Tag Archives: Roger Livesey

A Matter of Life and Death (1946) – also released as Stairway to Heaven

download (1)A Matter of Life and Death (released in the United States as Stairway to Heaven) is a fantasy of whimsy, romance and a message. The message is a promotion of British and American harmony after WWII. I am curious  to know what the state of relations between American and Britain was that they felt they needed to make this movie. But whatever the political motivations for the film, it remains a lovely fantasy romance, somewhat in the vein of Here Comes Mr. Jordan.

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger formed their production company, The Archers, in 1939, and directed, wrote and produced some of Britain’s loveliest, most romantic, imaginative and powerful movies: Red ShoesI Know Where I’m Going!The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. The latter two are especial favorites of mine, but A Matter of Life and Death could be right up there (interestingly, my favorites all have one thing in common, actor Roger Livesey). The movie also marked the return to movies of David Niven, who had left Hollywood for England and enlisted in the army in 1939.

But the film begins as the war was still going on in 1945. Squadron Leader Peter Carter (David Niven) is flying his bomber back to England. But the engine’s on fire and he’s lost his landing gear. He long since ordered his men to leave the plane, except Bob (Robert Coote), who died. He has two choices, fry or jump…even though he does not have a parachute. He chooses jumping. But an American radio operator, June (Kim Hunter), manages to contact him and they talk as his plane is flying down. She wants to find a way to help him, but he wants someone to talk to in his last minutes, quoting Sir Walter Raleigh, asking if she’ll send a telegram to his mother telling her that he always loved her, though he never expressed it, wanting to know where June was born (Boston) and so on. There’s no music; it’s one of those breathlessly poetic moments with two strangers making a human connection in the face of death.

David Niven and Kim Hunter

David Niven and Kim Hunter

Peter jumps from the plane and is sure that he’s dead. But in the afterlife (Powell and Pressburger were careful not to ever mention heaven; they felt it was too limited a definition for this film) Bob is waiting for Peter and when he doesn’t show up, the afterlife attendants must figure out what went wrong. As in Here Comes Mr. Jordan, there has been a mistake. Conductor 71 (Marius Goring – a French aristocrat who lost his head, though it seems to be back on now) lost sight of Peter in the fog and missed him. Instead of being conducted upwards, Peter is now wandering around on earth.

Peter and June soon meet and fall in love instantly (they really fell in love when they heard each other’s voice). But Peter keeps having what may be hallucinations. He sees Conductor 71, who asks him to kindly come with him to the afterlife. Peter refuses. He says his time may have been up, but through no fault of his own, a mistake was made and now he’s fallen in love. Things are different and he demands to be allowed to stay. Peter also has headaches and June is concerned. She asks Dr. Frank Reeves (Roger Livesey) to help, who diagnoses a brain injury.

But Peter has been granted a trial in the afterlife to justify his right to go on living. He will be prosecuted by Abraham Fallon (Raymond Massey), an American patriot from Boston who was the first man to be shot by a redcoat during the American Revolution. He hates the British and especially hates the fact that an Englishman has fallen in love with a girl from Boston. Peter is told that he can choose anyone he wants to defend him, as long as they are dead. But Peter cannot decide who he wants and Dr. Reeves is afraid that his time is running out and they need to operate soon.

Conductor 71, Peter, Dr. Reeves and June

Conductor 71, Peter, Dr. Reeves and June

The film culminates with a trial where the question at stake is whether or not Peter and June really love each other and should be allowed to be together. Is love stronger than the law of the universe? Powell and Pressburger seem to be going out of their way to show that Americans are all right…a little young, less educated, less poetic, and more energetic, but with values that aren’t so different from Britain’s. The directors are even quite willing to poke a little fun at themselves and point to some of their shortcomings, like colonialism. The jury is requested to be made of up Americans. Though good old fashioned British values are still very much in evidence with their rich literary history (represented by the erudite and imaginative Peter, who is a poet) and laws. The setting of the earth part of the film is in that very British country village that can be found in many a British movie and novel.

