By one of those coincidences two of the cinema’s great classics of good will and brotherly love, It’s a Wonderful Life and A Matter of Life and Death, opened over the same Christmastime 70 years ago. While both films offered similar fairytales of heavenly intervention, A Matter of Life and Death has the edge, I think, for rooting its fantasy in a plausible reality. Of the many reasons to treasure it, here are just a few.
1. Its cinematic inventiveness
This is a film that dares to imagine on the largest possible scale, whether it is the tour of the universe with which it opens or the irresistible reversal of Wizard of Oz logic that depicts heaven in monochrome and Earth in ‘glorious Technicolor’ – for life, the audience will learn, is too wonderful to leave any sooner than is absolutely necessary.
2. Its seriousness
Genial in tone, charming and accessible, the film told a simple love story that was designed to appeal to anyone who had a heart. Yet, refusing to retreat into escapism, it addressed the important challenge of its time. Conceived during the last months of the worst conflict the world had ever known, it sought, without patronising its audience, to argue for the values of openness and cooperation that were necessary to build an enduring peace. It is a message that today seems to have a new urgency.
3. Its realism
Such is the fantasy dimension of the film that it is easy to overlook the extraordinary documentary eye with which it is constructed. In telling the story of a brain-damaged airman who has hallucinations of another world, Powell and Pressburger pay a scrupulous respect to the neurological reality of how these visions might have taken place. They appreciated the fact that the most gripping drama emerges out of an engagement with truth rather than a flight from it.
4. Those performances
Should I ever find myself in a burning aircraft I like to think that I shall be able to muster the same sang-froid with which David Niven, as Flight Lieutenant Peter Carter, recites his favourite poetry before bailing out without a parachute. Rarely has the screen offered such an appealing model of English nonchalance. But we can appreciate too the warmth and beauty of Kim Hunter as June, the American girl who wins his heart: she plays the role with such conviction that we never doubt why Peter should prefer Earth over heaven. Then there is Roger Livesey who, as Dr Frank Reeves, emits a bluff decency that reminds us that the best Englishmen have hearts of oak.
5. Pure romance
There are plenty of movies that ask us to believe in love at first sight, but this film is the only one I know that makes us believe in love before first sight. There is no possibility for Peter and June to exchange photographs in their radio-intercom romance, but their five minutes’ acquaintance over the airwaves leaves us convinced that they are soulmates forever. This opening scene carries an old film that finally stays young in its faith that, as Dr Reeves puts it, “on Earth nothing is stronger than love”.
Watch the A Matter of Life and Death trailer
• Dr Charles Drazin is a Senior Lecturer in Film Studies, Queen Mary University of London and a Park Circus Ambassador