British Squadron Leader Peter D. Carter (David Niven) finds himself on the 2nd of May 1945 in a situation without a good resolution. The bombed and tattered airplane he is flying is on fire, without working instruments or landing gear, and is going to crash. There are no parachutes left because he has sent all of the other men out with them, except for Bob who has already died. Peter is a poet and quotes from Sir Walter Raleigh’s The Passionate Man’s Pilgrimage, whose verses chronicle a believer’s soul being taken to heaven, where it is forgiven, and awaiting its immortal body. Peter also quotes from Andrew Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress, the passage with “But at my back I always hear Time’s winged chariot hurrying near” because he knows his minutes are numbered and passing quickly.
The person with whom Peter is speaking is an American stationed in England named June (Kim Hunter), who is attempting to maintain radio communication with him to help if at all possible. Peter provides June with the critical facts of what has happened to Station Warrenden bomber group AG. He asks June to send a telegram to his mother and two sisters about his love for them. Peter explains he is going to bail out, without a chute, because he would rather jump than fry.
Peter becomes concerned he is frightening June and he doesn’t want to do that. He asks if she is pretty and tells her she has a good voice and guts and, if she is around when they find his body, she should look away. Peter presses and tells June he wants to be alone with her. He learns she was born in Boston, Mass., and asks the big question.
Peter: Are you in love with anybody? No, no, don’t answer that.
June: I could love a man like you, Peter.
Peter: I love you, June. You’re Life, and I’m leaving you.
The error of not collecting Peter at his appointed time was made by Conductor 71, charmingly portrayed by Marius Goring (who starred with Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes, beautifully written about at the Café by ClassicBecky). He is sent to bring Peter in now but Peter refuses to go with him. June takes Peter to meet Dr. Frank Reeves (Roger Livesey), who sincerely wants to help Peter and encourages him to fight. And that is what the movie becomes, as this matter of Peter’s life and death is argued before a celestial court.
This film was lovingly made by the Archers, Sir Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, just after the end of WWII. Jack Cardiff provided the spectacular cinematography. David Niven and Kim Hunter have remarkable chemistry and are provided excellent support by Roger Livesey, who had appeared in two other Archers’ films The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and I Know Where I’m Going. Another of my favorite films is their atmospheric Black Narcissus, which features cinematography, courtesy of Jack Cardiff again, that is arguably among the most brilliant lensing ever done. That film's unforgettable performance is provided by Kathleen Byron, who has a small role in A Matter of Life and Death.
In rewatching this film with my husband, it was pleasant to recall my first viewing. Though three decades have moved along, we are still very much in love.