Captain America: The First Avenger might never compare to the taut thriller that Winter Solider ended up being, or the measured spectacle critics are calling Civil War, but it has one special moment. It’s a moment that changes Captain America from mere hunk of propaganda to a tragic hero. And it’s borrowed wholesale from a 1946 British film, A Matter of Life and Death.
The scene in question is when Steve Rogers is crashing a plane to save the world, and back at base Peggy Carter is wrapped around a radio, saying goodbye to Steve in his final moments. Unless you’re a monster, the scene got you misty-eyed and it hangs heavy in your mind every time Steve Rogers frowns or Peggy Carter tries to move on. Here was a seminal romance torn asunder by time and circumstance.
And almost the exact same scene plays at the very beginning of A Matter of Life and Death. Peter Carter (played by David Niven) is on a doomed bomber plane with no rescue in sight, just like Cap. June (played by Kim Hunter) is a radio operator who picks up Peter’s signal, and is forced to listen as he crashes to his death, just like Peggy. The major difference here (other than the lack of superheroics) is that this time it’s the Brit going out nobly, and the American stuck on the sidelines—mainly because the movie was originally commissioned to improve Anglo-American relations during the war.
Whereas everything in The First Avenger leads up to the moment Steve sacrifices himself, everything in A Matter of Life and Death stems from Peter’s sacrifice—largely because he somehow survives when he jumps out of the plane, sans parachute, and is able to meet up (and make out) with June. But then an envoy from heaven arrives, declaring Peter was supposed to die, at which point Peter goes to heaven, where a trial is held to determine if he should be allowed to continue living.
It’s probably good that Captain America’s homage stopped with the sacrifice.