A Matter of Life and Death
aka Stairway to Heaven
Propaganda par excellence, if you wish to look at A Matter of Life and Death purely through that lens. And if you do, Powell and Pressburger’s earlier The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp hadn’t been nearly such a boon to the war effort, at least in the eyes of the establishment (as director Michael Powell recalled in A Life in the Movies, Churchill “would have stopped the film if he could, and when it was made he tried to stop it being sent abroad”. As it was, without War Office support, the Archers couldn’t secure first choice lead Olivier). Mostly, though, A Matter of Life and Death is held up for its romantic idealism and iconic imagery. And justifiably so.
Narrator: This is the story of two worlds, the one we know and another which exists only in the mind of a young airman whose life and imagination have been violently shaped by war. Any resemblance to any other world known or unknown is purely coincidental.
I’ll admit, much as I’m a fan of the picture – and it’s an undeniably gorgeous one to watch – I do find Powell and Pressburger’s fussiness in underlining the “Is it/isn’t it a hallucination” of “heaven” a little tiresome occasionally, borne of an earnestness in encouraging either audience interpretation as equally valid and explicable – like Nolan’s spinning top. It slightly mars Michael Powell’s assertion that “the whole picture was a joke about life and death” (“Emeric and I were trying to create a comedy of titanic size and energy”). The opening crawl (above) is an indication of the intended playfulness, but I don’t, for my part, find the explicable side a compelling counterweight. It might have been better – à la The Wizard of Oz and its inverted use of colour and black-and-white realities – to be more explicit about the divide between states.
Pilot: It’s heaven, isn’t it?
Powell and Pressburger were very clear about the non-specificity of the state Squadron Leader Peter Carter (David Niven) experiences; of the stairway used in the picture, and subject to the “soapy title” chosen by the picture’s US distributors, “it did lead to another world, even if it were not Heaven. Throughout the film, we were careful not to use that mighty word” (albeit several characters, including Sir Dickie, DO make that reference). The US title, Powell felt, gave the impression of “a Hollywood musical”.
Narrator: This is the universe. Big, isn’t it. Thousands of suns, millions of stars… The Earth, moving around in its place, part of the pattern of the universe. Reassuring, isn’t it?
Kevin Gough-Yates concisely notes of the filmmakers how “their themes, summed up by Raymond Durgnat as “embracing soft-centred systems of mystical belief”, appeared to spit in the face of political necessity whilst in fact revealing “a serious belief in… wayward natural forces”. And you can see that in A Matter of Life and Death’s areligious content, while it also at once lends itself to a spiritual faculty. The opening, a musing on the scientifically approved universe (and advised on by Arthur C Clarke no less, who presumably didn’t approve the sun/star line), has an almost Douglas Adams cheekiness. Peter will later wish people had listened to “Plato and Aristotle and Jesus”, while there’s an implicit nod to communism (“We’re all the same up here, captain”).
A Matter of Life and Death is intentionally evasive and playful with regard to either dream or real interpretation; Abraham Sofaer as both judge and brain surgeon is likely a clincher for some, and the track of events allying the heavenly trial to Carter’s operation and recovery (“this film depicts clinical details in such an accurate way that a clinician might diagnose the probable site of the lesion”: all NDEs can doubtless be similarly dismissed). One might also cite the reliance of Peter’s state on officially plotted figures from history – he was at Oxford, specialising in European history – and there’s a degree of diligence too in tracking his condition, as melodramatic as the plotting is.
Peter: We won.
June: I know, darling.
For others, heavenly scenes absenting Carter testify to the legitimacy of the experience, along with the return of the book by Conductor 61, while his surviving the fall is unlikely enough. The opening title might seem like sufficient contrary evidence – the ethereal world “exists only in the mind” of Peter – but does that mean it isn’t real? And if it’s a foregone conclusion, why avoid making it explicit in the narrative itself? We really needed June (Kim Hunter) to recall her appearance at the trial when Peter comes round, as the only other living suspect involved in his condition. Notably, a similar schismatic mind is found in the same year’s hit Spellbound (and it was Hitch who suggested Hunter to Powell).
