Yes, sure, Powell (and frequent collaborator Emeric Pressburger) made family fare like The Red Shoes, but A Matter of Life and Death (often known by its alternate title, Stairway to Heaven) is something entirely else. To wit: The story involves a British airman named Peter (David Niven), who is on the verge of crashing his plane during his World War II mission, and spends his last moments before bailing out speaking over the radio to American wireless operator June (Kim Hunter), with whom he makes a special connection. Peter jumps before crashing, but is surprised to find himself washing up ashore, fully intact. And wouldn't you know it, he soon encounters June, and the two are immediately in love.
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The title of Michael Powell's WWII propaganda actioner refers to the boundary separating the United States and Canada. A suitably righteous narrator tells us it's the world's only undefended national border and, as such, befits the values of peace and democracy shared by the two countries. 49th Parallel isn't a strident call to arms meant to guilt-trip Americans into re-thinking their neutrality, but rather a tribute to the Canadian (and to all free-thinking) people who were already involved in the anti-Nazi effort. By praising democratic values and warning of the Nazi threat looming over the free world, 49th Parallel was director Michael Powell's roundabout exhortation to the American people to join the good fight.
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As the title suggests, the film is a sort of update of the Chaucer book, giving us four WWII-era pilgrims taking the train along the "old road" through southern England which winds up in Canterbury. The action begins with American soldier Bob Johnson (Sergeant John Sweet, credited thusly because he was a real sergeant) getting off at the wrong station on a foggy night. Turns out Canterbury is up the road a bit, and he's stuck in Chillingbourne for the evening, along with land girl Alison (Sheila Sim), and British soldier Peter (Dennis Price). The make out for the hotel but are soon waylaid by this small town's sole criminal enterprise: The Glue Man, who puts glue in women's hair and runs away unseen.
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The film is told in flashback and covers the time period from 1902, well before World War I, to 1943, near the end of World War II. In that time the world went through major changes most specifically in the way wars were fought. Clive Candy (played by the hoarse-voiced actor Roger Livesey) is a relic of the past. He is a soldier who defines war by a 19th century paradigm in which war was considered a gentleman's game - an old-fashioned way of thinking about modern combat.
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