A Matter of Life and Death (1946): The Post War Good Place

THE GOOD PLACE — The TV show is part of a long tradition of after-worlds that link back to the Second World War.
Colleen Hayes/NBC | 2019 NBCUniversal Media, LLC.

Kevin Brianton

Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

Aside from some deplorable Australian accents, the TV series The Good Place has been a highly inventive and entertaining show on the afterlife.[1] It features four pretty ordinary and flawed people who die and are sent to the Good place – a type of heaven. They know they do not deserve the good place, and the place becomes a type of hell for them – a bad place. The Good Place has developed its theological setting with no real mention of a Christian or any other religion. The after-world contains an overarching bureaucracy that processes people with points for good deeds and negative results for bad deeds.

A management vision of the afterlife is nothing new. The 1946 film A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway to Heaven in the United States) also featured an after-world where a heaven-based management system was depicted. After a Second World war bombing raid, Squadron Leader Peter Carter, played by David Niven, falls from a burning aircraft, but it is not picked up by the angels sent to catch him and escapes death – or at least heaven for a time. His unplanned release back to earth becomes more complex when he falls in love with Kim Hunter. The theological, medical, legalistic and managerial worlds collide to decide the fate of the couple.

The 1946 film A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway to Heaven in the United States) also featured an after-world where a heaven-based management system was depicted. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster

The context for A Matter of Life and Death was the Second World War when death was a constant partner in people’s lives. It contained a reassuring images of healthy soldiers going to heaven. Of course, it is only Allied soldiers who can make the journey as the picture certainly aimed to console British and American audiences. German and Japanese soldiers are notably absent as the post-war audience would have bristled at the suggestion that enemy soldiers would have gone to heaven as well.

Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) was released before the United States entered the Second World War. It reflected the growing fear that ordinary people would lose their lives before their time. Image courtesy of eMovieposter.

Those fears had eased a little when A Matter of Life and Death was released shortly after the war’s close, but the emotions concerning many people’s deaths were still raw.[2] The idea of a bungled celestial bureaucracy almost certainly has its roots in Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941),directed by Alexander Hall, where an angel rescues a boxer before he dies in a plane crash. The records show that he still had 50 years to live, and he was retrieved by accident. Here Comes Mr. Jordan was released before the United States entered the Second World War, but it reflected the growing sense that ordinary people would lose their lives before their time was due. In a different way, Heaven Can Wait (1943) reassured on a different level showing a man who thought he was bad, knocking on the door of hell demanding entry – to find out he should really be in heaven. Some ideas were also contained in A Guy Named Joe (1943), where a pilot who returns to earth after dying to set things right.  Both films had a reassuring message about death that would have been gratefully received in those troubled times.

Some ideas were also contained in A Guy Named Joe (1943), where a pilot who returns to earth after dying to set things right.  Both films had a reassuring message about death that would have been gratefully received in those troubled times. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The story about the pilot In A Matter of Life and Death was not the main message developed by directors Powell and Pressburger, who wanted to strengthen post-Second World War relations between the United Kingdom and the United States. The political message that drove the film’s production is now redundant – particularly after 70 years of the special relationship – the afterlife’s central message is now the film’s underlying strength.

The story about the pilot in A Matter of Life and Death was not the main message developed by directors Powell and Pressburger, who wanted to strengthen post-Second World War relations between the United Kingdom and the United States. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The most recognised film which looked into the afterlife was It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), directed by Frank Capra. George Bailey, played by James Stewart, facing ruin and humiliation in his small hometown of Bedford Falls, feels his existence is meaningless and contemplates suicide. Again an angel is involved; Clarence, played by Henry Travers, comes down to demonstrate to a suicidal Bailey the profound difference he made to the town and people of Bedford Falls throughout his life. Again it is benign after-world, looking after the interests of an individual in distress. The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947) and Down to Earth (1947) also have similar benign after-worlds. The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947) directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, shows Mrs Muir being wooed by a ghost. When she dies she is returned to her youthful glory. Death is a releases and it revitalises her and people continue on.

Another example of a benign post war afterworld is The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947) directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, which shows Mrs Muir being wooed by a ghost. When she dies she is returned to her youthful glory. Death revitalises her soul and people continue on. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The after worlds of The Good Place and A Matter of Life and Death have some similarities – even a judge. In A Matter of Life and Death, it is a serious British judge, while in the American TV show, it is a goofball American woman who binge-watches TV. God is not seen or even hinted at. Indeed, all these after-worlds contain ideas from various religions, but none suggests that any formal religion is correct. Each of these after-worlds is a relatively benign place, as the films were created to ease tensions in wartime audiences.  

Made 70 years later and for a vastly different medium, The Good Place has a darker edge, saying that bad people will be brutally punished for eternity – not a comfortable thought. The Second World War was not place for such thoughts. The Good Place had four seasons, and its final show was on 20 January 2020, just before the COVID-19 virus devastated the United States and has killed more than 200,000 people over eight months. The impact of COVID is more than comparable to the Second World War’s death rates when the United States suffered 416,000 casualties over five years. It is entirely likely that deaths from the disease will surpass those of the Second World War. While the program was well-received on its release, it will be interesting to see how The Good Place is considered in the COVID period and after, when the prospect of death is far more immediate. It may be that future programs of its kind are more like A Matter of Life and Death, with reassuring messages, similar to the films from the Second World War. [3]


[1] Actors from the United States struggle with the Australia accent. For Australian viewers, their attempts are just painful. When Ted Danson’s character announces he nailed the accent, I wanted to throw a brick at him. His accent is so poor, I can only assume the line was a joke. Danson is by no means the worst offender in cinematic history- but he is now on the honour roll. As bad as Danson projects his Australian accent, Kirby Howell-Baptiste in the same program is just abysmal. It is possible that the accents are just jokes, but that does not let the actors off the hook. Many Australian actors work in the United States and the United Kingdom and manage to cope with American accents. See https://www.eonline.com/au/news/983011/the-good-place-creator-michael-schur-debunks-all-those-australian-accent-theories.[3]

[2] Some ideas are contained in Jim McDonald, Maybe angels: glimpses of spirituality in popular culture, 199 – 209. In G Mazza, J Srampickal, et al. Cross Connections: Interdisciplinary Communications Studies At The Gregorian University 2006.

[3] For a broader discussion see Christie, Ian, and British Film Institute. A Matter of Life and Death. BFI Film Classics. London: BFI Pub., 2000, . Brian McFarlane reviews the book well “Ian Christie A Matter of Life and Death.” Metro Magazine, no. 139 (2004): 194.

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