Saturday, February 27, 2016

Matter of Glory

As part of my New Year's Resolution to watch a better class of movie, we watched a double-bill of classic British Army movies. First up, A Matter of Life and Death (1946). Believe it or not, this is only the second Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger movie I've seen.

It stars David Niven as a heroic bomber pilot. His plane is going down, his navigator is dead, and he told the crew to bail out, but he didn't tell them his own parachute had been shot to ribbons. He has contacted a radio operator, Kim Hunter, to tell her his situation. He asks her to stay on the air, so that his last moments will be spent talking to a beautiful girl. It is hard to imagine a more doomed, romantic, and beautiful scene.

The plane flies into a thick fog, and somehow, Niven wakes up alive and in England. You see, the angel who was supposed to lead him to judgment lost him in the fog. In short order, he meets up with Hunter and they fall in love for true.

This all takes place in lovely Technicolor, but in heaven, where everything is in black and white, and they are quite bent out of shape over the situation. In the end, Niven must plead for his life, or more particularly, his love, before a celestial tribunal.

The cinematography is justly celebrated - the work of the late Jack Cardiff. The scenes of the Hereafter in black and white recall films of the 30s, like Here Comes Mr. Jordan - a distinctly Art Deco heaven. But I was most impressed by the writing (although the fate of the doctor played by Roger Livesey is a bit cavalier), and above all, the love story.

Tunes of Glory (1960) is from a slightly later period. A Highland regiment is back from the wars, in their regimental castle. Their commander is Alec Guinness, who got the post when the major is killed in action. Now he leads feasts with whiskey, pipers, and Highland dancing. But he is being replaced: HG has sent a "real" officer, John Mills. Now, Guinness is a bully and a rowdy, but the men are behind him. Mills is a martinet who makes the men take dancing lessons to improve their sloppy form and tone down their exuberance to suit peacetime society. He is a disciplinarian and a teetotaler and the men don't love him. That sets up a battle of wills that nobody is going to win.

There is a romantic side to this story, and the castle and fancy dress kilts and dancing are picturesque, but mostly this is a terribly sad story about men broken by war or just unsuited for peace. Ronald Naeme directed this right after Horse's Mouth, in color, all about modern art and wacky bohemian artists. Tunes is in black and white, shot largely in studios, and has an all-over more old-fashioned feel. But the psychology is quite modern, and very depressing. We preferred the fantasy of Matter of Life and Death.

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