|A Matter of Life and Death|
|Narrated by||John Longden|
|Music by||Allan Gray|
|Edited by||Reginald Mills|
|Distributed by||Eagle-Lion Films (UK)|
|Budget||£320,000 (est.) or £650,000.|
|Box office||$1,750,000 (US)|
A Matter of Life and Death is a 1946 British fantasy–romance film written, produced and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and set in England during the Second World War. The film stars David Niven, Roger Livesey, Raymond Massey, Kim Hunter and Marius Goring.
The film was originally released in the United States under the title Stairway to Heaven, which derived from the film’s most prominent special effect: a broad escalatorlinking Earth to the afterlife. The decision to film the scenes of the Other World in black and white added to the complications. They were filmed in Three-strip Technicolor, but the colour was not fully developed, giving a pearly hue to the black and white shots, a process cited in the screen credits as “Colour and Dye-Monochrome Processed in Technicolor“. This reversed the effect in The Wizard of Oz. Photographic dissolves between “Technicolor Dye-Monochrome” (the Other World) and Three-Strip Technicolor (Earth) are used several times during the film.
In 1999, A Matter of Life and Death placed 20th on the British Film Institute‘s list of Best 100 British films. In 2004, a poll by the magazine Total Film of 25 film critics named A Matter of Life and Death the second greatest British film ever made, behind Get Carter.
On 2 May 1945, Squadron leader Peter Carter is a Royal Air Force pilot trying to fly a badly damaged and burning Lancaster bomber back to his base in England after a mission over Germany. He has ordered his crew to bail out, without revealing that his own parachute has been shot up. He manages to contact June, an American radio operator based in England and talks with her for a few minutes before jumping without a parachute.
Peter should have died at that point, but Conductor 71, the guide sent to escort him to the Other World, misses him in the thick fog over the English Channel. The airman wakes up on a beach near June’s base. At first, he assumes he is in the afterlife but, when a de Havilland Mosquito flies low overhead, discovers to his bewilderment that he is still alive.
Peter meets June cycling back to her quarters after her night shift, and they fall in love. Conductor 71 (a French aristocrat guillotined in the Revolution) stops time to explain the situation, urging Peter to accept his death and accompany him to the Other World, but Peter demands an appeal. While Conductor 71 consults his superiors, Peter continues to live. Conductor 71 returns and informs him that he has been granted his appeal and has three days to prepare his case. He can choose a defence counsel from among all the people who have ever died, but he has difficulty picking one.
Peter’s visions are diagnosed by June’s fascinated friend Doctor Reeves as a symptom of a brain injury—chronic adhesive arachnoiditis from a slight concussion two years earlier—and he is scheduled for surgery. Reeves is killed in a motorcycle accident while trying to find the ambulance that is to take Peter to the hospital. Reeves’ death allows him to act as Peter’s counsel.
Reeves argues that, through no fault of his own, his client was given additional time on Earth and that, during that time, he has fallen in love and now has an earthly commitment that should take precedence over the afterlife’s claim on him. The matter comes to a head—in parallel with Peter’s brain surgery—before a celestial court; the camera zooms out from an amphitheatre to reveal that it is as large as a spiral galaxy. The prosecutor is American Abraham Farlan, who hates the British for making him the first casualty of the American Revolutionary War. Reeves challenges the composition of the jury, which is made up of representatives who are prejudiced against the British. In fairness, the jury is replaced by a multicultural mixture of modern Americans whose origins are as varied as those they replace.
Reeves and Farlan both cite examples from British and world history to support their positions. In the end, Reeves has June take the stand (Conductor 71 makes her fall asleep in the real world so she can testify) and proves that she genuinely loves Peter by telling her that the only way to save his life is to take his place, whereupon she steps onto the stairway to the Other World without hesitation and is carried away, leaving Peter behind. The stairway comes to an abrupt halt and June rushes back to Peter’s open arms. As Reeves triumphantly explains, “… nothing is stronger than the law in the universe, but on Earth, nothing is stronger than love.”
The jury rules in Peter’s favour. The Judge shows Reeves and Farlan the new lifespan granted to the defendant; Reeves calls it “very generous”, and Farlan jokingly complains, then agrees to it. The two then engage in supportive banter with one another, and against the stern Chief Recorder, who protests against the breach of law. The scene then shifts to the operating room, where the surgeon declares the operation a success.
