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Submitted by Roger Mellor

Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol. 9, No. 2, 1989 p 181

'A Matter of Life and Death' - the view from Moscow

SUE HARPER, Portsmouth Polytechnic
VINCENT PORTER, Polytechnic of Central London

   The document reproduced in the Appendix was recently discovered in the correspondence files of the Foreign Office in the Public Record Office at Kew [1]. It consists of an English translation, made by the British Embassy in Moscow, of the review in the Russian cultural journal, Kultura i Zhizn (Culture and Life) of the British film, A Matter of Life and Death (US Title: Stairway to Heaven), which was written, produced and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in 1946. The underlining and the crosses in the margin were marked in ink on the original document.

   Accompanying the review is a covering letter from Frank Roberts [2] who was the British Minister in Moscow from 1945 to 1947, to The Honourable R. M. A. Hankey CMG [3] of the Northern Department of the Foreign Office which included the USSR among its responsibilities. The letter was also copied to Jock Balfour [4], who was posted to the Washington Embassy from 1945 to 1948. The relevant Foreign Office minute, which would have recorded the action taken upon receipt of the document, does not appear to have survived. Lord Hankey has suggested that the Northern Department of the Foreign Office was a key position at a time when British foreign policy was attempting to be truly bipartisan towards both Moscow and Washington [5]. At the time, therefore, cultural propaganda was a particularly delicate matter. One of the duties of the British Embassy was to report to London on the Soviet treatment of important British developments in the cultural as in other important fields of activity [6].

   The documentation thus provides a valuable insight into the cultural politics of the Cold War; and to two dangers in particular, of attempting to use entertainment films for propaganda purposes. First, it is clear that the original propaganda role of the film, which had been devised three years earlier, threatened to put into jeopardy the bipartisan policy of the post-war Labour government at the time of its release; and second, if the covert aspect of using entertainment films for propaganda purposes was to be maintained, the British propaganda machine needed to keep even high level diplomats, such as Frank Roberts, in the dark about the real nature of its intentions and activities. The Russians, however, appear to have discerned the underlying propaganda role of the film with no trouble at all.

   The story had begun in 1944, when Jack Beddington, the Head of the MoI's Films Division, had invited Powell and Pressburger to make a "big film" which would build on improved Anglo-American relationships and prepare audiences for the post-war international situation. He chose them to make this propaganda vehicle because they could, in his words, "put these things in the way that people understand, without understanding" [7].

   After 40 years of persistent anti-Soviet propaganda, it is difficult to realise the affection in which the British public held the Russian people at that time. At least two pre-war opinion polls conducted by the British Institute of Public Opinion in 1939 had shown that some 85% of the British people wanted closer ties with Russia [8], and even after Russia's attacks on Finland and Bessarabia the British attitude towards Russia was one of puzzlement rather than hostility [9]. When Germany attacked Russia in June 1941, the great majority of the British people expected Russia to hold out against Germany, if not to defeat her. Russia's resistance had exercised a powerful positive influence on the whole of British morale, although there was a strong suspicion that the anti-Russian bias in high places was continuing [10].

   When America joined the war, the British people obviously welcomed another ally in their fight against the Nazis. But until the Allied Powers launched the second front in June 1944, the British people were faced with a piquant contrast. As Sir Frank Roberts has noted, the Russians were not in the UK, but were fighting hard and successfully against the Nazis. The Americans, on the other hand " were in the UK, but they were, to use the catchphrase of the day, "over-paid, over-sexed and over here" [11]. Whatever the political views of the British people, until the arrival of D-day, there was a contrast between the absent but fighting Russian, and the present but disruptive American.

   It is against this context that Jack Beddington's propaganda concern has to be set. Powell and Pressburger's solution to this request was A Matter of Life and Death. Pressburger proposed a fantasy which would be made with Technicolor film stock; shots of everyday reality were to be printed in full colour, while those of the world after death were to be printed in monochrome [12]. However, Technicolor filmstock was in short supply, and although the plan had MoI approval, it was not until the end of August 1945 that the Archers were able to start shooting [13].

