Oscar Wilde proclaimed that a patriot is someone who loves his own country while a nationalist is someone who hates everyone elses.
In Powell and Pressburgers "A Matter of Life and Death" there can be no doubt as to which they are. This is a very British film. It attempts, successfully, to show everything that is good about the notion of "being" British. Most of those things are romantic ideals, based more in fiction than fact but attractive nonetheless.
David Niven plays Peter Carter a bomber pilot making his way home after a mission in his badly damaged aircraft. With his engines losing power, his crew bailed out or dead, no parachutes left and no hope of survival he makes radio contact with June, a beautiful young American radio operator based in England, and tells her that his only option is to crash the craft into the sea in order to avoid crashing and injuring innocents. He gives a few rousing and bullish last words and then...silence. June assumes that this brave young man is dead and we have no reason to believe anything different.
When next we see Peter he is washed up on the shore. He trudges slowly over wet sand and stumbles upon a naked youth playing the pan pipes (a pastoral notion of Albion) and asks him where he should go to check in...Peter clearly believes he has died and gone to Heaven. This idea that Britain, even at the height of war, could pass for Celestial glory may seem at odds to those of us living in "broken Britain" but at the close of the war it would have been an uplifting and inspirational idea.
Of course Peter is not dead, he is alive and well, but how?
The answer lies in Heaven where we are next transported and discover that the angel sent to bring Peter through the pearly gates has missed him in a real pea souper of a fog and thus enabled him to cheat death. The angel is a French aristocrat and this image of a Brit cheating death by evading it in the form of a Frenchman would also have appealed strongly to a post-war audience...it does to me even now.
What follows is a remarkable film as Peter splits his time between the "real" world, where he has fallen madly in love with June, and the spirit world where he must eventually stand before a Celestial court to plead his case to remain amongst the living.
Powell and Pressburger have a good case for being hailed as the finest film makers ever to work in Britain and, for me, "A Matter of Life and Death" is the greatest of their films and the greatest British film ever made. It is, as with so many of their films, visually stunning with scenes shot in glorious colour and startling black and white to show the difference between the world of the living and the world of the dead. The ability of Powell and Pressburger to push the boundaries in an era when the sort of technology that film-makers now take for granted was, literally, fantasy is another testament to their genius.
This is a film that is moral without ever being condescending or preachy. It celebrates a set of values and ideals that could be embraced by people everywhere...the fact that Peter is an Englishman is not really significant; it is what he embodies and represents that is significant. He is honest, gentle, brave, fair and dignified and in a world where those qualities are increasingly difficult to find Peter offers an inspiration to those of us who would like to see them return.