Film: A Matter of Life and Death

A Matter of Life and Death (1946) is a romantic fantasy film set in World War II by the British writer-director-producer team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. It was released in the United States under the title Stairway to Heavennote , which was derived from the film's most prominent special effect: a broad escalator linking the Other World and Earth. Reversing the convention of The Wizard of Oz, the supernatural scenes are in black and white, while the ones on Earth are in Technicolor.

In 2004, A Matter of Life and Death was named the second greatest British film ever made by the magazine Total Film in a poll of 25 film critics, behind only Get Carter.

This Movie Contains Examples Of:

  • Afterlife Antechamber: Airmen shot down in combat find themselves in a huge building lit with heavenly light where they are greeted and allowed to sign in. American flyers are thrilled that there's a Coke machine.
  • All Just a Dream: Played with: from one point of view it's a heavenly trial, from another it's a brain operation.
  • And You Were There: The Judge and, it turns out, the surgeon who operates on Peter, are both played by the same actor, Abraham Sofaer.
  • Anyone Can Die: Frank.
  • Astronomic Zoom: From space to the battered WW2 bomber.
  • Balancing Death's Books: June is told during the trial that if she wants Carter to live she must be prepared to take his place, because someone has to die.
  • Based on a True Story : A major case of Reality Is Unrealistic. This film was based on a real life Hungarian pilot who survived a plane crash and reported severe hallucinations of heaven and hell and an afterlife trial as a result of a concussion.
  • Celestial Bureaucracy: The afterlife arrival area is a massive customer service desk dedicated to making sure every arrival is filed at the right time. If they aren't then the alarms that have never sounded will sound...
  • Comically Missing the Point : Michael Powell felt this way about the American title of Stairway to Heaven which he feels ruined the entire meaning of the film, which was an emphasis on life on earth in the here and now, which was why the afterlife was black-and-white and earth on life was in colour.
  • Courtroom Antics: Farlan says that Reeves can replace the jury with a fresh one halfway through the trial if he wants. This is fine apparently. Of course it is heaven (or a hallucination) so this probably isn't a problem.
  • Danger Deadpan: The opening scene where Carter calmly and politely chats to a female radio operator about how utterly screwed he is, and that the best hope for survival is to bail out without a parachute and hope that he is wrong about the height he is flying at.
  • Dead to Begin With: Played with thoroughly throughout.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: The scenes on Earth are in full color, while those in Heaven are in black and white.
    • Lampshaded by Conductor 71.
      Conductor 71: One is starved for Technicolor up there.
  • Eagleland: Farlan is a classic type one with a Patriotic Fervour, persuaded eventually to become something of a type 3.
  • Eureka Moment: When Peter kisses June he has to wipe one of her tears off his cheek; Conductor 71 realises that her tears are the key to Peter proving his case to the afterlife.
  • Everyone Calls Him Barkeep: Conductor 71 is never referred to as anything else, even in the credits.
  • Fire-Forged Friends: Conductor 71 and Peter eventually become these, united in their appreciation of the nature of True Love.
  • Jury of the Damned: The jury of dead souls initially selected by Farlan is designed to be biased against the English.
  • Lemony Narrator: He only appears in the prologue, and then offscreen, but he's still pretty lemony:
    Narrator: [over a panning shot of intergalactic space; portentously] the universe. [conversationally] Big, isn't it?
  • Love Before First Sight: The movie starts with June and Peter falling for each other over a radio communication. Then Peter jumps out of a plane without a parachute.
  • Manly Tears: You will shed them. It's that kind of film.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: The movie makes a substantial part of its premise being the advancements of the various arguments on either side.
  • Mundane Made Awesome: Inverted: the awesome is made mundane, in that the afterlife is like a very large airport and the angels are bureaucrats.
  • Officer O'Hara: One of the second jury is an Irish-American cop.
  • One True Love: Peter and June's love is so strong, and are so perfect for each other, it can stop the universe, or save Peter's life and keep his brain safe (depending on which version of events you prefer).
  • Or Was It a Dream?: The obligatory counter point to the All Just a Dream narration, a lost book's reappearance (borrowed by Conductor 71) right at the end provides ambiguity as to which explanation is correct. Ultimately it is up to the audience to decide.
  • Our Angels Are Different: Officious, incompetent (and French), but basically a good guy.
  • Patriotic Fervour: Farlan is more offended by Carter daring to fall in love with an American woman than by his defying heaven. The film as a whole is a Heroic Self-Deprecation, with England's flaws being accepted and accounted for.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: The Angel, the Chief Recorder and the Judge.
  • Shown Their Work : The neurological details and operational procedures are incredibly accurate. So accurate that it provoked a medical paper from the University of Pennsylvania which used it as a case study. [1]
  • Stairway to Heaven: Trope Namer. Much of the film's action takes place on mystical ascending stairway which leads to the afterlife. In one instance Conductor 71 tries to trick Peter into riding it into the afterlife by distracting him with conversation while on it. In the climax of the film, Peter and June's love brings the staircase to a literal shuddering halt as their love overrides the law of the universe itself.
    • It should be pointed out that Michael Powell hated the American title feeling it spoiled the ambiguity of the whole story and that he didn't intend the Afterlife to be regarded as heaven.
  • The Power of Love: The big question, is the power of love alone enough to outweigh the weight of heaven and history. Ultimately it is the most powerful force in the universe.
  • Trial of the Mystical Jury: Two such juries in fact, to see if the Power of Love is enough to hold back death. The first one rejected by being too prejudiced as it is composed only of historical enemies of Britain. It is then replaced by an all American jury...of first generation immigration from historical enemies of Britain, so as to prove a point.
  • Worthy Opponent: Ultimately Farlan concedes this of Dr Reeves and Peter.