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 Shoes, I 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.
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.
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.
All 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.