A Matter of Life and Death aka Stairway to Heaven (1946)

After having watched and loved The Archers’ (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, I decided that I will watch all of their movies sooner or later. I’m not sure I would have taken the same decision if I had seen A Matter of Life and Death aka Stairway to Heaven (the US title) first. It was too… Hmmm… Not sure what word I’m looking for here. It seems it is on position 20 of the BFI’s Top 100 list (yes, another list but one I like). Surprising.

The story is pretty simple. The RAF pilot and squadron leader Peter Carter (David Niven) tries to fly back to England in a burning Lancaster bomber. His crew has bailed out, one of his men is lying dead in the aircraft. Before deciding that he will bail out as well, despite the fact that he has no parachute, he manages to contact June (Kim Hunter), an American radio operator, based in England. They talk for a while and immediately feel a very strong connection.

Lucky for Carter, his Other World guide misses him in the thick English fog and instead of being guided to heaven, Carter wakes up on a beach. He thinks at first he’s dead but then realizes that he has somehow survived and only minutes later he sees a girl on a bicycle riding along the beach. He runs after her and – what a coincidence – finds out it’s June. When it dawns on them that they had been speaking to each other just a while ago and that he should actually be dead, they fall in love immediately.

Although Carter seems unharmed, he has hallucinations in which he meets his guide who wants him to come to heaven with him. Carter refuses and wants to appeal before the superior court in heaven in order to be granted to stay alive. While Carter thinks he is visited by someone from the other world, June asks a friend, Doctor Reeves (Robert Livesey), for help. Reeves thinks that Carter suffers from a rare condition and needs surgery.

I couldn’t help but laugh out loud when our two main characters fall in love so speedily and call each other “darling” only moments after having met. Still, it’s an amusing movie but the appeal for me was not in the story.

I liked that the real life scenes were shot in Technicolor, while the afterlife scenes were shot in black and white (reversing the effect in The Wizard of Oz) . The Archers’ use of color is quite special and I think they did a really great job here.

What was also interesting is the American-British theme. We all know that the British called the American soldiers “overpaid, oversexed and over here” and there was a lot of resentment going hand in hand with this expression. The Americans joined the war late and were fresh and crispy and had a lot of money and managed to seduce quite a lot of British girls, while the Brits had already fought for several years, were tired and worn out. The movie tried to reverse this in choosing to depict an American girl falling in love with a British officer. The heavenly court also plays heavily on this theme.

There is one sequence which is quite funny. The first heavenly jury has to be dismissed as the members are all from countries which had been wronged by the British at some point during history. The prosecutor is an American as well, Abraham Farlan, the first victim of the American Revolutionary war.

If you are a fan of The Archers or interested in British cinema and cinema of the 40s, don’t miss it. I think it’s interesting from the point of view of cinema history and amusing enough but I can’t say it was my cup of tea. As far as war romances go, I’ve seen movies I liked much more.

I couldn’t find  a trailer but you can watch the whole movie on YouTube. Here is Part I

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14 thoughts on “A Matter of Life and Death aka Stairway to Heaven (1946)

  1. the war movie buff says:

    i can’t imagine liking this (as you could probably guess). I had never heard of it with good reason. I do not have a high threshold for ridiculousness. I’m assuming it was not as good as Blimp.

  2. Guy Savage says:

    I am a fan of the Archers but this is not their best. Powell, BTW, was a fan of Nigel Balchin and read all of his novels. Try (if you haven’t) A Small Back Room

  3. nem baj says:

    It is not a war romance, but a post-war romantic fantasy, such as Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast and Marcel Carné’s Visiteurs du soir (considering that, for most French people, war was ‘over’ in 1941).

    I find it quite understandable that right after such an ordeal of destruction and hatred, European audiences would react very positively to the theme of love knowing no boundaries beetween worlds, and thus being strong enough to defy the laws that rule over the separation of these worlds.

