Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne Australia
George Bailey learns the value of life in It’s A Wonderful life (1946.) Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.
In 1946, both the British and American people keenly felt the impact of death. In Britain, an estimated 384,000 soldiers were killed in combat during the Second World War, and 70,000 civilians died mainly due to German bombing raids during the Blitz. The United States had suffered more than 400,000 casualties across Asia and Europe. It is, therefore, unremarkable then that the cinema of the period responded to the possibility of life after death. Two movies attempted to bring the afterlife into focus, and both were released in 1946. Although different filmmakers made the films on opposite sides of the Atlantic, they share several similarities. The first film was the British film A Matter of Life and Death, and the second was It’s a Wonderful Life from Hollywood. Many observers have noted their similarities.
The American film opens with people praying for a man named George Bailey, who is played by James Stewart. Bailey is a good man and widely respected in his community of Bedford Falls. Bailey appears to have met some severe problems and is contemplating suicide. The prayers come from all parts of the town and move out into space. A Senior Angel, Joseph, sends a Guardian Angel – Second Class, Clarence, to help save his soul. Clarence glimpses into Bailey’s life during the film’s first part of the film. Bailey begins as a young man dissatisfied with the slow pace of the small town in which he lives. George’s father tells him that it is a great honor to help people own houses and move on with their lives. Despite his best efforts, George is thwarted in his quest to travel the world at every turn. He is compelled to take over his father’s small-town bank and save it during a crisis. We look at his life which becomes a series of disappointments, and finally, the bank to which he had dedicated his life appears close to collapsing. The road to his suicide attempt is a tortured descent through a small-town purgatory. This America echoes Billy Wilder’s view in Double Indemnity that the nation was a land of “shattered hopes and twisted dreams.”
At the end of his tether, Bailey looks down from a bridge to a fast-flowing river, contemplating suicide. The river appears to be fiercely cold, as there are dark snow drifts on the banks of the river. It is a picture of suicidal gloom. Clarence moves beside him and jumps into the river ahead. Bailey is immediately shaken from his suicidal thoughts and jumps into the frozen river to save him. Yet director Frank Capra finds hope in this despair. Once George had rescued Clarence, he was shown by the angel how different his community would be without him. Bedford Falls becomes Pottersville, named after a rival banker, and descends into a living hell. Pottersville is swarming with bars, strip clubs, casinos, and pawn shops. Cops, traffic, lights, noise, and strangers fill the streets. It has a violent and ugly edge. George appears to have been an angel saving the town’s soul. The experience makes George realize his life’s value and how much he has impacted those around him. The message woven into the movie is the importance of kindness, compassion, and community. It says one individual can make a significant difference in the world, no matter how humble they appear. Hope exists in the bleakest moments. Another clear message is that following society’s moral rules will reward you in the afterlife. It is a simple reinterpretation of the message of Christian salvation.
A Matter of Life and Death explores the afterlife. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.
The film’s opening of the cosmos is astonishingly similar to a British film, A Matter of Life and Death, directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. It was released in 1946 as well. Both films begin with a cosmic perspective, showing stars and galaxies in space. While in It’s a Wonderful Life, prayers float up to the heavens. In the British film, the opening show is of the universe, which seems to overwhelm the relatively minor conflict of the Second World War. The camera appears to move down from the heavens to earth and eventually to a single stricken bomber returning to base in the United Kingdom. The pilot Peter Carter talks to a wireless operator, June, and tells her he is finished because he does not have a parachute. Peter Carter, played by David Niven, miraculously survives a plane crash. He finds himself on the English beach, which he assumes is heaven. He falls in love with the operator but must fight for his right to stay alive on earth in a cosmic trial to live his life with her.
In both films, a character from another world guides the main character. In It’s a Wonderful Life, the guardian angel Clarence is sent to help George Bailey during a crisis. In contrast, A Matter of Life and Death sends Conductor 71 to guide RAF pilot Peter Carter in a different situation. The main character’s life is also altered by a physical supernatural intervention in both films. Even in small details, the films have strong similarities. At the end of A Matter of Life and Death, a book on chess is returned to Peter Carter; while Clarence leaves a signed copy of Tom Sawyer for George Bailey, saying he has earned his full angel’s wings.
The critical difference is that It’s A Wonderful Life depicts a benign system of angels who want to help the individual when they reach breaking point. It is fair to ask why they did not intervene earlier when Bailey prayed for help. In A Matter of Life and Death’s afterlife, a more hard-hearted legalistic, and cold-blooded bureaucracy processes people indifferently. Due to a mistake made by the administration, Peter Carter must face a trial for his life. He is granted a long life with June.
Their galactic vision allows these films to explore themes such as our place in the universe and the possibility of a greater cosmic order than we can comprehend. It explores the idea of fate, free will, and individual responsibility. Both films’ opening sequences establish these themes visually and thematically. Given the similarities, it is extraordinary that both films were made in the same year in different countries and could not have possibly influenced each other.
Even so, A Matter of Life and Death was possibly influenced by one film. Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941). Robert Montgomery plays boxer Joe Pendleton, who dies in a plane crash on his way to a championship match. Compared to Peter Carter in A Matter of Life and Death, Joe Pendleton was not meant to die and was brought to heaven too soon by an overeager angel. Claude Rains plays the angel’s boss, Mr. Jordan, who sends Joe back to earth in a body. Evelyn Keyes plays Bette Logan, an idealistic young woman with whom he falls in love.
Here Comes Mr. Jordan was clearly an influence on A Matter of Life and Death. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.
Second chances and the afterlife are common themes between these two films. In both, characters make decisions that influence their fates in the celestial realm. Joe Pendleton’s chance to return to life and Mr. Jordan’s role as an angel overseeing the transition of souls are central to Here Comes Mr. Jordan. Both films blend fantasy elements with comedy and romance. Not to mention that the first step to heaven is a type of airport. While dealing with serious themes such as life, death, and love, they use humor to create a light-hearted and whimsical atmosphere. Characters in both films navigate between the mortal world and the afterlife, highlighting the importance of human links and the desire for a second chance.
The central difference is that Here Comes Mr. Jordan picked up audience concerns about an approaching war, while A Matter of Life and Death and It’s A Wonderful Life addressed people who were well aware of the carnage.
 “A Matter of Life and Death Deserves a Place on Your Holiday Watch-list Alongside It’s A Wonderful Life,” 2018, accessed December 18,, https://www.tor.com/2018/12/19/a-matter-of-life-and-death-deserves-a-place-on-your-holiday-watch-list-alongside-its-a-wonderful-life/.
 A similar view is in: “Criterion Review: Here Comes Mr. Jordan,” 2016, https://cine-vue.com/2016/06/criterion-review-here-comes-mr-jordan.html.