In order of appearance:
Goring was offered the role of the Conductor, but insisted that he wanted to play Peter instead; however, Powell and Pressburger were set on Niven playing the part, and eventually told Goring that the Conductor was his only choice: if he turned it down, they would approach Peter Ustinov to play the part.
Powell and Pressburger went to Hollywood to cast the role of June with no possible actress in mind except, possibly, Betty Field, who was in a play in New York at the time. The suggestion of Kim Hunter came from Alfred Hitchcock, who had recently used her to read lines from behind the camera for Ingrid Bergman‘s screen test for Spellbound. Hunter had stage experience and had been under contract to David O. Selznick for two years. Powell and Pressburger decided that she was right for the part almost immediately on their first meeting, and arranged with Selznick to use her.
A Matter of Life and Death was filmed at D&P Studios and Denham Studios in Denham, Buckinghamshire, England, and on locations in Devon and Surrey. The beach scene was shot at Saunton Sands in Devon, and the village seen in the camera obscura was Shere in Surrey. Production took place from 2 September to 2 December 1945, used 29 sets, and cost an estimated £320,000, equivalent to £12,670,000 in 2016.
A Matter of Life and Death had an extensive pre-production period due to the complexity of the production: The huge escalator linking this world with the other, called “Operation Ethel” by the firm of engineers who constructed it under the aegis of the London Passenger Transport Board, took three months to make and cost £3,000, equivalent to £119,000 in 2016. “Ethel” had 106 steps, each 20 feet (6.1 m) wide, and was driven by a 12 hp engine. The full shot was completed by hanging miniatures. The noise of the machinery prevented recording the soundtrack live — all scenes with the escalator were dubbed in post-production.
There was a nine-month wait for film stock and Technicolor cameras because they were being used by the US Army to make training films. The decision to film the scenes of the “other world” in black and white added to the complications. Where the “other world” is seen, it was filmed in Three-Strip Technicolor, but the colour was not fully developed, giving a pearly hue to the black and white shots, a process cited in the screen credits as “Colour and Dye-Monochrome Processed in Technicolor”. (As Conductor 71 remarks during an early transition, “One is starved for Technicolor up there.”)
Other sequences also presented challenges, such as the stopped-action table-tennis game for which Hunter and Livesey were trained by champions Alan Brooke and Viktor Barna; the scene where Carter washes up on the beach, the first scene filmed, where cinematographer Jack Cardiff fogged up the camera lens with his breath to create the look he wanted; and the long, 25-minute trial sequence, which required a set with a 350-foot (110 m) long by 40-foot (12 m) high backcloth.
A Matter of Life and Death was chosen for the first ever Royal Film Performance on 1 November 1946 at the Empire Theatre, in London. The performance was in aid of the Cinematograph Trade Benevolent Fund and £30,000 (£1,142,009 in 2018 pounds) was raised. It then went into general release in the UK on 15 December 1946. The film subsequently had its US release in New York on 25 December 1946 under the name Stairway to Heaven.
According to trade papers, the film was a “notable box office attraction” at British cinemas in 1947.
In 1986 the film was screened out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival.
Upon its premiere in New York City, Bosley Crowther said “the delicate charm, the adult humor and visual virtuosity of this Michael Powell—Emeric Pressburger film render it indisputably the best of a batch of Christmas shows…[T]he wit and agility of the producers, who also wrote and directed the job, is given range through the picture in countless delightful ways: in the use, for instance, of Technicolor to photograph the earthly scenes and sepia in which to vision the hygienic regions of the Beyond (so that the heavenly ‘messenger’, descending, is prompted to remark, ‘Ah, how one is starved for Technicolor up there!’.”
According to a 2006 book, “A spate of movies appeared just after the ending of the Second World War, including It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and Stairway to Heaven (1946), perhaps tapping into so many people’s experience of loss of loved ones and offering a kind of consolation.”
In December 2017, a digitally restored version was shown in British Cinemas. Kevin Maher, writing in The Times, said the restoration was “crisp” whilst describing the film as being a “..definitive fantasy classic” and also as “essential viewing.”
The Academy Film Archive preserved A Matter of Life and Death in 1999.
According to Powell in his A Life in Movies, the United States was the only market in which the film’s name was changed, except that most European countries used “A Question of Life and Death” rather than “A Matter of Life and Death”. The American title was the idea of Arthur Krim and Robert Benjamin, two lawyers just starting out in the film business, who would be marketing the film in the US, and insisted that no film had ever done well there with the word “death” in the title. When Pressburger countered with the hit film Death Takes a Holiday, their response was to point out that it succeeded because the very fact that Death was on holiday meant that there would be no death in the film.
