October 29, 2020

A Matter of Life and Death

I am a secret romantic at heart, but keep that fact to yourselves. One of my favourite films is a film set in the Second World War called A Matter of Life and Death

A Matter of Life and Death
Film roll is clamped, 1954
Photo by Austrian National Library / Unsplash

I am a secret romantic at heart, but keep that fact to yourselves. One of my favourite films is a film set in the Second World War called A Matter of Life and Death starring (amongst others) the man of action and screen heart throb David Niven and the beautiful Kim Hunter. She was not originally cast to play the part, but I am glad she was.

Again, standard drill I am not going to spoil the plot. Watch the film. It was produced and directed by the brilliant duo Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, they also at the same time made the film The Life And Death of Colonel Blimp, a film that Winston Churchill hated, and one that I love.

The British Film Institute voted A Matter of Life and Death as the 20th best British film ever made. I would rate it higher. The magazine Total Film voted it the second best British film and I think it is often overlooked because of its technical ability such as:

The use of Technicolour film. This decision caused many problems. One was because of the war, ‘there was a nine-month wait for film stock and Technicolor cameras, because they were being used by the US Army to make training films. The decision to film the scenes of the "other world" in black and white added to the complications. Where the "other world" is seen, it was filmed in Three-Strip Technicolor, but no colour was added during the printing process, giving a pearly hue to the black and white shots, a process cited in the screen credits as "Colour and Dye-Monochrome Processed in Technicolor". (As Conductor 71 remarks during an early transition, "One is starved for Technicolor up there.”)’[1]

Being a bit of a London Underground enthusiast it was interesting to note that ‘A Matter of Life and Death had an extensive pre-production period due to the complexity of the production: The huge escalator linking this world with the other, called "Operation Ethel" by the firm of engineers who constructed it under the aegis of the London Passenger Transport Board, took three months to make and cost £3,000, equivalent to £130,000 in 2019. "Ethel" had 106 steps, each 20 feet (6.1 m) wide, and was driven by a 12 hp engine. The full shot was completed by hanging miniatures. The noise of the machinery prevented recording the soundtrack live — all scenes with the escalator were dubbed in post-production.[2]

The film is charming, delightfully so, the acting is good, and I had the good fortune of working with Marius Goring at BBC Radio during the late 1970’s. He played the part of Conductor 71 in the film. He taught at RADA. He was an accomplished character actor and I was fortunate to have met him.

What I find interesting is the political element of the film it was a piece of political propaganda. It looked into the relationship between the American’s and the British during the war looking at the stereotypical argument that the Yanks were overpaid, over sexed, and over here, and had entered the war three years late. As Wikipedia correctly argues ‘the premise of the film is a simple inversion: the British pilot gets the pretty American woman rather than the other way round, and the only national bigotry – against the British – is voiced by the first American casualty of the Revolutionary War. Raymond Massey, portraying an American, was a Canadian national at the time the film was made, but became a naturalised American citizen afterwards.’[3]So good acting does pay off.

What I didn’t realise is that a short sequence, in which Peter Carter asks June her name, was used in the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics, in the "Frankie and June" musical number. Well I am surprised. And the beach scenes were filmed at Saunton Sands, in North Devon.

Also another interesting fact was that David Niven was an avid Chess player, hence the use of the game in the films plot. Watch the film. For its time it was technically excellent, and watch it just because it is so of its time. But I know that some might not get it like I do. Their loss...

  1. From Wikipedia article on the making of the film ↩︎

  2. Wikipedia article on the making of the film ↩︎

  3. Wikipedia article on the film. ↩︎