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NFT bfi Pilgrims' Progress: Powel and Pressburger Revisited New Print
A Matter of Life and Death
Directors: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Producers: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Screenplay: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Director of Photography: Jack Cardiff
Editor: Reginald Mills
Production Designer: Alfred Junge
Music: Allan Gray

David Niven (Peter David Carter)
Kim Hunter (June)
Robert Coote (Bob Trubshaw)
Kathleen Byron (an office angel)
Richard Attenborough (an English pilot)
Bonar Colleano (an American pilot)
Joan Maude (chief recorder)
Marius Goring (Conductor 71)
Roger Livesey (Dr Frank Reeves)
Robert Atkins (the vicar)
Bob Roberts (Dr Gaertler)
Edwin Max (Dr McEwen)
Betty Potter (Mrs Tucker)
Abraham Sofaer (the judge)
Raymond Massey (Abraham Farlan)
Tommy Duggan (American policeman) *
Roger Snowdon (Irishman)
Robert Arden (GI) *
Joan Verney (girl) *
Wendy Thompson (nurse) *
Wally Patch (ARP warden) *
Abraham Sofaer (surgeon) *

United Kingdom 1946
104 mins

* Uncredited
Spoiler Warning The following notes give away some of the plot.

Powell and Pressburger were not alone in turning consciously or unconsciously, to earlier and distinctively English forms during the war. Even before the fall of France, there had been signs of a revival of interest in non-realist dramatic modes, in J.B. Priestley's modern morality tale Johnson over Jordan (1939); and Virginia Woolf's last novel, Between the Acts, begun before the war and set in June 1939 revolves around the production of a pageant about English history at a country house. The art historian David Mellor has argued that the outbreak of war produced a 'new symbolic order' in British war-related art, event among documentary film-makers such as Humphrey Jennings, who moved towards a documentarist-baroque in which the rhetorical modes of Pageants, Triumphs and Masques could be remobilised under the ideological aegis of the Churchillian renaissance.

By 1946, Powell and Pressburger had so fully entered into this neo-baroque that their final wartime film, A Matter of Life and Death, marks the climax of their journey from narrative realism towards a metaphysical form of filmic masque.

The ostensible theme of AMOLAD in facts recalls the political and ceremonial circumstances in which Jacobean masques were devised. Commissioned by the Ministry of Information to address worsening relations between Britain and the United States as the war drew to an end, it deliberately proposes an allegory of wartime relations: the poet-pilot Peter Carter represents England, and the ground-controller June represents America. When Peter is summoned to die, he cites their mutual love as a reason to refuse the summons; and when June offers to sacrifice herself in his place, they are both allowed to live. This underlying allegory is articulated through a narrative parallelism between reality and hallucination or fantasy. In 'reality', Peter is a pilot suffering from head injuries after a fall without a parachute, while in his fantasy - which is given medical credence - he is 'on trial' in heaven, and faces a hostile American prosecutor who died as a victim of British imperialism.

Production Company: Archers Film Productions
Production Companies: Independent Producers,
J. Arthur Rank Film Production *
Assistant Producer: George Busby
Unit Manager: Robert C. Foord
Assistant Director: Parry Jones Jr
2nd Assistant Director: Paul Kelly *
3rd Assistant Director: Patrick Marsden *
Continuity: Bunny Parsons *
Assistant Continuity: Ainslie L'evine *
Colour Control: Natalie Kalmus
Associate Colour Control: Joan Bridge
Camera Operator: Geoffrey Unsworth
Motorbike Shots: Michael Chorlton
2nd Camera Operator: Christopher Challis *
Focus Puller: Eric Besche *
Clapper Loader: Dick Allport *
Chief Electrician: William Wall
Stills: Eric Gray *
Special Effects:
Douglas Woolsey, Henry Harris, Technicolor Ltd
Additional Effects: Percy Day
Additional Effects:
George Blackwell, Stanley Grant *
Back Projection: Jack Whitehead *
Liaison Editor: John Seabourne Jr *
Assistant Editor: Dave Powell *
Assistant Art Director: Arthur Lawson
Draughtsmen: William Hutchinson,
Don Picton, William Kellner
Costumes: Hein Heckroth
Make-up: George Blackler
Hair Styles: Ida Mills
Music Conductor: Walter Goehr
Assistant Music Conductor: W.L. Williamson
Sound Recording: C.C. Stevens
Sound Camera Operator: Harold Rowland *
Sound Maintenance: Roy Day *
Dubbing Sound Camera: Peter Davies *
Boom Operator: David Hildyard *
Boom Assistants: G. Sanders, Michael Colomb *
Dubbing Crew: Desmond Dew, Alan Whatley *
Pre-dubbing: John Dennis *
Table Tennis Trainer/Adviser: Alan Brook *
Operating Theatre Technical Adviser:
Captain Bernard Kaplan *
United Kingdom 1946
104 minutes
* Uncredited

But AMOLAD is not only a politico-cultural allegory; it is also a formal and metaphysical allegory. Formally, we find again the mise en abyme [play-within-a-play] construction, this time repeated in different figures. The play-with-a-play form occurs when Peter and June meet the doctor who will 'save' Peter, both medically and spiritually, with a rehearsal of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream taking place in the background. This play, of course, deals with the contact of two worlds or modes of being, the fairy and the mundane, and so encapsulates the film's main theme. But there is also a film-within-the-film abyme construction, when the doctor surveys the village he lives in through a camera obscura and is able to see his neighbours just like the heavenly officials involved in Peter's 'case'. When one of these, the Conductor, appears on earth, he notes how 'one is starved for Technicolor' in the monochrome heaven - and he also has the effect of 'freezing' all earthly action.

These frequent self-referential jokes about the filmic apparatus serve to link AMOLAD with another old dramatic tradition: the idea of theatre itself as an allegory of human life. This provides the basis of Shakespeare's celebrated speech in As You Like It: 'All the world's a stage/And all the men and women merely players', and of Calderon's play The Great Theatre of the World. And these in turn owe something to the ancient ''art of memory' technique of placing ideas on the remembered image of a real or imaginary building, so that by surveying the building in imagination, a sequence of ideas could be recalled. Frances Yates, the English Renaissance scholar, has shown that the Elizabethan and Jacobean revival of the classical 'art of memory' was closely linked both with hermeticism or magic, and with the explosion of interest in theatre at this time. For the author of Jacobean treatise on memory, Robert Fludd, man is a microcosm of the macrocosm, and it is by mastering the arts of the former that he gains mastery of the latter. The theatre thus becomes a key moral emblem, even a source of occult power. In AMOLAD, cinema is vested with something of this same significance. It becomes a modern allegory of free will versus determinism, of the sense of subjectivity, and of a post-Einsteinian concept of space and time being relative and to some extent 'local'.

Another intriguing link between AMOLAD and the Jacobean theatre is the importance of stage machinery. Just as Jonson's and Jones' masques depended upon spectacular scenic effects, so Powell and Pressburger's film centres on the image of a massive escalator that joins earth to heaven. The original source of this may well be the story of Jacob's Ladder in Genesis, but it seems likely that Powell and Pressburger were also influenced by its recurrence in John Bunyan's great popular allegory, The Pilgrim's Progress, which they were apparently considering as a potential film subject (and Bunyan appears as a character in AMOLAD's heaven). However in this anti-Utopian and quite secular allegory, the automated stairway is a trap to be avoided. In the lines by Walter Scott quoted at the end of the film, 'love is heaven and heaven is love', but love is temporal, human, and can only be enjoyed on earth.

Ian Christie,'Against Naturalism: Space and Time' in the Films of Powell and Pressburger (1998)