Monday, 18 April 2011

This is the universe. Big, isn't it?

“One is starved for Technicolor up there.” So says Marius Goring as the Conductor, a sort of bureaucratic ghost sent to Earth to convince David Niven that he needs to give up his life in order to balance Heaven’s books.

If the Conductor was looking for Technicolor, he wouldn’t find it done better than in Michael Powell’s and Emeric Pressburger’s 1946 movie A Matter of Life and Death. Commissioned to improve UK attitudes to the US servicemen who remained stationed in Britain after the war, the movie almost immediately exposed the gaping cultural differences disguised by our common language. The title was changed to Stairway to Heaven for the US theatrical release, and the US censor took scissors to an early scene where Niven, encountering a little nude boy on the beach, assumes he’s already in the afterlife. The movie's humanistic message only escaped intact because it must have been too subtle for the studio suits.

Powell said:
“In the last twelve years, sixteen million human lives had been sacrificed to overthrow one man and his lunatic ideas. The words ‘life and death’ were no longer the great contradictions they had been. They were just facts. Out of this enormous holocaust, Emeric and I were trying to create a comedy of titanic size and energy. Two worlds were fighting for one man’s life. It was indeed a matter of life and death. And now we were told that [in the USA] we couldn’t have ‘death’ in the title. […But ] after all, there was a stairway in our film, a moving stairway, and it did lead to another world, even if it were not Heaven. Throughout the film, we were careful not to use that mighty word.”
If you haven’t seen A Matter of Life and Death then why are you even reading this? Go and get it now, from Amazon or Netflix or anywhere else you can. And while you’re at it, why not take a look at E M Forster’s short story “The Celestial Omnibus” too? It provides another look at that particular English whimsy that prevailed in the first half of the 20th century. Except of course that Pressburger was Hungarian and Forster was Anglo-Irish and Welsh… Oh, I’ve been here before.

The movie is shot in full color and, for the scenes set in what might be Heaven, in monochrome – not black and white, but bleached color film that gives those sequences a fittingly pearly glow. The Conductor is trying to get Niven’s airman to accept that he died along with the rest of his bomber crew. But there’s a hitch. In his borrowed day, the airman has fallen in love. And thus begins a trial for his right to forego Heaven. Or, just maybe, it could all be in his mind, as the climax takes place while he’s lying on the operating table undergoing emergency brain surgery. You won’t object to the ambiguity. All the things that matter in the universe are in the mind, after all.

The reason I was watching A Matter of Life and Death for what must be the twentieth time is that James Wallis, former publisher of Dragon Warriors and brilliant game designer in his own right, recently released a mini-game inspired by it. The game is called Afterlives and is set in the celestial courtroom of the movie’s third act. It’s not easy to see how you’d play it – James suggests tying it in with a roleplaying campaign, but I suspect few campaigns would have the frivolous tone required. Not that that matters. As with James’s equally essential parlor game Baron Munchausen, the real joy is in the sparkling prose and dry humor.


  1. Fantastic film, one of my favourite Niven roles of all time. Bizare choice for a game though. Still better than someone remaking it in 3d cgi.