Out of this world

July 5, 1996

In the second of our series on favourite films, Ian Christie describes how he overcame critical prejudice against Powell and Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death

I've come to realise that my favourite film is Powell and Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death, but it's taken time to admit this. In the mid-1960s, I cut my critical teeth on Bergman and Godard, before discovering the old masters, Hitchcock, Fritz Lang and John Ford. A "ten best" directors list I contributed to the Cambridge magazine Cinema in 1969 showed me in the throes of discovering Sam Fuller and Dziga Vertov. But something must have been stirring, because I apparently told Cinema that "my 11th director would be Michael Powell".

Seeing films by Powell and his long-time working partner Emeric Pressburger was not easy at that time. Many were simply unavailable, and others only in mutilated form or in rare nitrate prints, which required a special pilgrimage to the British Film Institute's viewing theatre in Great Russell Street. According to my notes, it was there that I first saw The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Canterbury Tale, Gone to Earth (all then unrestored), and A Matter of Life and Death. By 1974, I was showing it to students at Derby College of Art, along with Minnelli musicals and Kenneth Anger's Magick Lantern Cycle, and Powell's late film maudit, Peeping Tom.

What I'd discovered were British film makers who lived up to the passion and sophistication I found in cinema elsewhere. Powell and Pressburger were a far cry from the cosy British cinema I had learned to despise, whether this was in the form of Dirk Bogarde "Doctor" comedies or the trendier "realism" of the 1960s. And for a Godard enthusiast, Marius Goring's immortal line in A Matter of Life and Death - "One is starved for Technicolor up there" - was sheer delight. Wit, irony, modernism - and in British cinema of the 1940s!

The miracle of A Matter of Life and Death was that it managed to link an "official" theme - trying to improve postwar Anglo-American relations - with a variation on the 1940s enthusiasm for convoluted dream narratives (Hitchcock's Spellbound appeared the year before), and some distinctly English motifs, hitherto rarely found in cinema. Squadron leader Peter Carter (David Niven), miraculously alive after jumping from his blazing bomber without a parachute, is both a tricky medical case for his doctors and a poet who translates his dilemma into a "case" to be heard before the heavenly court. Medicine and metaphysics combine to create a true modern allegory.

Ostensibly there are two love affairs at issue - the romance between Peter and an American ground controller (Kim Hunter), and Britain's post-war relationship with America - but it is clear that the film is really about negotiating between the past and the future, and about cinema itself as, in Paul Virilio's phrase, a "vision machine", something which allows us to see more clearly and comprehensively. Two literary clues to its theme are a quotation from Shakespeare's "two worlds" fantasy A Midsummer Night's Dream, seen in rehearsal at the airbase, and John Bunyan's greeting to Peter on his way to plead his heavenly case. Powell and Pressburger had already made their khaki pilgrims' progress two years earlier in A Canterbury Tale. But they were still fascinated by that English visionary tradition, which stretches from Bunyan and Blake to Kipling and Stanley Spencer, of revealing the supernatural within the everyday.

So it is possible to read the film's most spectacular image, a giant escalator linking earth to heaven, as an ironic latter-day Jacob's Ladder; while the breathtaking use of Technicolor to shift us between worlds, supervised by Jack Cardiff, deliberately draws attention to the artifice of film itself. Powell and Pressburger's neo-romanticism in fact links them to the mainstream of reflexive modernism.

But did I really want to admit that a British film was my all-time favourite? Was this not somehow rather parochial? The more I looked into pro and anti-Powell/Pressburger attitudes, the more I realised that overcoming a massive prejudice against British cinema was essential, and that A Matter of Life and Death had first unlocked that door for me. And I am still learning from it.

What has most damaged the cause of film making in Britain? No single policy, but the absence of one - a persistent failure by the governing classes to understand why cinema is important and why it cannot be left to "market forces". In fact, A Matter of Life and Death was one of the prestige films that helped create a post-war climate of support for film-making in Britain. And all credit to Harold Wilson, as president of the Board of Trade, for setting up the National Film Finance Corporation in 1948 and introducing a box-office levy. But the record of successive British governments since that high-water mark has been lamentable.

In the mid-1980s, after demolishing the last vestiges of the levy scheme, Mrs Thatcher's government proudly declared that its policy on film and related matters was to have no policy. No development funds, no incentives, no quotas - nothing but a free-for-all in which the Hollywood-based multinationals were bound to win.

Since that dismal low ebb, there have been improvements: like Channel Four inaugurating the principle of television investment; and a network of Europe-wide incentive schemes, known as the MEDIA programme. Yet within the last year, we have seen Stephen Dorrell launch a modest package of support measures for British cinema, and within months his successor as Secretary of State at the Department of National Heritage abruptly pull Britain out of the Eurimages production support club.

In a series of lectures at Oxford University last year, Sir David Puttnam spoke passionately about Britain's persistent fantasy of enjoying a special relationship with Hollywood, while ignoring the common plight that should encourage European countries to take concerted defensive action. What does British film making most need? A culture that recognises cinema is 100 years old and here to stay.

Ian Christie is a fellow of Magdalen College and Oxford University's first lecturer in film.

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