A British fantasy film set during World War Two, A Matter of Life and Death begins like many other war films of the era. Squadron leader Peter Carter (David Niven) finds himself flying his badly damaged Lancaster bomber over the English Channel, alone and without a parachute.
With apparently no hope of survival, Carter manages to contact a young female radio operator called June. They talk for a while, before he decides to jump without his parachute. Remarkably, Peter Carter survives, waking up on the beach near June’s base. At this point the film takes a turn into a classic tale of boy meets girl, as Peter and June fall in love.
But all is not as it seems. Peter begins to have visions of a French aristocrat by the name of Conductor 71. During his visitations the man demonstrates the power to stop time and claims to be an agent from the Other World. A mistake has been made, Peter should never have survived the fall. June, unable to see Conductor 71 herself, persuades Carter to see a doctor who diagnoses a brain injury. Doctor Reeves insists that Peter must not give in to the demands of his hallucinations – and so the fight for Peter’s life begins.
With incredible cinematography from Jack Cardiff, the narrative is aided in part by the contrasting colour tones of life on Earth, and the black and white scenes of the Other World. Without giving too much of the plot away, the long staircase scene at the end of the film is remarkable, and feels well ahead of its time.
While the boy meets girl theme is a familiar one, there are other underlying themes running throughout the film. Can love truly conquer all, even the most powerful structures of law and order? It is also seen by many critics as a reflection on the great number of lives lost, and the even greater number of men missing, neither dead nor alive, with loved ones waiting for news back home.
A stellar cast is given a warm and light hearted script to tell the story of our airman and radio controller, which they do so handsomely. Niven is perfectly cast as Peter Carter, as is Kim Hunter in the role of June. Veteran actor Roger Livesey delivers just the right mix of curiosity and gravitas as Doctor Reeves, and Marcus Goring is ideal for the comedy role of French aristocrat Conductor 71.
All in all, this may be a film with all of the sensibilities of late 1940’s England, but essentially it tells a story that will never go out of fashion. With an excellent cast, humour and cinematography that still feels remarkable in 2020, A Matter of Life and Death is definitely a film that deserves a Sunday afternoon and popcorn in front of the television.
A Matter of Life and Death can be found on Amazon Prime for £6.99. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Matter-Life-Death-David-Niven/dp/B00IK9BE9Y