   The film was finished in 1946 and such was its ideological importance that it was given a Royal Film Performance on 1 November 1946 at Metro-Goldwyn Mayer's huge 3000 seat Empire Cinema in Leicester Square. According to Powell, this was the first Royal Premiere that had ever taken place in Great Britain [14]. Thus, the Royal Family, a prestige American cinema, and a British film promoting Anglo American understanding, were manoeuvred together into one headline-capturing event. According to Powell, the projection of the film was almost an anticlimax after all the glamour of the Royal Family's arrival; and the scenes set in the monochrome after-world evoked only a puzzled interest. Some laughter was evoked by the remark of Conductor 71, who, on finding himself once again on earth in a florid grove of rhododendrons, says ironically to himself, "one is starved for Technicolor up there!" As Powell noted in his autobiography, from that moment he felt that his technical audacity was justified: "film was what I had always thought it was - wonderful fantasies superimposed upon life" [15].

   Would the mass audience accept this definition? There is little evidence either way. According to Powell, when his film was shown next day at the Odeon, Rank's flagship on the other side of Leicester Square, the audience was much more appreciative than that at the Royal premiere [16].

   What did the film mean? The vexed question of the film's fantasy element and the relationship between the twin worlds of Technicolor and monochrome preoccupied many critics in the 1940's and has continued to do so. John Ellis has suggested that many of the hostile contemporary critical responses to A Matter of Life and Death were predicated on a realist aesthetic [17]. Other critics of the 1940s, however, gave an overtly political reading to the film. For the Robsons, those right-wing maverick critics, for whom the purpose of the film was "to create mischief between us and the Americans" [18], the monochrome Heaven contained an extended metaphor for Hitler's "New Order" in which, "since Powell and Pressburger dare not come out openly to proclaim the Germans as the Herrenvolk they find the Americans a convenient sub-conscious substitute as the Herrenvolk" [19]. [They're a bundle of laughs those Robsons and their Sydneyan Society aren't they. See also comments by James Chapman about them]

   More recently, Raymond Durgnat has claimed that the monochrome heaven represents Powell and Pressburger's rejection of a socialist bureaucracy [20]. A similar view ho been advanced by Nicholas Pronay, who argues that it was through A Matter of Life and Death that "the quintessential case against the planned society was first put after the war by Brendan Bracken's and Alexander Korda's proteges from the days of Sir Joseph Ball onward" [21] and that the film celebrates an untidy individualism and criticises rationalist utopianism. In contrast, however, John Ellis has argued that in separating form and content the critic ignores the most subversive aspect of the film, which is the challenge it throws down to the conventional mode of representing the "real world" of the narrative [22].

   Such interpretations of the film are valuable; but what needs to be stressed is the complexity and the coherence of the ideological case made by Powell and Pressburger. A Matter of Life and Death is important because it represents a bid for intellectual power on behalf of a small elite intelligentsia. Powell and Pressburger are attempting to formulate, for old-style Tories, a response to possible post-war reforms. In A Matter of Life and Death they summon to their aid a range of cultural and literary resources, the most prominent of which is that of the English Romantic movement. In their attitude to individuality, history, and art, Powell and Pressburger replicate the ideas of Burke, Blake, Wordsworth and Keats. These writers were well assimilated into British cultural life; but here they were given an additional conservative "gloss". In A Matter of Life and Death Peter Carter's subjectivity is structured so as to embrace the whole of culture and human history. With the closing of his physical eye before the operation, we are granted access to his "mind's eye", which contains both monochrome and Technicolor worlds, as well as the collected wisdom of Plato, Sophocles, and Bunyan. The film displays Peter's subconscious as the fertile location of that individual psychic power which provides social cohesion. Its propaganda aim is to suggest that what binds Britons and Americans together is their common history and their shared definition of individualism and culture.

