6. Undidactic Inclusiveness
A Matter of Life and Death started with a propaganda dictate that the film should seek to bridge the gulf between the British and Americans and alleviate tensions which had arisen from the presence of so many American G.I.s on British soil. In the end, of course, it did so much more and transcended any limitations of propagandistic purposes rooted in a particular historical moment. And yet that initial impetus remains in the delight which the film takes in representing so many different types of people, not only of different races, but of different historical times and cultures. The differences are treated with wry humour but always with uncondescending acceptance. Powell and Pressburger enjoy these national and historical quirks and quiddities, and are not above having a poke at their own too. England is denounced as a country of dismal weather and interminably dull sports, before we are reminded that it is also the country of Donne, Dryden, Pope, Shelley and Keats. It is a country that Emeric Pressburger, a Hungarian Jew who had led an involuntarily peripatetic life, settled in and wholeheartedly adopted as his own. His outsider’s eye gave him a good perspective on the oddities of the national character and like many immigrants who find a new home on foreign soil, he eventually took on many of these characteristics to become more English than the English themselves, whilst retaining his Hungarian soul.
The feeling of belonging which Pressburger found in England forms the core of the ideal society envisaged by Dr Reeves in the trial scene. He notes that the jury has been ‘selected from many races, creeds and nationalities’ but requests a change in order to counter the divisions and resentments emphasised by Abraham Farlan. The jury shifts from a representation of the wounds of empire to a projection of the hopes for a future which has learned from the lessons of history. Dr Reeves offers a vision of people who merely happen to be of Irish, Chinese, African, French or Russian descent, trumping Farlan’s naked nationalism by rooting that vision in contemporary America. The national and racial descent remains largely the same in his jury but in this modern civil society, their identity resides in the roles they play. The uniform of a Napoleonic soldier is exchanged for a chef’s hat and apron; a Russian’s fur robe give way to the cap and badge of a taxi driver; a Chinese peasant’s traditional dress transmutes into modern clothing with a book of art history tucked under the elbow, the intellectual armoury of the inquisitive student; the Indian’s turban becomes the hard-hatted helmet of the African American soldier (a slight transmutation of race required for the cross-Atlantic change of scene); and the Irishman’s trenchcoat is replaced by a policeman’s uniform. All can take part in building the new world on either side of the ocean.
The celestial courtroom itself exemplifies this welcoming of difference and multiplexity. The vertiginously ascending aisles of this otherworldly colosseum are filled with all manner of people, sitting in their groups the better for us to identify them, but leaning across to talk to each other. The groups represented span historical and also racial, sexual and religious divides (and incidentally acknowledge the role played by women, and Indian and African American soldiers during the war) and in this immense, overarching space there is clearly room for everybody. As Doctor Reeves, always an advocate of the individual against the system, triumphantly states after victory has been won: ‘the rights of the uncommon man must always be respected.’