A Matter of Life and Death

One for the file marked “they don’t make films like this any more”. Here is a clip from very near the beginning of the extraordinarily imaginative romantic fantasy A Matter of Life and Death. It’s not quite the opening sequence as titled, though: there’s an astronomically themed preamble before the sequence shown in the clip.

Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger and released in 1946, A Matter of Life and Death has remained in most film critics’ lists of top British movies for almost seventy years. If you really want to know why then you’ll have to watch the whole film, but this is a memorable opening to a film if ever there was one.

Incidentally, the splendid poem by Sir Walter Raleigh from which Peter Carter character (played by David Niven) quotes is called The Passionate Man’s Pilgrimage. Here it is in full:


GIVE me my scallop-shell of quiet,

My staff of faith to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My bottle of salvation,
My gown of glory, hope’s true gage;
And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage.

Blood must be my body’s balmer,
No other balm will there be given;
Whilst my soul, like a quiet palmer,
Travelleth towards the land of heaven;
Over the silver mountains,
Where spring the nectar fountains:
There will I kiss
The bowl of bliss;
And drink mine everlasting fill
Upon every milken hill:
My soul will be a-dry before;
But after, it will thirst no more.
Then by that happy blestful day,
More peaceful pilgrims I shall see,
That have cast off their rags of clay,
And walk apparelled fresh like me.
I’ll take them first
To quench their thirst,
And taste of nectar suckets,
At those clear wells
Where sweetness dwells
Drawn up by saints in crystal buckets.

And when our bottles and all we
Are filled with immortality,
Then the blessed paths we’ll travel,
Strowed with rubies thick as gravel;
Ceilings of diamonds, sapphire floors,
High walls of coral, and pearly bowers.
From thence to heavens’s bribeless hall,
Where no corrupted voices brawl;
No conscience molten into gold,
No forged accuser bought or sold,
No cause deferred, nor vain-spent journey ;
For there Christ is the King’s Attorney,
Who pleads for all without degrees,
And he hath angels, but no fees.
And when the grand twelve-million jury
Of our sins, with direful fury,
‘Gainst our souls black verdicts give,
Christ pleads his death, and then we live.

Be thou my speaker, taintless pleader,
Unblotted lawyer, true proceeder!
Thou giv’st salvation even for alms ;
Not with a bribèd lawyer’s palms.
And this is my eternal plea
To him that made heaven, earth, and sea,
That, since my flesh must die so soon,
And want a head to dine next noon,
Just at the stroke, when my veins start and spread,
Set on my soul an everlasting head.
Then am I ready, like a palmer fit;
To tread those blest paths which before I writ.

2 Responses to “A Matter of Life and Death”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Powell and Pressburger produced a superb corpus of films. I’d rate Black Narcissus and Colonel Blimp even higher than Matter of Life or Death, with The Red Shoes close behind.

    • telescoper Says:

      Yes, indeed. Black Narcissus is another favourite of mine. Special mention needed for Jack Cardiff whose stunning cinematography on these films gave them such a unique look.

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