   The document in the Appendix should be seen in the context of such debates about cultural history and propaganda. B.S., the cultural critic of Kultura i Zhizn, objects in classic Marxist terms that the relationship between the film's earthly, material plane and its idealist, spiritual one is not dialectically conceived. For him, A Matter of Life and Death is devoid of any philosophical understanding. It is tendentious, and serves as an expressive example of the artifices of propaganda to which supporters of the Anglo-American bloc were resorting.

   It was these accusations of propaganda which caused such amazement both in the British Embassy in Moscow and perhaps even in the Northern Department of the Foreign Office. The British Embassy had told the Russians about the film through its weekly Russian language newspaper, British Ally, which largely consisted of translations from articles in the British press [23]. Although the Foreign Office clearly had a quite sophisticated understanding of the propaganda potential of feature films, as is evidenced from much of its pre-war work, the Moscow Embassy was clearly shaken by the interpretation which the critic of Culture and Life had put upon the film.

   There is a double irony in the Embassy's assumption that Powell and Pressburger would have been surprised to learn from the Soviet critic, 'B.S.', exactly what their motives were. Firstly, as we now know, B.S. was more perceptive than the Embassy could know. He, or she, was not misrepresenting, nor even genuinely misunderstanding the film, by recognising it as an example of Anglo-American propaganda, whose purpose was to "instil into the mind of British audiences the necessity and inevitability for Britain to follow in the wake of American policy". But secondly, by calling upon the shared concepts of individualism and culture which they felt were shared by the American and the British people, Powell and Pressburger were also laying their film open to the charge of overt propaganda by those who did not share those same concepts. B.S.'s response to the film, precisely challenged those shared premises of individualism and culture, around which the film-makers sought to unite the British and the American peoples; principles which were also shared by the British Embassy staff in Moscow. The dominant propaganda paradigm of that time, of a passive audience which would be influenced by a subtle propaganda vehicle such as A Matter of Life and Death, was already being called into question. Social researchers were developing a new, more sophisticated paradigm, which recognised that people would only take from such a vehicle those aspects which fitted in with their own world view. Those which did not, they would reject, as B.S. so clearly demonstrates.

   Today, it is ironic to realise that in 1947, the readers of Kultura i Zhizn may have had a clearer understanding of the intention of the makers of the film and their patrons in Government than had either the staff of the British Embassy in Moscow or the British cinema-going public.

  Correspondence: Vincent Porter, CCIS, Polytechnic of Central London, 235 High Holborn, London WC1V 7DN, United Kingdom.


Public Record Office (Kew), FO 371166448.
Sir Frank (Kenyon) Roberts GCMG, GCVO (1907-), President, Anglo-German Association; Vice President GB-USSR Association.
Robert Maurice Alers Hankey, KCMG, KCVO, 2nd Baron (cr. 1939) of the Chart (1905-), HM Ambassador to Stockholm 1954-1960; Permanent UK Delegate to OEEC, OECD.
Sir John Balfour GCMG, GBE (1894-1983).
Letter from Lord Hankey to the authors, 31 December 1988.
Letter from Sir Frank Roberts to the authors. 3 January 1989.
Michael Powell (1987) A Life in Movies (London, Methuen), pp. 455-456; see also David Badder (1978/79) Powell and Pressburger: the war years, Sight and Sound, 48(1), pp. 8-12.
Tom Harrisson (1941) Public opinion about Russia, Political Quarterly , 12, pp. 353-366, in particular, p. 354.
Ibid., pp. 358-362.
Ibid., p. 364.
Letter to the authors, op. cit.
Powell, op. cit., pp. 458, 498.
Ibid., p. 531.
Ibid., p. 586. This was not strictly true. Queen Mary had attended the opening of Herbert Wilcox's Sixty Glorious Years in October 1938 together with the Duke of Kent and Lady Antrim; [Ah but that wasn't a "Royal Film" - it was just Queen Mary (not the monarch, just the Queen Mother in 1938) going to the pictures with her friends to see a film about her Grand-Mother-in-law] see ANNA

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