A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

PG   |    |  Comedy, Drama, Fantasy


A Matter of Life and Death (1946) Poster

A British wartime aviator who cheats death must argue for his life before a celestial court.


8.1/10
17,364

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  • A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
  • David Niven and Kim Hunter at an event for A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
  • David Niven and Kim Hunter in A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
  • A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
  • A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

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9 February 2003 | bob the moo
Wonderful if flawed
WW2. RAF pilot Peter Carter's plane is shot to pieces and his parachute is destroyed. In his final distress call he talks to American WREN June on the radio and they bond at that time, when Peter knows he is doomed. They bid farewell and Peter jumps to his death. Later he wakes on a beach to find he survived and he runs to meet June and the two quickly fall in love. However, in heaven there is panic as one of the collectors of souls admits he missed collecting Peter at the moment of his death due to the thick fog all round. When Peter learns of this he appeals and a heavenly court case is convened in order to decide his fate.

This film was made on request from the MOD (ministry of defence). At the time they wanted a film that was set in wartime and stressed the importance of Britain and America overcoming any cultural differences between them and to stand together. The end result could have easily been a big flag waving exercise that would have been historically added to the pile of average propaganda made around the time (albeit for good reason).

However the actual end result is that the film transcends what it could have been and turns into something that is quite wonderful – witty and moving at the same time. The actual story is a little cheesy and on paper sounds like it could be a disaster and in reality it could have been. The film is never clear if it is real or if it is all in Peter's head and it doesn't matter. The plot allows plenty of nice touches as well as romance. The romantic/emotional side of films don't always wash with me but here I was gripped from the start simply by the powerful radio scene. It's very British (stiff upper lip) but still very moving.

The film just about hangs in there during the middle section where Peter falls in love and his supposed hallucinations are discussed by doctors but the film really comes strong in it's climactic court scene. It is witty and plays on national stereotypes really well and makes the point without forcing it down our throats. It works very well and even the sentimentality is well handled and is never as sugary as it could have been.

Niven is superb and is typically British in the lead. Hunter is pretty good but a little too sappy. The strength of the film is in it's support cast – the final courtroom scene relies more on the support cast than Niven or Hunter (who are barely in it towards the end) and yet it works very well. In fact the best characters are all in the afterlife and not the film's real world. The best element of the film is that the direction and sets are great. The gimmick of b/w and colour works better than expected and the use of it really works well – but shouldn't heaven be in colour and earth in monochrome? Maybe that was the point, I guess. The sets are really good and it's easy to be impressed by that staircase even by today's standards – not technically but just in the power of the image.

Overall this is a solid film. I don't think it deserves all the praise that it gets and if I had to list my top 100 then I'm not sure it would be in there but that's not to take away from it because it is a wonderful piece of work. The emotion is powerful without being sentimental and the film is witty and moving in equal measure.

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