5. A Universal Scale
The opening scene of A Matter of Life and Death finds us drifting calmly through the gulfs of interstellar space. A soothing, amiable English voice says ‘this is the Universe. Big, isn’t it?’ From the very first time I saw it, this overwhelmingly reminded me of ‘The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.’ Indeed, I feel certain that Douglas Adams paid homage to these lines in the rather more prolix introduction to his fictional encyclopaedia: ‘Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is. I mean you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’ just peanuts to space. Listen….’
Opening a film in the furthest reaches of space is clearly not usual (unless you follow it with a giant spaceship roaring overhead) and immediately sets what is to follow in the widest possible context. Our interstellar tour guide shows us points of interest as our journey continues, including a star which explodes because people ‘must have been messing about with the uranium atom’. The feel is of a lighter-toned version of Olaf Stapledon’s overarching, disembodied tours of human and cosmological evolution and decline, ‘Last and First Men’ and ‘Star Maker’. These books were written as war was looming, necessitating in his mind an apologia and justification for such flights of speculative fantasy, which could also be applied to A Matter of Life and Death. The tour spirals in past the moon towards the Earth, plunging in through the cloud layer and into an English fog, before rooting itself to very particular specifics of date, time, place and historical moment. Thus we’ve been introduced in the most brilliantly imaginative way to the themes of universality and particularity which run through the film. The war seen from the god’s-eye view which we are granted seems as uninvolvingly tragic as the unknown planetary civilisation whose destruction we have passingly witnessed in the blink of an eye. But then we are in the cockpit of a flame-filled bomber, and listening to the distressed voice of a young American servicewoman. Suddenly it becomes personal and we start to care.
The use of immense scale is paradoxically employed to emphasise the importance of individual, ordinary lives. By showing us the vast and impersonal spaces of the universe, Powell and Pressburger show how precious and rare the personal and particular really are. In the court scene, we pull back from the massed ranks of the heavenly amphitheatre and as it grows more distant in perspective, we see that it is the retina in the eye of a spiral nebula.
The stairway which the court has taken to see the defendant (Peter) is a thin filament linking the impersonal level of celestial justice with the world of individual events, in this case Peter’s operation. One can almost imagine this staircase being cast like a fishing line across the cosmos, connecting with any of a myriad individuals or events. It is also like a perilously tenuous thread, at the end of which can be found three nurses, the fates who are attendant upon Peter’s life or death operation. When the court arrives at the operating theatre, colour in their cheeks for the first time, they tower over Peter, who stands at the foot of the staircase in RAF uniform once more, with poses of regal authority. And yet the power which they represent, which is the power of the universe we have been shown in all its immensity, is matched by the power of the individual here on earth. June’s gesture of self-sacrifice as she takes Peter’s place on the staircase at Dr Reeve’s behest (and with a stirring upsweep of Allan Gray’s score) brings the escalator to a juddering halt. The power of the heart, the tear on the rose, can counter the power of the law, the unerring mechanisms of the universe, as we knew all along in our own hearts.