Squadron Leader Peter David Carter (David Niven) is a pilot in World War Two. When his plane is downed over the English Channel he shares his final moments with a radio operator he’s never met (Kim Hunter). When he miraculously survives, he finds himself in a cosmic court battle to determine whether he’s entitled to change the date of his death.
A theologically-infused comedy which dices with death, this is The Seventh Seal meets Slaughterhouse Five. The opening tells us the film is entirely in Carter’s imagination. But for the premise to work this can’t be the case, and would mean he imagined full scenes he wasn’t there for, suggesting that this was more to avoid winding up the religious establishment and/or God, who were more sensitive to that sort of thing in the 1940s.
If it ‘really’ happened, it would present a certain interpretation of life after death which appears to satirise the concept of a divine plan, risking offence to the silent majority. But since then people realised the silent majority were being silent because they weren’t that bothered, and now that sort of thing is acceptable.
It makes brilliant use of special effects, including a vast open-air courtroom in the stars, and a moving staircase which stretches from Earth to the heavens, lined with statues of the greatest figures in history. This makes it feel like it was made decades later than it actually was. It also has affecting performances from Niven and Hunter. The result is a finely balanced and brilliantly executed philosophical musing, and a superb example of what can be achieved on a low budget.