9. Optimism and Ideals
A Matter of Life and Death was made at a time when the war was all but over and people were starting to think about the future once more. What sort of a world did they want to build? What had they been fighting for? There was a general sense that what came next would have to give meaning to the terrible destruction which had dominated people’s lives for so long. The film embodies this yearning for a better world to come, but also gives that longing a wider and more expansive historical, cultural and philosophical context. This optimistic outlook is clearly laid out in the philosophical to and fro of the celestial courtroom scene. Abraham Farlan, the American revolutionary soldier who is chosen as the prosecution witness, is enmired in the historical hatreds of a past which for him has become set in stone, ineradicable. His world has been shaped by war and has remained rigidly formed by the experience of those violent, disruptive times. He argues for cultural separatism, for people to remain, either literally or figuratively, on their own islands. For him, people are the product of their culture and the history (and climate!) which has created it, an almost Calvinist espousal of predetermination which definitely puts free will on the backburner (or the rear gas-ring if we want to play his game of cultural exclusivity). These arguments are seriously flawed by the undying flame of burning hatred which lies behind them and for which they act as mere rationalisations.
To his bitter cynicism and high nationalist rhetoric, speeches which had been all to familiar to people in recent years, Dr Reeves eventually offers a more personal approach. His ‘only real piece of evidence’, June’s tear, represents the emotional core of a new world, building from personal connections over the rubble of nationalist clashes. Love, truth and friendship, ‘those qualities alone can build a new world today and must build one tomorrow’ Dr Reeves states in summary of his case, a sense of urgency giving force to his voice. Peter and June’s love has become emblematic of a utopian future in which people matter above all. America is taken as an example, as if to confound Abraham Farlan by agreeing with his own nationalist fervour. Dr Reeves’ request for a new jury is one which is made up of representatives of the new America with its high ideals of a melting pot of all nationalities and races mixing together to recreate themselves afresh. The resentments of Imperial subjects are replaced by the varied citizenry of a new society in which they are active participants. This is a prescient admission (and one coming from a director/writing team who come from the conservative end of English Romanticism) that the days of Empire are over. A new model is required. That model needs to be built on the highest principles, the power which drives people’s most noble thoughts and deeds. It is the power that connected Peter and June in the face of mortality and which was made physically manifest in a frozen tear balanced between rose petals. It always was and it always will be.