Are the visions real?
While the film never specifically states whether Peter’s visions are real, the actor playing the judge also plays the brain surgeon. As is shown in the paper, “A Matter of Fried Onions” and subsequent work by Diane Broadbent Friedman, there was a large amount of medical research carried out to ensure that the symptoms shown agreed with a correct medical diagnosis of Peter Carter’s condition. However, despite being asked several times within the film, no accepted answer to how Peter could have survived the fall is given.
There are two scenes set within “the other world” in which Peter is not present (Trubshawe’s arrival and just before the start of the trial) which seem to imply the existence of the other world. A minor point regarding a borrowed book (which forms a third “other world” experience while Peter is still unconscious following his operation) also seems to hint at the possibility of its existence; however, these could all be explained simply by Peter’s mind filling in blanks during times he is unconscious.
The other world
The producers took pains never to refer to “the other world” as Heaven, as they felt that was restrictive. An introductory title screen – repeated as the Foreword to the 1946 novelisation by Eric Warman – contains an explicit statement, however: “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”, but goes on to say “Any resemblance to any other world known or unknown is purely coincidental”.
The architecture of the other world is noticeably modernist. It features a vast and open plan, with huge circular observation holes, beneath which the clouds of Earth can be seen. This vision was later the inspiration for the design of St.Paul’s Bus Station, Walsall in 2000, by architects Allford Hall Monaghan Morris. The film’s amphitheatre court scene was rendered by BT in a TV advertisement c.2002 as a metaphor for communication technology, especially the Internet.
The identities and significance of the statues
Lining the escalator are large statues (created by Eric Aumonier) of historically prominent men. A list of the names of the statues appears in Michael Powell’s handwriting on pages 49 and 50 of the script.
Many of these have in common a characteristic beyond their prominence in politics, art and philosophy: in 1945 most were believed to have had epilepsy – as did John Bunyan, who is seen in the film serving as the conductor for Dr. Reeves.
The film was originally suggested by a British government department to improve relations between the Americans in the UK and the British public, following Powell and Pressburger’s contributions to this sphere in A Canterbury Tale two years earlier, though neither film received any government funding nor input on plot or production. There was a degree of public hostility towards American servicemen stationed in the UK prior to the D-Day invasion of Europe. They were viewed by some as latecomers to the war and as “overpaid, oversexed and over here” by a public that had suffered three years of bombing and rationing, with many of their own men fighting abroad. The premise of the film is a simple inversion: the British pilot gets the pretty American woman rather than the other way round, and the only national bigotry – against the British – is voiced by the first American casualty of the Revolutionary War. Raymond Massey, portraying an American, was a Canadian national at the time the film was made, but became a naturalised American citizen afterward.
David Niven was a fan of chess.
Peter and June play chess while they await Dr Reeves. Then Conductor 71 “borrows” a chess book Peter has accidentally knocked off the table, Alekhine‘s My Best Games of Chess. After the trial is won, Conductor 71 throws the book from the stairway; June finds it in his jacket pocket “to serve the ‘was it a hallucination or did it really happen?’ motif of the film”, according to Mig Greengard. He also noted, “Lots of chess in movies past and present, but I can’t recall another prominent appearance of a real chess book”. Ian Christie wrote, “the chess plot may also be of more significance than at first appears. The Conductor tries to tempt Peter by offering him the opportunity to pit his skill against the great chess masters; and he ‘borrows’ Alekhine’s famous book, only to return it in an extraordinary transitional shot which introduces the final sequence of Peter waking up in hospital. As a token of Peter’s life, the book tumbles from one photographic world to another within the same shot”.
The film was twice adapted for the American CBS Radio series Lux Radio Theatre, both with the title “Stairway to Heaven”, starring Ray Milland on 27 October 1947 (episode 587) and featuring David Niven on 12 April 1955 (episode 918).
The film was adapted as the musical Stairway to Heaven at the King’s Head in Islington in November 1994. It was also made into a play by the Kneehigh Theatre for performances at the National Theatre in London, premiering in May 2007.
In popular culture
- A short sequence, in which Peter Carter asks June her name, was used in the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics, in the “Frankie and June” musical number.
