Way back in 2011, long before he was cast in the TV adaptation of Good Omens, actor Michael Sheen (Aziraphale) told MTV that his favourite film was Powell and Pressburger’s 1945 masterpiece A Matter of Life and Death. That was still the case in 2019, as confirmed on social media. For someone currently appearing as an angel, it’s an incredibly appropriate favourite film – and the makers of Good Omens must have been listening, because there are several Easter eggs nodding to the film appearing in the fantasy-comedy’s second season.
An Unusual Origin
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were British film-makers who started a production company called The Archers in 1939, just a few years after Pressburger came to Britain having fled the Nazis. As well as producing, they wrote and directed several very well-known and hugely influential films during the 1940s, including The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, and perhaps most famously of all, A Matter of Life and Death.
Released in the US under the title Stairway to Heaven, A Matter of Life and Death has probably the strangest origin story of any epic wartime romance featuring angels and a heavenly courtroom. It was made at the request of Jack Beddington, head of film at the British Ministry of Information, i.e., propaganda.
The war in Europe was drawing to a close, and the British government were becoming aware that there was considerable tension between British citizens and the American forces stationed in the UK, and that the Americans were not very keen on the British in general – still seeing them primarily as tax-obsessed tyrants – and were unlikely to want to hang around after the war had been won. The Ministry of Information wanted a propaganda film to encourage both Brits and Americans to see themselves as allies, working together. They did not actually pay for the film – hence Powell and Pressburger’s freedom to interpret the brief very broadly – but it was made because of that request.
The Ministry of Information were probably not expecting what they got, which is an epic romance about the transcendental power of love, the possibility of an afterlife, the complexity of the human brain, and the difficulty of finding someone in the fog when your head has been cut off.
An Epic Love Story
A Matter of Life and Death tells the story of the love affair between English pilot Peter Carter (David Niven) and American radio operator June (Kim Hunter) in the very last days of the Second World War in Europe. Peter’s parachute has been destroyed and he is about to jump out of his burning plane to his death (on the grounds that “I’d rather jump than fry”). He and June become attracted to one another over their brief radio conversation before he jumps and June bursts into tears (in a scene deliberately echoed decades later in Captain America: The First Avenger).
But Peter does not die. He lands in the English Channel and washes up on the beach, and after briefly mistaking it for Heaven, finds June and they fall in love and spend the evening together. But their romantic late night picnic is interrupted by the arrival of Conductor 71 (Marius Goring), a Frenchman who was executed during the Revolution and who was supposed to escort Peter to Heaven the day before, but lost him in the fog over the Channel. Peter protests that he is no longer prepared and willing to die, and hi-jinks ensue, culminating in a great trial in Heaven to determine whether Peter should be given more life on Earth to spend with June or not. The film eventually gets to the Anglo-American relations bit during the trial, in which the Counsel for the Prosecution is a very angry American called Abraham Farlan (Raymond Massey), who was the first casualty of the American War of Independence and who argues that the American June should not be subjected to the horrors of marriage to an Englishman.
A Vision of Heaven
It is hard to over-estimate the influence of A Matter of Life and Death on subsequent screen versions of Heaven. Have you ever seen a shot of a massive staircase taking people from Earth to Heaven, possibly lined with statues? That’s from A Matter of Life and Death – hence the American title. Remember how the afterlife in Gladiator was sometimes a sort of washed-out black and white colour? That’s from A Matter of Life and Death, which famously depicted Earth in Technicolour and Heaven in black and white. Angels checking people in to Heaven as they arrive? A Matter of Life and Death. Some people thinking endless admin is actually Heaven because the perfect life is different for different people? A Matter of Life and Death. A giant, amphitheatre-like space in Heaven that can seat as many people as want to be there? A Matter of Life and Death.
The influence of Powell and Pressburger’s film is clear to see in Good Omens. The bureaucratic elements of Heaven, with angels in white suits sitting as desks and doing admin, are very much in the mould of Powell and Pressburger’s highly organised afterlife, where new arrivals are measured for their wings by neatly suited angels with tape measures. The opposing elevators leading to Heaven in one direction and Hell in the other are a neat update of the famous staircase, which in fact was always an elevator itself. Its constant movement is a minor plot point in the film and a moment it abruptly stops is key to the resolution of the movie.
