A Matter of Life and Death
A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH
(Stairway to Heaven)
Directors: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Production: The Archers; color and dye-monochrome processed in Technicolor; running time: 104 minutes; length: 9,372 feet. Released November 1946.
Producers: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; screenplay: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; photography: Jack Cardiff; editor: Reginald Mills; sound recordist: C. C. Stevens; production designer: Alfred Junge; special effects: Douglas Woolsey, Henry Harris, Technicolor Ltd.; additional effects: Percy Day; music: Allan Gray.
Cast: David Niven (Peter Carter); Kim Hunter (June); Robert Coote (Bob); Kathleen Byron (An Angel); Richard Attenborough (An English Pilot); Bonar Colleano (An American Pilot); Joan Maude (Chief Recorder); Marius Goring (Conductor 71); Roger Livesey (Doctor Reeves); Robert Atkins (The Vicar); Bob Roberts (Dr. Gaertler); Edwin Max (Dr. McEwen); Betty Potter (Mrs. Tucker); Abraham Sofaer (The Judge); Raymond Massey (Abraham Farlan).
Powell, Michael, and Emeric Pressburger, A Matter of Life and Death, in Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), 15 December 1980.
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During the 1940s, Hollywood produced a number of films, mostly light comedy-dramas, which portrayed a slightly sugar-coated metaphysical world. Fantasies like The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), and It's a Wonderful Life offered stories about ordinary people who were able to change their earthly situations with the real or imagined aid of supernatural beings. Although these films each had plots that were possible only in a dream state existence, they also provided escapist, supernatural avenues for those who preferred them. Despite the popularity of this genre in Hollywood, though, the definitive example of the dream state fantasy did not come from America, but from England.
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who had solidified their co-writing, directing and producing partnership in 1943 under the composite name of "The Archers," previously produced four big-budget British films beginning with the Technicolor The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. A Matter of Life and Death (released under the less metaphysical title Stairway to Heaven in the United States), was one of several films made by the Archers that coalesced the elements of lavish budgets, Technicolor, and fantasy, and, though an enchantingly light film on a superficial level, is one of the most metaphysically complex films ever made in the English language.
The film's narrative structure concerns a British flyer, Peter Carter (David Niven) who makes radio contact with June (Kim Hunter), an American operator stationed on the English coast just before the end of World War II. The hopelessness of Peter's situation touches June and their immediate rapport develops into an innocent kind of love. Peter bravely jumps out of his plane before it crashes into the Sea and June is certain that he has died. But, the next morning, Peter has not died. Although he at first believes he has gone to heaven, it soon becomes apparent that he has somehow lived and is near Leighwood, the village in which June is billeted. When he meets June on the road, they fall in love, marveling at their good fate.
To this point in the film, the audience and the characters are aware of the same information: Peter has somehow survived a parachuteless jump from an airplane into the English Channel. There is no obvious or plausible reason why he survived; Peter and June call it "a miracle" but don't care to explore the reason.
In a brief written prologue, the filmmakers had advised the audience that they would be seeing a story of two worlds—one that exists in reality and one that merely exists in the mind of a young flier. But the reality of Peter's survival and subsequent encounters with the metaphysical world is continually at odds with that statement.
The film develops two distinct dramatic proscenia after Peter's survival: Leighwood, an ordinary English village, and an unnamed otherworldly place, which Peter, as well as the audience, interprets as heaven. Taking a less predictable road, Powell and Pressburger decided to have Leighwood always appear in Technicolor, while the other world "up there" exists only in black-and-white.
In Leighwood, Peter and June develop their romance and Peter forms a strong friendship with Doctor Frank Reeves (Roger Livesey), a neurologist friend of June's. In the other realm, the very orderly rituals of logging and placing "new arrivals" such as Peter's dead friend, Bob Trubshaw (Robert Coote) take place according to strict schedules. This again goes against type as the supernatural world appears rigid and bureaucratic while earth seems a happier, more idealized place.
As revealed in the heavenly world, there has been an unheard of mistake—Peter was supposed to be dispatched, but his attendant, Conductor 71 (Marius Goring), got lost in the fog and Peter has inadvertently survived. To rectify this error, Conductor 71 must go to earth and bring Peter to his rightful place.
As Peter and June are picnicking, time in Leighwood stops and Peter is confronted by Conductor 71, a whimsical 17th century Frenchman. Peter is naturally sceptical, but when he starts to believe, he adamantly refuses to leave earth. He wants to stay because of June. Time starts again and Conductor 71 goes to report this new development.
The worlds begin to collide more and more frequently as the days pass. Peter, who begins to experience headaches with increasing frequency and intensity, moves into Frank's home so that Frank can observe him more closely. Though Peter relates to Frank and June all of Conductor 71's visits, his extramental reality exists only for Peter.
Frank is convinced that the "visits" are merely hallucinatory symptoms of a brain tumor. As Peter's time between headaches (the signals of the conductor's presence) decrease, he becomes desperate about his ability to hang on to life. He tells Frank that there will be a "trial" to determine the outcome of his case and that he must find someone to defend him. Convinced that Peter must have an immediate operation to relieve the pressure on his brain, Frank rushes on his motorcycle to the hospital but is killed on the road.
Even though Peter faces his operation with trepidation because Frank will not be there to perform it, he is certain that having Frank as his champion at the celestial trial will save him. While Peter is under the anaesthesia, Frank wins his case, not through the persuasive arguments that Peter thought would sway his jury, but because June (again in Peter's subconscious) has offered to exchange her life for his. As Peter comes to, he tells June that they have won.
There are several metaphorical layers in the film. Peter substitutes his fear of death from a brain tumor for fear that he will not prove the merits of his case to live in heaven. To him the "matter of life and death" is not medical, but metaphysical. He must prove that his survival is justified.
This is lived out in the construction of his (or the) fantasy. He secretly believes that the "miracle" of his survival is a mistake, so he constructs an elaborate rationale for the error. He loves an American, so his prosecutor, Abraham Farlan (Raymond Massey) is an early American patriot who hates the English. In a sense he must prove to himself that he is worthy of her love. And finally, when the man he trusts most in the world, the man who is working the hardest to save him medically, dies, he looks to him in death as his most potent defense.
Another important metaphor exists outside of Peter's subconscious self. When June visits Frank in his camera oscura over the village, they look down on Leighwood as if from heaven. Frank's vantage point makes him all seeing and all knowing. Like the scenes in which Conductor 71 appears to Peter, everything in Leighwood seems to stand still as the godlike Frank looks on.
Though most of the supernatural elements can be dismissed within the context of Peter's own dreams or fantasies, two points are never fully explained: how did Peter survive the jump from his plane and how did a book, borrowed by Conductor 71 from Frank's study, come to be in Peter's suitcase? Though logical reasons could be found for both, Powell and Pressburger do not offer them, relying instead on the audience's desire to interpret them either as aspects of escapist fantasy or additional manifestations of a medically induced trauma.
Though two later productions of "The Archers," Black Narcissus (1946) and The Red Shoes (1948), have attained greater recognition among cinema historians, A Matter of Life and Death, remains for some their collaborative masterpiece.
—Patricia King Hanson