    Of course, it may require a certain state of mind today to appreciate the idea (watching AMOLAD with children might be a good way to achieve this). But if you’re luckily ready for it, this movie is among the very best in the genre. If you’re not, it certainly can feel cheesy – as will this other Powell/Pressburger masterpiece called A Canterbury Tale.

    But even if you don’t buy the story nor the mood, it’s hard not to acknowledge that the Archers displayed an almost ‘total’ use of the possibilities of cinema. The photography, art direction, frame and sound editing are incredible – almost one shot out of two add extra meaning, through composition, framing or cuts – and the mix of ‘real’ and ‘surreal’ is quite unique, which is why their work has been so inspirational for other directors.

    Incidentally, a number of Hollywood ‘post-war romances’ after WWII focused on the social adaptation (or rather inadaptation) of soldiers in love confronted with the half-military, half-civilian society of the imediate afterwar. They were not leaning towards the Fantastic, but the idea of love at grips with bureaucracy and politics is almost similar in comedies such as Hawk’s I Was a Male War Bride or Wilder’s A Foreign Affair.

    • I still think it’s in part a war romance although romantic fantasy may be more precise.
      I don’t doubt that the reception was very favourable at the time but I didn’t get the mood at all. I get the mood of a movie like Casablanca but not this.
      When I watch a movie for the first time I focus a lot on whether I like it from apurely persnal point of view or not. A second movie would give another review or rather offer the possibility for an analyis.
      I did find it interesting because I think they are amazing directors but Colonel Blimp is superior in my opinion and has all of the trademarks as well.
      I think that they have been quoted endlessly, especially that staircase scene.
      I’m sure when I watch it again I’ll see much more but the mood I’m afraid will never appeal to me.
      Do you have a favourite Archers movie?
      I’ve seen that I have the Battle of the River Plate and a few others.

      • nem baj says:

        A matter of… was shot in Fall 1945, and although the post-war context is understated, it is made quite clear: when so many young people – men and women, as you can see in the ‘afterlife’ crowds – have just died, love at first sight, or rather at first hearing, is an opportunity you don’t want to miss.

        I understand that if this doesn’t get to you at the beginning, and/or if the argument seems naïve (which it certainly is), it must be hard to watch… Like Pandora and the Flying Dutchman for instance, also photographed by Jack Cardiff.

        Casablanca is on the contrary a romance of war time, about choices, taking sides and the conflicts beetween feelings and commitments. A very different theme, upon which I personally prefer Hawks’ To Have and Have Not – but of course the Hawks was produced three years later, so the question of the U.S. joining the operations in Europe had already been answered.

        Both Casablanca and A matter of… were partly propaganda pieces, yet the motivational speech in the latter doesn’t bother me at all, whereas I find it not so easy to forget in the former… I always found Curtiz to be so darn serious, at least in his American period – Powell’s British sense of humour and Pressburger’s witz make wonders for me.

        My fav Archers production would be Black Narcissus. Completely over the top though, and since I haven’t seen yet a Deborah Kerr movie I didn’t like, I wouldn’t call it a rational choice… 🙂

      • How could I forget the dead soldiers of all nations scenes…
        True enough. I think there’s a huge difference between liking and appreciating a movie. I did apprecaite it but not like it. Colonel Blimp is alos over the top but I liked it because I think it’s very funny. I didn’t discover a lot of humour in A Matter…
        I’m sure I’ll get to Black Narcissus sooner or later and would like to watch The Red Shoes too. Only there will not be much reviewing of these here.

      • nem baj says:

        Except for Blimp, the war/military movies of Powell and Pressburger are generally not ranked among their best works. I have personally little memory of those I’ve already seen. Nevertheless, I’d be happy to know when The Queen’s Guards is released on dvd!

      • This looks interesting indeed. Thanks.

  4. […] the comments to my recent post on The Archers’ A Matter of Life and Death Guy Savage (Phoenix Cinema) mentioned another of their movies, The Small Back Room based on Nigel […]

  5. […] A Matter of Life and Death (UK, 1946) […]

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