More importantly, though, Good Omens echoes the themes of A Matter of Life and Death, which are, in a nutshell, the power of love and the importance of resisting authority when necessary. Peter’s love for June prompts him to defy Heaven itself, resisting his early demise. Exploiting Conductor 71’s mistake, Peter insists that a special exemption from the rules must be made for him, because his love is so strong and so important. In Good Omens, we see Crowley and Aziraphale similarly defy all the forces of Heaven and Hell, and although they have several motives for doing so, the main thing keeping them going and driving them forwards is clearly their love for each other.
Keep Your Eyes Peeled For Easter eggs…
Season two doubles down on both those themes, so it is hardly surprising to see that this season features several direct references to A Matter of Life and Death tucked away as Easter eggs, as well as references to other works by Powell and Pressburger. In fact, every single episode features some kind of reference to their films. On 4th August, Amazon will be releasing their X-Ray feature for Good Omens season two on Prime Video, which will allow viewers to look up each and every one of the over 200 Easter eggs of various kinds dotted throughout the show, including the Powell and Pressburger references. In the meantime, we’ll point out just a few of the most notable references to Powell and Pressburger, and to A Matter of Life and Death in particular.
The most prominent is the American poster for the film, which appears in the opening title sequence in the World War Two section, and which can also be seen directly behind Aziraphale when he is standing in Maggie’s record shop in episode two . In fact, the posters on sale in Maggie’s record shop are all for Powell and Pressburger films! Another nod to their other works turns up in the title of Episode 3, ‘I Know Where I’m Going’. This is named for another 1940s film from the pair, a romantic comedy set during World War Two about an Englishwoman going to Scotland, dealing with an ancient curse, and finding she does not want the things (or the people) she thought she wanted – very appropriate for an episode largely set in Scotland.
The deepest cut Easter egg, though, is the book Gabriel/Jim uses to test the force of gravity in the same episode. The book, Alexander Alekhine’s My Best Games of Chess 1908-1923, and specifically the edition of it that Gabriel repeatedly plonks down on the table, features prominently in A Matter of Life and Death. Conductor 71 borrows it from Peter after visiting him at his doctor’s house and promises to return it. The doctor’s house is stacked with books in the manner of a true book-lover and Peter, who has been playing chess, may have been reading it. After the Conductor’s visit, Peter tells June and Doctor Reeves (Roger Livesey) that his heavenly visitor has walked off with the book. They, convinced he is suffering from a brain injury, largely ignore this.
Without spoiling the movie too much, we do later see Conductor 71 return the book by flinging it down the heavenly staircase/elevator, and it appears in Peter’s coat pocket. It is a key aspect of the film’s refusal to confirm one way or another whether Peter is really fighting angels and the forces of Heaven to get another chance at life, or whether he is brain-damaged and hallucinating as a result of jumping out of a plane without a parachute, and needs surgery. (Or, perhaps most likely of all, both). Did Conductor 71 borrow the book and return it to Peter’s pocket? Or did Peter, who is of course suffering from a brain injury, put it in his pocket and forget where he left it? Like the spinning top in Inception, the film refuses to answer the question definitively.
In Good Omens, of course, despite the well known atheism of at least one of its writers (Terry Pratchett), there is no such ambiguity. If there is no Heaven, Hell, angels or demons, then there is no story here. But the appearance of the book as Gabriel/Jim desperately tries to understand the world around him is not a coincidence. It is a reminder of how uncertain we really are about what is actually going on in the world around us, of how mysterious the world can be, and how we can never really be quite sure of what is going on, even if we think we know where we’re going.
If you have never seen A Matter of Life and Death/Stairway to Heaven, we cannot recommend it highly enough. Even the court case, which becomes a conversation about British and American prejudices against each other in 1945, manages to be both compelling and amusing, and the rest of the film is a truly romantic, epic, sweeping love story in which we are reminded that, “as Sir Walter Scott is always saying, ‘Love is Heaven, and Heaven is Love’”.
Good Omens season two is available to stream on Prime Video.