Dilys Powell called A Matter of Life and Death “an audacious, sometimes beautiful, but basically sensational film about nothing” while Terence Raferty suggested “Powell’s greatness and his deep kitschiness are practically indistinguishable. The movie is dazzlingly inventive in the service of some genuinely dreadful notions, and in the end it is irresistible”.
I can relate to such a take; Peter’s stiffer-upper-lip, classical quotations and ruminations to June at the outset, as his plane takes a plunge, are pure corn, but the emphasis and embrace of such a quality is unabashed, so you’re willing to go with it. The back and forth between now-dead Dr Frank Reeves (a very winning Roger Livesey in expository mode) – whose TE Lawrence-esque motorbike accident one suspects Lean viewed – and Raymond Massey’s zealous Abraham Farlan, out to condemn Peter to heaven on the grounds of Englishness, is rather silly in essence, and only really makes contextual sense when you become aware of Powell and Pressburger’s remit for making the picture, but like everything else, your surrender to it.
Niven it as his most winning, although Hunter has little to shout about other than being devoted to her man; when he asks “Are you pretty?” you’re left thinking, well, in Planet of the Apes, certainly. Robert Coote is splendidly “Top chap, what?” as fellow airman Bob Trubshaw (who got to heaven first). Kathleen Byron, later of Black Narcissus lunacy, is a heavenly clerk. Marius Goring steals the proceedings as sprightly Frenchman Conductor 71, initially attempting to hoodwink Peter into accepting his fate – despite the mistake being heaven’s due the fog – yet eventually comes on side.
Conductor 71: One is starved for Technicolor up here.
And the visuals, courtesy of genius Jack Cardiff. “I decided that my job was to make each world as real as the other” reflected Powell. Heaven was in monochrome (rather than black-and-white). And the choice makes sense, given the general emphasise on whiteness up yonder, even if simultaneously servicing a “less complete” state. Goring gets the biggest laugh (Powell notes the audience “roared” at the premier) by going all meta, quote above, but the sight of the roses is also quite breath-taking (it’s a reminder of the kind of texture and range possible in film, before everything was reduced to digital swill).
The picture started shooting the day Japan surrendered (it takes place on 2 May 1945) and was Ministry of Defence deigned, “commissioned by Jack Beddington to improve Anglo-American relationships….” Powell and Pressburger decided it should be a love story, which lessened the overtness of the angle, until we come to the courtroom combat. Unsurprisingly, Powell had no doubts with regard to the party line and justified sacrifice of the war effort (to “overthrow one man and his lunatic ideas”). The reward for the industry was undeniable too: “It was now recognised on all sides that films, under the Ministry of Information, had done a wonderful job in the war” (the same Ministry of Information George Orwell worked for, lest it require noting). As a consequence, A Matter of Life and Death earned a Royal Command Performance, for which the medium had hitherto been largely passed over.
Powell noted the early goatherd scene was “like introducing a Coca-Cola machine into Heaven” (like a scene from Theocritus); the incongruity of worlds colliding, until Peter discovers he’s real and this is no cherubic force. However, “the magic of the scene escaped” The Archers’ American partners who “could only see the sexual implications in the association of a grown man with a naked boy” (and, as a consequence, cut it). In fairness, one’s mind does leap to the oddness of the inclusion, albeit the reasoning behind the imagery is also very clear, Theocritus or no. On the other hand, the American partners, being knee deep in Hollywood vice, probably had reason to be sensitive.
The US title change was because “You can’t have death in the title”. Now of course, it’s mostly associated with Led Zeppelin. Or Rolf Harris. As to the picture’s legacy, Danny Boyle snuck it for the Olympics (now there’s some predictive programming, let alone backward masking). Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey referenced it, and P&P appeared on plinths (I’d wager that was down to the English director). Coming as it does, during Powell and Pressburger’s peak period (mid-to-late ’40s), A Matter of Life and Death is rightly rated as one of the all-time greatest British pictures, occasionally a little too impressed with itself maybe, but for absolutely good reason.
First published by Now in Full Color on 01/04/22.