My Classic Movie Pick: A Matter of Life and Death

The Archers logo from A Matter of Life and Death

The Archers logo from A Matter of Life and Death (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A Matter of Life and DeathIn September 1945, Michael Powell and Emeric  Pressburger began production on  a new movie for the studio that they created, The Archers.  The film, written by Powell and Pressburger, was called A Matter of Life and Death in the United Kingdom.   For the U.S. audiences, it was re-titled Stairway to Heaven.   This film was one of the more unusual ones that the team of Powell and Pressburger ever created.  A romance, with a history lesson, and a fantasy, all rolled into one concept.  The British cast members were led by David Niven, Roger Livesey, Marius Goring, Robert Coote, and Kathleen Byron.  American actress Kim Hunter was the female lead and Canadian actor Raymond Massey also starred in the movie.

The plot centers around RAF pilot Peter Carter(Niven) desperately trying to land his damaged and burning airplane after a mission over Germany on May 2, 1945.  His crew has already bailed out as he had ordered them to do, not revealing that his own parachute was all shot up.  He manages to contact June, an American radio operator based in England.  He talks with her movingly as he knows his life is about to end, and he makes the decision to jump from his plane without a parachute before it crashes into the sea.  By all accounts, Peter should have died but Conductor 71(Marius Goring, dressed as a very pompous French Aristocrat, circa the French Revolution) misses Peter due to the thick fog over the English Channel on the night of May 2nd.  Thus, Peter wakes up on a beach in England, instead of being led to Heaven by Conductor 71.   The next morning, after Peter awakens on the beach and realizes he is alive, he happens to meet June, who is bicycling back to her home for some sleep as her shift has ended.   As Peter and June spend time talking to one another,  so surprised and relieved that Peter survived the jump, they fall in love.  Conductor 71 finds Peter and is able to freeze time, in order to greet Peter and tell him that Peter should really be dead and that he must take Peter to Heaven now.  Peter demands that there be an appeal, after all, it’s not his fault that the Conductor messed up.  Now that June is in his life, he doesn’t want to go to Heaven.  The Conductor has a consult with his superiors who agree that Peter can make an appeal.  The Conductor returns to Earth to tell Peter that he has three days to prepare his case for staying on Earth.  He is allowed to pick a defense counsel from anyone who has already died, but has a hard time deciding on who to choose.

.Roger Livesey Stairway to Heaven

Meanwhile, June has a friend, Doctor Reeves,(Roger Livesey), who is fascinated by Peter’s survival, and thinks that the visions of this Conductor are a result of a brain injury; chronic adhesive arachnoiditis from a slight concussion Peter suffered two years prior.  Reeves schedules Peter for surgery to correct the problem and to rid him of the visions.  Unfortunately, Dr. Reeves is killed in a motorcycle accident before the surgery is to take place, but now he can be Peter’s Defense Counsel in Heaven.   With Dr.  Reeves in place for the defense, Heaven chooses its prosecutor for this unusual appeal and Abraham Farlan(Raymond Massey) is picked for the task.  Mr. Farlan was the first American who died in the American Revolution and there is no love lost between him and England.  He even admits he is shocked and saddened that an American maiden, such as June, and a Bostonian too, could fall in love with an English man!  As Peter is given anesthesia and is unconscious for his surgery, the court trial in Heaven begins.   Immediately, Dr. Reeves challenges the make-up of individuals in the jury, which are individuals who hate the British.  The judge agrees to let this jury be replaced with a mixture of modern day Americans.

Events from World History and British History are cited by Reeves and Farlan, and finally Reeves requests that June be allowed to take the stand.   This poses a problem as she is still alive, not a resident of Heaven, so Conductor 71 solves that problem by causing June at the hospital, awaiting the outcome of Peter’s surgery, to fall asleep so that she can then give her testimony to the Heavenly court.  Reeves proves that June truly loves Peter as she shows that she is willing to take his place in Heaven so that he can go on to have a longer life on Earth.   “…nothing is stronger than the law in the Universe, but on Earth, nothing is stronger than love,”  says Dr. Reeves in his summation.  I won’t reveal anymore about this movie’s end as I want anyone who reads this blog to search out the film on their own to see it!  The production team made a very creative decision to film all of the Earth scenes in rich technicolor and all of the Heaven scenes in black and white, a reverse of what was done for The Wizard of Oz.   Jack Cardiff, an Oscar-winning cinematographer, shot this film for The Archers, and his love of the craft shows.  It is a beautifully lensed  film.   To convey that it takes a while for the characters to travel to Heaven, a huge escalator was built by a team of engineers.  They dubbed the project “Operation Ethel” and it took 3 months to build it and cost 3000 pounds.  The escalator had 106 steps, each step being 20 ft. wide, and it was driven by a 12 horsepower engine.  Unfortunately the noise from that engine was so loud that all the dialogue for those scenes had to be re-dubbed in studio.  There was also a 9 month wait for the film stock and Technicolor cameras because they were in use by the U.S. Army to make their training films!

A Matter of Life and Death was chosen for the first ever Royal Film Presentation on Nov. 1st, 1946, then it went out to the general public in the U.K. on December 15th, 1946.  It had it’s first showing in America, under a new title: Stairway to Heaven, on Dec. 25th, 1946, in New York City.   The Archers Studio, aka Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, made wonderful movies to view, usually filmed by Jack Cardiff,  with very interesting plots and this is one of my favorites that they produced.  Other films in their canon that I have seen and enjoyed are: I Know Where I’m Going, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Contraband, 49th Parallel, and  A Canterbury Tale.  A Matter of Life and Death is available at Amazon and Turner Classic Movies will air it on April 18th.

2 responses to this post.

  1. There’s a nice book about the making of the film The Red Shoes focusing on the costumes by the leader of the 1940s Parisian couture movement, Jacques Fath, whose designs, more than Dior and Balmain at the time, brought a completely contemporary sensibility and shocking elegance to fashion in France but also for the first time to the best American stores.


    • Thank you for that information, Dan. I have not heard of Jacques Fath, but I have a cousin in NYC who knows a lot about the fashions of the past. I plan on asking her if she is familiar with his work. I will order the book about The Red Shoes from my local library. It sounds like a fascinating read. The university in my town showed it on the big screen last year and I saw it then, magnificient film to view in that way.


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