There is a funny parody of British and American culture when Fallon turns on a radio to demonstrate the state of British society. An extremely dry British voice comes on, commenting dully on the weather, cricket and how emblematic this scene is of England. Peter’s counsel responds by tuning into an American station, which features a somewhat juvenile American pop song.

But the film also goes out of its way to be inclusive, showing people in the afterlife from history and the present, from all parts of American and British life (blacks and whites, representatives of the British Empire, American immigrants from all around the world). It is left ambiguous if the afterlife sequences, Conductor 71 or the trial really happened, however. Dr. Reeves believes they are hallucinations and the product of an imaginative mind.

imagesAll the afterlife sequences are filmed in black and white, whereas the scenes on earth are in Technicolor. There is a lovely moment when Conductor 71 is looking at the rose on his coat in black and white and it gradually shades into vibrant color and Conductor 71 is now standing on earth, amidst a riot of flowers and colors where Peter and June are sitting. “One is starved for Technicolor up there,” he says. This works in reverse when Peter’s counsel capture a tear from June and store it on Conductor 71’s rose to use as evidence that June loves Peter. The rose goes from Technicolor back into black and white, with the tear on it.

The Technicolor is stunning and must have been even more so on a big screen. It does suggest, whether the afterlife sequences are real or not, that life on earth is where love, life, vibrancy and feeling are. It’s contrasted with the black and white bureaucratic other world, though it’s still a whimsical other world. And although the film begins with an exploration of the vast cosmos, demonstrating how small earth is, it still gives the sense that earth is more vibrantly alive than anything else. And although it was an accident that Peter didn’t die, it seems as if it were fated to be so, that he and June would fall in love.

The actors are fantastic. David Niven exactly embodies the RAF pilot, the Oxford student who interrupted his education to fight and faces danger sangfroid. Kim is warm as the American who has easily navigated the new environment of England. I’ve only seen Roger Livesey in a few movies, but loved him in everyone of them, representing in this film the wise and philosophic perspective. And Marius Goring is a hoot as Conductor 71, a whimsical figure, sentimental about love, likes chess and is engaged in a figurative match with Peter in his various attempts to trick or lure him into coming with him.


Posted by on June 29, 2015 in Movies


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The Master of Ballantrae (1953) – Errol Flynn’s Final Pirate Outing

the-master-of-ballantrae-movie-poster-1953-1020250173The Master of Ballantrae is not technically a pirate movie, but I think Errol Flynn’s character is a pirate long enough for it to count, making this movie his fourth pirate film and him the indisputable king of swashbuckling piracy (his other pirate movies were Captain Blood (1935), The Sea Hawk (1940), and Against All Flags (1952)).

The movie was adapted from Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, Master of Ballantrae: A Winter’s Tale, which I have not read, but understand to be a bit more grim than the film, about two feuding brothers during the Jacobite Rebellion. In the movie, the feuds more of a misunderstanding than anything else. Errol Flynn is Jamie Durie, the Master of Ballantrae. He is engaged to the love of his life, Lady Alison (Beatrice Campbell), but also visits local girl Jessie Brown (Yvonne Furneaux) on the side. His brother, Henry (Anthony Steele) is a much more phlegmatic, quiet and responsible man.

When Bonnie Prince Charlie arrives in Scotland (Charles, grandson of the deposed James II, of the House of Stuart), much of the country takes up arms with him in an attempt to invade England and put Charles on the throne. However, Jamie and Henry’s father decides that in order to ensure the survival of the estate, only one son should fight for the Stuarts and the other should stay home as a ‘loyal’ subject of King George II. Jamie wins the coin toss and sets out to fight the English.

It all goes very badly, however, and he is on the run and runs into fellow another fugitive, the flamboyant Colonel Francis Burke (Roger Livesey). They become bosom friends on the toss of a coin. If the coin had turned up the other way, they would have fought to the death for the roast chicken. But when the two of them return to Ballantrae, things really go south. The British are crawling over the countryside and Jamie is betrayed by Jessie Brown out of jealousy over his love for Lady Alison. Jamie, however, believes that Henry did it so he could be master and marry Alison himself.