- J. K. Rowling and Daniel Radcliffe, while discussing the near-death or afterlife scenes from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2, said that the film was their favourite and something that each had had in mind when working on the scenes in Harry Potter.
- A classic image from this film has been included in a set of postage stamps to celebrate Great British Films.
- A sketch in the second series of the comedy sketch show Big Train gently lampoons the scenes in which Carter’s character is conversing with June as his plane is stricken. In the sketch, June has several doomed airmen on the radio trying to get through at once (played by Kevin Eldon and Simon Pegg) and getting their lines crossed with each other.
- Macnab 1993, p. 192.
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- “Crowds Cheer the King and Queen”. The Times (London), 2 November 1946, p. 4.
- UK Retail Price Index inflation figures are based on data from Clark, Gregory (2017). “The Annual RPI and Average Earnings for Britain, 1209 to Present (New Series)”. MeasuringWorth. Retrieved 6 November 2017.
- “Cinemas.” The Sunday Times, 15 December 1946, p. 8.
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- “Festival de Cannes: A Matter of Life and Death.” Archived 2 October 2012 at the Wayback Machine. festival-cannes.com, 17 July 2009.
- Crowther, Bosley (26 December 1946). “Movie review: ‘Stairway to Heaven’, A British Production at Park Avenue, Proves a holiday delight”. The New York Times.
- Srampickal, Jacob; Mazza, Giuseppe; Baugh, Lloyd, eds. (2006). Cross Connections. Rome: Gregorian Biblical BookShop. p. 199. ISBN 9788878390614.
- Maher, Kevin (8 December 2017). “A Matter of Life and Death”. The Times (72401). Times2. p. 11. ISSN 0140-0460.
- “Preserved Projects”. Academy Film Archive.
- Powell 1986, pp. 486-87.
- Stein, Ruthe. “Michael Powell’s ‘Age of Consent’ on DVD.”SFGate.com, 11 January 2009. Retrieved: 11 January 2009.
- Friedman, Diane Broadbent. “A Matter of Fried Onions.” Seizure. Retrieved: 1 October 2009.
- Rattray, Fiona. “Top deck.” The Independent , 2 July 2000. Retrieved: 15 February 2012.
- on YouTube
- Tupman, David (1995). “East Finchley’s History. The Lonely Archer”. the-archer.co.uk. Archived from the original on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 19 September 2018.
- Friedman 2008, p. 206.
- Friedman 2008, p. 209.
- Desowitz, Bill (31 October 1999) “Resurrecting a Cosmic Fantasy of Love and Death” The New York Times
- Munn, Michael (20 March 2014). David Niven. The Man Behind the Balloon. Aurum Press. p. 203. ISBN 9781781313725.
- Greengard, Mig (30 October 2007). “Chess in Film – A Matter of Life and Death“. chessninja.com. Retrieved 25 April 2018.
- Christie, Ian (2000). A “Matter of Life and Death”. London: British Film Institute. p. 77. ISBN 0-8517-0479-4. A chess game as a metaphor for the struggle for life eleven years before Bergman‘s The Seventh Seal: to Powell and Pressburger the idea may have been suggested by the death of Alekhine in 1946, the very year in which they made this film.
- “Lux Theater.” powell-pressburger.org. Retrieved: 27 February 2015.
- “Screen Director’s Playhouse.” powell-pressburger.org. Retrieved: 27 February 2015.
- “Robert Montgomery Presents.” powell-pressburger.org. Retrieved: 27 February 2015.
- “Stairway to Heaven.” powell-pressburger.org. Retrieved: 27 February 2015.
- “A Matter of Life and Death.” powell-pressburger.org. Retrieved: 27 February 2015.
- Rowling, J.K. and Daniel Radcliffe. “Film: ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.’ Timecode: 0:42.” Archived 13 September 2012 at the Wayback Machine. Yahoo! Inc., 2011. Retrieved: 20 May 2013.
- “Great British Film.” royalmail.com. Retrieved: 27 February 2015.
- Christie, Ian. Arrows of Desire: The Films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. London: Faber & Faber, 1994. ISBN 0-571-16271-1.
- Friedman, Diane Broadbent. A Matter of Life and Death: The Brain Revealed by the Mind of Michael Powell. Bloomington, Indiana: AuthorHouse, 2008. ISBN 978-1-4389-0945-5.
- Macnab, Geoffrey. J. Arthur Rank and the British Film Industry. London: Routledge, 1993.ISBN 978-0-4150-7272-4.
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