night. But June suddenly freezes: no speech, no movement, no breath. The Collector has frozen time around Peter and himself to put his case.
But where nineteen hours ago, Peter was reconciled to death, ready in every respect for it, things are now substantially different. He has met June, has fallen in love with her and she with him. He has a future, he has responsibility for another. He cannot simply agree to die, like that, and go to Heaven.
The fault is Heaven’s, the mistake theirs. The responsibility for rectifying this must also be theirs. Peter Carter demands the right to an appeal, before the High Court of Heaven, for the award of his life.
And that’s the matter of the film. On Earth, in Heaven, there are twin tracks, both of which lead to the title question: A Matter of Life and Death.
June, upset and frightened at what Peter tells her, turns to her friend Doctor Frank Reeve (Livesey, the absolute highlight of the film). Frank is introduced in a bravura scene, observing his village and his patients via a camera obscura, a panoramic view of the village projected by high mirrors into the bright surface of a circular white table. He sees June cycling in and emerges from the dark into the daylight to hear about Peter.
Why June should think of a village doctor in these circumstances seems strange, but when younger Reeve was a specialist in brain disorders, and he keeps his hand in. When he meets Peter, the two men like each other immediately, although Peter can’t recollect any recent head injury. Frank even knows that, in Civvy Street, Peter is a poet, a piece of news June receives with a shy surprise and admiration that would give any man a swelled head.
Frank has already been behind Peter’s back and spoken to his CO, who’s discharged him into the Doctor’s custody for observation. So Peter moves into Frank’s cottage, where he finds himself being visited by the Collector. His Appeal has been granted, but now he needs to elect a Defending Counsel to speak on his behalf. He has all the dead to choose from, but the task is hard and of increasing importance when the Collector announces that Prosecuting Counsel is none other than Abraham Farlon (Massey).
The name means nothing to Peter, but it seems that Farlon has a place in history, that he was the first patriot to be killed by the British in the War of Independence. He hates the British, and he hates the thought of a good American girl being ‘ensnared’ by the hated enemy, especially a Boston girl: though separated by nearly two centuries, Farlon and June both hail from Boston.
In short, Peter’s trial is to be of more than Peter the man, but of Peter Carter, the Englishman, and June, the American. The trial is to be of nations, not nationals, of cultures and ways of life and thought. Farlan will make it so. The choice of Peter’s defending Counsel will be critical to his trial.
Meanwhile, on Earth, Frank Reeve finds what he suspects: an old head injury, a piece of bone pressing upon the brain, producing hallucinations. The science confirms that Peter’s trial is entirely in his head, but the fact that it is imaginary is of no moment. Peter needs surgery, expert and immediate surgery. It doesn’t matter that his trial may have no corporeal reality, it is real to Peter, and if he is convicted before his operation, no amount of physical repair will rescue his mind.
A surgeon with the necessary skills is found with the American Army. An operation is scheduled, and an ambulance is sent forth. But the evening is stormy, the ambulance has gone missing. Reeve goes out on his motorbike to try to find it and guide it to his cottage, but he finds it at a blind corner and, to save everyone’s lives, drives off the road. He is killed in the crash.
There is a subdued atmosphere in the ambulance, carrying the sedated Peter. He’s not totally under and asks where Frank is. When June says he’s gone ahead, Peter understands what she means, not what she is trying to say: in Heaven, he has his Defending Counsel.
The trial is an immense affair. From space it looks like a nebula, but it is banks and banks of supporters in all kinds and types. The Judge (Abraham Sofaer) occupies a High Seat above a panel of six jurors, of different nations: French, Chinese, Russian, Irish etc, representative of nations with whom Britain has warred. The Counsel stand in high places, facing each other across a massive court: sardonic, ugly, passionate Farlon and the composed and thoughtful Reeve.
Their debate ranges widely across the question put to the Archers to begin with. What they have made of it is the question: can an Englishman who stands for England truly share love with an American woman who stands for America?
The trial has both serious and comic aspects. Farlon concentrates upon the supposed impossibility of any compatibility between English male and American female, calling up a radio that gives a slow, lugubrious parody of commentary on a Test match, painting it as representative of the slowness and dullness of English life into which Peter supposedly intends to inter June.
Frank is initially perplexed, until the Collector pops up with a radio of his own. This is tuned to am American station that issues forth with a nonsensical jive song with a glutinous crooner singing incomprehensible lyrics. Farlon’s face creases in pain and he is forced to admit, ‘I don’t understand a thing.’ Frank allows the music to ring out a little longer before switching off and, with a gentle element of patronisation, admitting, ‘Neither do I’.
On a more serious level, although not without its comic aspect, is the issue of the jury. Farlon triumphantly claims them for his case, pointing to them of representatives of races who have been at war with the English: the whole jury is prejudiced.
This spurs Frank to request a new jury, this time of American citizens. He trusts them to weigh the case honestly, without bias. Farlon agrees, and in a solemn moment, each are, in turn, transformed. The joke is that each are of distinct national types, most corresponding to the historical jurors who have been replaced. But each of them define themselves as American citizens, and that point is of great importance.
The case and the film reach their climax on Earth. The jury asks to hear Peter speak and the court descends, via the massive stairway across the stars that gives the film its American title, Stairway to Heaven. Peter is drawn from the theatre, June from the sleep into which the Collector has placed her to ensure her availability.
Their togetherness and their instant reliance on each other is apparent, and Farlon cannot shake either of them. Nevertheless, he warns Frank that in the whole of the Universe, nothing is greater than the Law.
Frank takes a terrible chance. Asking June to trust him, he tells her that it is essential to Peter’s case that she take his place in Heaven. The very request renders everyone aghast. Peter immediately refuses it, and has to be restrained. But June, both out of trust in Frank, but mostly out of love for Peter, will sacrifice her life for that of her man. She steps onto the stairway. The party begin to rise, withdrawing from Earth. Farlon is still warning Frank of the enormity of what he is doing… but the stairway grinds to a halt.
