The first seconds of A Matter of Life and Death bring us into a moment of despair. We hear the sound of bombs and see the glow of a city that endured “a 1000 bomber raid an hour ago.” Through the fog, we meet a radio operator and a soldier on the brink of death. “I could love a man like you,,’ she tells him. Only this is not the end, it’s the beginning.
Frequently cited as one of the greatest movies ever made, A Matter of Life and Death (currently streaming on Criterion Channel) is as often discovered by new generations through reference than recommendation. There are nods to the film in 2011’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2, and a short sequence in the 2012 Olympic Games depicted the fateful flight of the film’s opening. And while Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, premiere directors of the 1940s, are rarely mentioned in the same breath as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, here’s the truth: Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger wouldn’t have shaped the road to Avengers: Endgame without the influence of A Matter of Life and Death.
In the early 1940s the U.K.’s Ministry of Information requested a movie to strengthen Anglo-American relations amongst the public. Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life And Death, a cinematic, fantastical and hopeful love story, was the result of the suggestion. The first sequence is universally powerful, opening on a familiar tragedy for any viewer who brushed against World War II.
In 1945, at the end of the war, British Squadron Leader Peter Carter (David Niven) flies his severely damaged plane towards home base. Using the plane’s transmitter, he contacts American radio operator June (Kim Hunter). In those fearful moments, the two strike up a connection that they’ll come to realize is love. Having reconciled with his fate, Peter aborts the aircraft with a severely damaged parachute. When the officer miraculously survives, he proceeds directly to sweep June off her feet.
However, Peter’s survival is deemed a “clerical error” by the cosmic entities upstairs, and he’s soon summoned before a celestial high jury. In this heavenly court, Peter must state his case for remaining alive, and living the life he wants to live with the woman he loves. Powell and Pressburger bring the grandness — technical and thematic — to every second of their protagonist’s journey.
A Matter of Life and Death alternates between color and black and white, vividly alternating between the afterlife, and a lush Technicolor mortal realm. To achieve fog, cinematographer Jack Cardiff would breathe on the camera lens. Although filming took place in a swift two months, the movie’s grandness came at a price and laborious pre-production phase. A total of 29 sets, plus location shoots in Devon and Surrey, cost approximately £22,000 (the equivalent of over £13,500,000 today). Part of this reason was because of “Ethel,” an elevator that takes Peter to the afterlife was a technical nightmare: Dubbed “Operation Ethel,” the three-month process to build the set utilized the talents of a team of engineers, cost £3,000 (approximately £150,000 today) to build, and functioned on a 12 hp engine.
Apart from being technically brilliant, Peter and June’s story, and the exploration of fate and mortality within, continues to endure. The film’s deep sincerity runs opposite of the seductive eroticism of Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus or the frenetic, claustrophobic energy of their film The Red Shoes. In the Criterion Collection essay for the film, Stephanie Zacharek writes that the film “doesn’t sugarcoat the idea of death; it acknowledges that once we leave our earthly life, there’s no going back. Look at how hard Peter needs to fight for his reprieve. But the film also offers a cushion of comfort, affirming that those hopeful yet rational words uttered by lovers everywhere — ‘till death do us part’ — have true potency.”
There’s a lot of Peter in the movie version of Steve Rogers. Captain America, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s all-American soldier, was a skinny kid transformed into a buff soldier, and a symbol of hope in the bleakest of times. Chris Evans’ earnest, compassionate performance in The First Avenger ensures we fall in love with him, Peggy Carter, and their love story.
Steve and Peggy’s emotional parting in The First Avenger owes so much to Peter and June’s first meeting. In each movie, we read their emotions as the camera cuts back and forth between both close-ups of the respective couple’s resigned faces. Although we may acknowledge the various bonds between characters as contributing to the franchise’s great success, Cap and Peggy’s relationship, based on respect, trust and deep affection, became one of Marvel’s only true through-lines. Steve and Peggy become separated by over 80 years, and Peter and June too overcome numerous obstacles in their lives and relationship throughout the movie. Again, it seems a case of two people destined for each other.
A Matter of Life and Death’s connections to Steve’s arc found its way to the small screen, too. Steve is categorically liked — especially by both generations of Stark men — including Howard, Tony’s father, who masterminded the Super Soldier Serum and built Cap’s original shield. We see their relationship form in The First Avenger, something that Tony would often throw in Steve’s face, and makes Howard’s refusal to cease the search operation all the more heartening. As a result, Cap’s presence is all over the first season of Agent Carter, resulting in some moving exchanges between Peggy and Howard.
The season finale, too, is a reworking of The First Avenger’s climax, albeit with a hypnotized Howard about to fly a missile into Manhattan. In the plane he suggests that he was responsible for Steve’s death, and appears content to sacrifice himself as his formula was mostly accountable for the destruction. An emotional Peggy once again finds herself talking on the radio, reliving her moment with Steve all over again. Distraught and determined not to lose Howard, her dear friend and the only person who respects her as much as Steve, we are offered a happier ending.
In A Matter of Life and Death, Peter says what has become the movie’s best-loved quote: “I’ve fallen in love with her. Her accent is foreign, but it sounds sweet to me. We were born thousands of miles apart, but we were made for each other.” You could imagine Steve saying the same thing.