This is the Universe... big, isn't it? And this is planet Earth, which seems peaceful spinning in space until you look closer and see the war raging in Europe, and the effects of a bombing raid on Germany. It is May 1945 and one of those British bombers is in a bad way as it crosses the English Channel in flames. The crew have bailed out, all except Bob Trubshawe (Robert Coote), who has been killed, and Squadron Leader Peter Carter (David Niven), who is still in the plane because his parachute has been irrepairably damaged. He contacts the Air Force base in what he believes will be his last message, and on the other end of the transmission is June (Kim Hunter), an American. As Peter asks her to record his final words, he speaks poetry to her and she falls in love with his voice, just as he falls in love with her. Then he must break off and jump from the bomber, knowing he will die... but what if he doesn't?
A Matter of Life and Death was originally conceived as a way of improving relations between Great Britain and the United States of America after the Second World War, but once producers, directors and scriptwriters Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger had finished with it, it was something far more profound than a simple public information message. The film merges fantasy and reality with a love story based in the final days of the conflict, a conflict that had claimed millions of lives across the globe and that is evidently what was on the filmmakers' minds - the enormity of that loss of life. It must have touched just about everyone in Britain and America, never mind the other countries, and here was a reassurance that the war dead had gone to a better place, that they really were safe.
Trubshawe is waiting loyally in the reception at the top of a huge moving staircase that leads to heaven, expecting Peter to arrive at any minute, but he fails to appear. A confused Trubshawe then starts asking uncomfortable questions of the staff who tell him there has never been a mistake, not for a thousand years at any rate, and if there was the alarm bell would ring - which it duly does. Yes, Peter is washed up alive on the beach, and once he realises he is alive and not dead, he can't believe his luck, especially when he meets June riding her bicycle back from the Air Force base and their relationship is secured. But the afterlife won't let Peter get away so easily, and send Conductor 71 (Marius Goring sublime as French nobleman) down to ask him to give up life and romance and accompany him back "upstairs".
Peter's meetings with the Frenchman lead June to think there is something seriously wrong with his head, and she goes to her friend the village doctor, Frank Reeves (Roger Livesey, never better) to see what can be done. He elects to humour Peter and go along with his stories of lodging an appeal to prevent him going to heaven now he has found happiness on Earth, and it's one of the ingenious aspects of the film that both the reality of a brain injury and the fantasy of the afterlife could be equally true, with hints of both either way such as the chess book disappearing from the realm of the living when Conductor 71 borrows it. Peter must now attend his own trial, but who can he find to be his "lawyer" when heaven has appointed the first American killed in the War of Independence as the prosecution? That's where the hands across the Atlantic business comes in, making the point about the individual not being responsible for the darker deeds of their country (was Germany in their minds?). But mostly this is a love story, with Niven and Hunter achingly romantic in their desire not to be parted by death; and that's what this film is about under the irresistable charm, the dread of losing a loved one forever. Music by Allan Gray.