At a nod from Frank, June runs back down to Earth, to the revived Peter. There may be nothing stronger than the Law in the Universe, but on Earth, nothing is stronger than Love. The jury finds for Peter. The Department provides a new, and very generous death-date, and all are satisfied.
As the stairway withdraws for the last time, the Collector throws back to Peter the book of chess problems he has borrowed earlier in the film.
On Earth, the surgeon completes the operation. It has been a success. His team congratulate him upon the work he has done. He removes his mask: it is Abraham Sofaer, otherwise the Judge in Heaven.
There is time only for a short coda. Peter’s convalescence is over, he is leaving the hospital to return to his life. June is unpacking his jacket. She finds a book in the pocket, which she struggles to remove, it is crammed in so tightly. It is the book of chess problems. Was everything more than a hallucination?
The Archers were commissioned to write about post-War Anglo-American relationships, with the unspoken request that these be promoted as a positive. Whilst no-one can doubt that that is what they delivered in A Matter of Life and Death, the means by which they approached this was far from conventional.
There are two big issues about this film, and the most obvious of these is the trial. It could be argued that Powell and Pressburger cook the books, providing an implacable, relentless and strong-minded Prosecutor who can easily be dismissed as being wrong. Farlon, who is powerfully incarnated by Massey, is a man out of his time, a man created by the mores and issues of nearly two hundred years ago, a man moved by the spirit of a specific time, of open war between the nascent America and Britain. He was the Revolutionary War’s first victim: of course he stands opposed to everything England stands for.
But at the same time, his arguments cannot have weight, because they are arguments predicated upon a time and an international setting that no longer exists. The War has seen to that: Britain and America are Allies, not enemies.
Farlon represents the voice of the past, and his casting embodies the need to repress that ancient, atavistic fear, anger and opposition.
Because, let’s face it, what Farlon is arguing for is naked racism. He’s standing for Difference, claiming not only that it applies irrespective of people’s personalities, but as a direct and irreversible consequence of their place of birth. And he’s standing for the belief that that Difference is not merely the ultimate element in determining what a person is, but that it is ineradicable.
That’s an argument that is, and always must be seen to be wrong.
The Archers also buttress their argument, by the use of Frank Reeve as the defending Counsel. We have had an hour of the film to get to know him, to like and trust him, to recognise him as being on the side of the metaphorical angels. His arrival as Counsel is the result of an opportune tragedy in which he has sacrificed his life for others. He is a man of the era, a good, decent man, who lends gravitas and meaning to Peter’s case simply by being its proponent.
None of this is spelt out to the extent that the audience sense it is being manipulated in any way, and it will be expecting and wanting a happy ending in any event.
The other aspect is the extent of the reality of this film. It takes place on Earth and in Heaven, the opposing states being represented by the counter-intuitive, and very effective decision to represent the sequences on Earth in colour. Is Heaven real? Or is it only a hallucination taking place in the mind of Peter Carter, Squadron Leader, pilot, and poet with an orderly mind and defined beliefs upon life after death?
There is very little in the film to contradict the hypothesis that Heaven takes place entirely in Peter’s mind. What causes doubt can be reduced to four points, one of them modest almost to the point of being trivial.
The first is Peter’s survival. He bails out of a doomed plane over the North Sea. he survives both the fall and the immersion, and is washed ashore alive. That’s fantastic in itself: surely he would have died? Certainly, he should have, but there are cases, rare but true, where people have survived similar experiences.
The second is Peter’s knowledge of Frank’s death, and his availability as Counsel. Frank comes off his motorbike some distance from the cottage, when Peter is impliedly in a sedated state. But not so sedated that he does not come round, briefly, in the ambulance to ask after Frank. The atmosphere is subdued, the American officer is talking about it being a shame about Doctor Reeve.
We don’t know how much Peter has heard, even if not full conscious, but he is a very intelligent man, and the combination of the atmosphere, Frank’s absence and June’s evasive reply as to Frank’s whereabouts is enough for Peter to understand the true situation, and encompass it within what is a very highly organised hallucination.
The third is the dual role of Sofaer as Judge in Heaven and Peter’s Surgeon. This is more a spooky nod for the audience, an obvious grace note afterwards, but it can be read both ways. We may not be shown Peter meeting the surgeon whilst he’s being properly anaesthetised, but it’s far too easy to posit a believable moment when Peter sees the man’s face, and thus incorporates him as Judge: after all, on Earth it is he that will decide on Peter’s life.
The one point where there is no simple explanation supporting a purely mechanical interpretation of things is, as I said, almost trivial. This is Peter’s chess book. The Collector discusses chess earlier in the film, and ‘borrows’ the book at Peter’s suggestion. We don’t see it taken away, nor at any point does the film call attention to it no longer being in Frank’s cottage.
But it’s presence in Peter’s jacket is clearly a puzzle to June who, we may assume, packed Peter’s things for him, either when he was taken into the hospital for his operation, or when she was preparing to take him home. It’s a big book, and she has to struggle to get it from the pocket. It’s not something she would miss, even in the middle of concerns about Peter’s forthcoming operation. It is a true anomaly: how did it get there on Earth, if it was not placed by Heaven?
Yet though the evidence points to a strictly material interpretation, the film seduces us to believe that it is all happening between two worlds. The very concept, of love versus the law, of the rights of the uncommon man (Reeve and Farlan agree on one thing), are elevated to an uncommon level and we respond to that. We want to believe it is real because it is important to us that it is real, that we be reassured that there is an order to everything, yet that is not a rigid order, fixed for eternity.