The plaid pants are even worse in color - Beatrice Campbell, Errol Flynn and Roger Livesey

The plaid pants are much worse in color – Jamie makes love to Lady Alison while Burke is anxious to be off

After Jamie is shot and stabbed and such, the friends leave England, get shanghaied on a ship to the West Indies, meet up with the dandy pirate Captain Arnaud (Jacques Berthier), contrive to steal a Spanish Galleon, contend with piracy and betrayal, and finally return to Scotland to deal with brother Henry.

It’s not a terrible movie at all. In fact, it’s rather fun, if you can overlook the extremely annoying and intrusive narrator who breaks into the story every twenty minutes to explain things that are readily apparent even to the most casual viewer. Did we really need to be told Arnaud was a dandy? You can see the moment he first comes into view!

The Master of Ballantrae came later in Flynn’s career – he would only live another six years – and he doesn’t have the dash and energy of his youth (there appears to be a stunt double used often), but he still brings an enthusiasm and sense of fun to the role as only he can. He fights in castles and on pirate ships, makes love to several different women, joshes with Burke, schemes, escapes from a castle and broods on revenge. He also has a pretty rough movie, getting knocked out at least three times, shot, stabbed with a knife and run through with a sword several times… and almost hanged. I don’t recall Robin Hood having nearly this much trouble.

Annex - Flynn, Errol (Master of Ballantrae, The)_01Roger Livesey (The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and I Know Where I’m Going!) as Colonel Francis Burke, the “talkative Irishman,” is a hoot and he appears to be having nearly as much fun as is possible. He fights with elan, grins and makes comments, and is devoted to his friend Jamie. It’s almost a buddy picture, really. He’s also the only person who sounds faintly like he could be Scottish, even if he is playing an Irishman and is actually Welsh. Everyone else sounds either American or British (though technically Flynn is Australian).

The most entertaining part of the film involves the pirates, their time on the ships and at Tortugas Bay, where they meet another flamboyant pirate called Captain Mendoza (Charles Goldner) who has a red beard. I occasionally get a craving to see a swashbuckler or pirate movie, but am leery of beating the few I have to death by too much viewing, so it is fun to see something new and Master of Ballantrae fits the bill. Everyone seems to having a good time (according to the article on TCM, everyone was having a good time and it was an unusually happy and stress-free set), the action is exciting enough and the camaraderie between Flynn and Livesey is great.

Master of Ballantrae was the first movie Bob Anderson worked on and all the fights are choreographed by him, as in this fight between Jamie and the treacherous Captain Arnaud, with help from stunt double Flynn.


Posted by on March 14, 2015 in Adventure


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The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

1943 – Starring Roger Livesey, Deborah Kerr, Anton Walbrook – Directed by Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell – Screenplay by Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell


The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp manages to be a little bit of everything, and what blew me away was how good each bit was and how well it hangs together. It’s about friendship, love and war, a great romance and a satire of the British military leadership, as well as a reminder that Nazism must be defeated at all costs.

It was made in 1943 by Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell and it really stands out, during a time when most movies were not particularly subtle about their patriotism. It’s not that Colonel Blimp is an unpatriotic movie, so much as it offers a far more complicated perspective on war; it was not made as a rallying cry. You can’t help but feel in this film that war is a terrible event in which sacrifices of human decency are inevitably made, not exactly a message for people who were being bombed (as the British were, at that time)…but it is a powerful human message nonetheless.

Winston Churchill did not actually want the movie released and the government refused to loan Powell and Pressburger any military equipment for their filming (Powell and Pressburger said they stole some). The reasons were the title (Colonel Blimp was a satirical cartoon that made fun of military and political leaders as reactionary buffoons) and that there was a sympathetic German character in the story (Germans are almost always portrayed as bad in movies made during WWII, no matter what time period the movie was supposed to occur, which was not the case five years earlier in films).


