A Matter of Life and Death
A Matter of Life and Death – 1946 | 104mins | Fantasy, Romance | Colour, B&W
Produced by the inventive team known as The Archers: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. A Matter of Life and Death, also known as Stairway to Heaven is the remarkable British fantasy film that became the surprise hit of 1946. The superbly crafted story is a tale of the power of love against “the powers that be”. However, its deception lies in the complexity of its “is it real or is it imaginary?” premise.
Squadron Leader Peter D. Carter (David Niven) is a World War II RAF pilot returning from a bombing raid over Germany who is forced to bail out of his crippled plane without a parachute over the English Channel. While deciding his fate aboard his crippled plane Niven conveys his tale of woe to an American W.A.C. called June (Kim Hunter), before finally leaping from his plane to certain death. He wakes up to find he has landed on Earth utterly unharmed… which wasn’t supposed to happen according to the rules of Heaven. While making his way from the beach towards civilisation Niven meets the voice from his final radio transmission – June, and love enters the equation. Niven is visited by Conductor 71 (Marius Goring), a heavenly messenger who informs him he should have died when jumping from his plane. Niven argues that he is now in love due to heavens incompetence and wishes to remain on earth, so a celestial trial is called to decide whether or not to claim Niven’s life or to let him survive to wed his American sweetheart (Kim Hunter).
During an operation while surgeons struggle to save his life, Niven dreams that his spirit is on trial, with God (Abraham Sofaer) as judge and Niven’s recently deceased best friend Dr Reeves (Roger Livesey) as defence counsel. Dr Reeves sweeps away the anti-British bias of the American prosecutor – and it remains only to prove that Peter and his American sweetheart are genuinely in love. The High Court visits the theatre in which surgeons are operating on Peter, Peter’s spirit leaves his body to be cross-examined by the prosecution. Then June is brought into the spirit world to finally win the case for Peter, she cares so much for him that she is willing to sacrifice herself to take his place in the Other World. The film tries to have it both ways by suggesting that the Heavenly scenes are all a product of Niven’s imagination, but the audience knows better. Among the curious but effective artistic choices in A Matter of Life or Death was the decision to film the Earthbound scenes in TechniColour and the Heaven sequences in black and white.
The movie was devised to smooth over the strained relations between Britain and the U.S. after World War II, it is disarming in its gentle reminders of the horrors of war – the numerous casualties, both military and civilian, the need to “go on” when faced with death. There is a conspicuous lack of WWII “enemies” in heaven, but the civilians shown are of indeterminate origin. Powell and Pressburger could have been more explicit in their depiction but it wasn’t necessary. The movie may not have served its diplomatic purpose as was hoped for, but its originality continues to inspire moviemakers and viewers alike on both sides of the Atlantic.
Michael Powell: Director
Emeric Pressburger: Director
Arthur Lawson: Art Direction
Parry Jones Jr: Asst Director
George R Busby: Asst Producer
Jack Cardiff: Cinematography
Hein Hockroth: Costume Designer
Reginald Mills: Editing
George Blackler: Makeup
Walter Goehr: Music Direction
Allan Gray: Music Score
Michael Powell: Producer
Emeric Pressburger: Producer
Alfred Junge: Production Design
Emeric Pressburger: Script
Michael Powell: Script
CC Stevens: Sound
George Blackwell: Special Effects
Douglas Woolsey: Special Effects
Henry Harris: Special Effects
W Percy Day: Special Effects