Theo and Clive

The movie follows the life of Clive Wynn-Candy (Livesey), from the time of the Boer War to WWI to the then-contemporary time of WWII. He first meets Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Walbrook) in a duel and the two forge a close bond, despite Theo winning the woman (Kerr) that Clive hadn’t realized he loved until it was too late. Clive and Theo reunite after WWI, when Theo is a prisoner of war, and later during WWII, after Theo’s wife has died and he is a refugee from Nazi Germany.

Clive represents the old school of war, were he assumes that everyone, including the enemy, is playing by the same gentlemanly rules that he is. He makes me think of Don Quixote, occasionally a buffoon (especially when he is older), definitely not wise to the world, but with tremendous dignity and human warmth. It’s a very human movie, with very human emotions and experiences.

Theo is the one to remind him, during WWII, when Clive is discovering that he is considered essentially useless by the government, that England cannot afford to fight the Nazis with a sense of fair play; they must be willing to use the same tactics as the Nazis.

Roger Livesey + Deborah Kerr - The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) 2[1]

Clive and his wife, Barbara

Despite making the case that Clive’s code of conduct and military experience are outmoded, there is a definite sense of loss of human dignity. The new war and the new enemy and new ideologies have a dehumanizing affect.

The story is also about aging and loss and it is heartbreaking to see Theo and Clive age throughout the story; by the end they have very little to offer their countries, but still face the world squarely.

Deborah Kerr is the one person who does not age in this film, because she plays three different women, all of whom are the same age. She is the English governess who writes to Clive to come to Germany and put a stop to the lies being written about England and their war with the Boers. She likes Clive, but he can’t see it and she marries Theo. Next, we see her as a nurse, serving in France during WWI, who looks exactly like the governess. Clive seeks her out and they marry; only for her to die young and in childbirth. Finally, she plays Clive’s driver, who has been assigned to chauffeur him about on his duties in home defense during WWII. As Molly Haskell says, Clive never gets over his first love of the governess and spends the remainder of his days looking for that love in other women…representative of his eternally young love.


Theo, Clive, and Clive’s chauffuer “Johnny”

There are some wonderfully striking and emotional moments in the film; for example, when Theo recounts his reasons for leaving Germany to an immigration officer and speaks of the suffering after WWI, the death of his wife, and how his sons became Nazis. It’s a scene so quiet and yet far more powerful than if we’d actually seen any of what he describes. In fact, it is notable, as Haskell points out, how the tragedy and serious events do occur off screen in this film. It’s part of the film’s power to make one feel, but still leaves room to be thoughtful.

Notes: It’s not a well known movie at all, although recently it seems to have enjoyed a surge of serious enthusiasm and appreciation and I have heard it called the Citizen Kane of Britain. Part of the reason for it’s obscurity is because it wasn’t released in America until 1947, and then only in black and white and not in it’s full length. Martin Scorsese saw it, however, and was a huge fan and proved to be instrumental in having the film restored in its full Technicolor glory and complete length.

Molly Haskell wrote an essay for the Criterion Collection’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, where she analyzes the film in more detail, discussing the attempts to ban the movie, the myriad elements of the film, from romance to critique of righteous war, how the film was rediscovered and restored, as well as a bit about the producers/writers/directors Powell and Pressburger.

Also on Criterion’s site is a video by Martin Scorsese of how the film was restored, which was especially difficult because of the three-strip Technicolor technique, which he describes briefly.

The film made Roger Ebert’s lists as one of the Great Movies and talks particularly about the aging process and the wisdom and youth of Candy.  He writes “Rarely does a film give us such a nuanced view of the whole span of a man’s life. It is said that the child is father to the man. “Colonel Blimp” makes poetry out of what the old know but the young do not guess: The man contains both the father, and the child.”

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Posted by on May 1, 2014 in Movies


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