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Film / A Matter of Life and Death

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"This is the universe. Big, isn't it?"

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, starring David Niven. It was originally commissioned as one of the last films funded by the Ministry of Information with the intention of serving as an entertaining comedy about some of the baggage concerning Anglo-American relationship but as always Powell and Pressburger drew from wider references. The main plot was inspired by a real-life incident of a British pilot who survived a plane crash, in addition to which they drew on Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy's A Journey Round My Skull which described the author's experience with brain tumor and the vivid hallucinations it produced. He described having vivid visions in his coma concerning the afterlife and the film mixes fantasy with medically accurate descriptions of partial epileptic seizures.

Peter D. Carter (Niven) is a British RAF pilot whose plane is about to crash. Just as it is about to crash, he gives a dying message to the American radio operator June (Kim Hunter), having a final painful conversation where they miraculously fall in love despite not meeting each other. Carter survives the crash but all is not well. In the Afterlife, a council notes that Carter has essentially cheated death and they send Conductor 71 (Marius Goring), an aristocrat who lost his head during the Reign of Terror to bring him to the Afterlife. However, Peter by this time has met June after crashing on the beach, and they begin a relationship which Peter argues makes him an exception to the laws of the universe. A tussle between Life and Afterlife ensues, as Peter's friends on earth and his supporters in the afterlife battle for the rights of his soul.

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, with the metaphor of Life/Reality=Colour, and Death/Fantasy=Black and White a reversal of the former film.

This film 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 Are Equal in Death: As the Angel played by Kathleen Byron notes, the Afterlife is filled with people of all kinds as she displays the vast file cabinet:
    Everyone on Earth has a file. Russian, Chinese, black or white,Republican or Democrat.
  • All Just a Dream: Played with: from one point of view it's a heavenly trial. From another, it's a dream during 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.
  • Artistic License – History:
    • Abraham Farlan makes reference to an 1857 'occupation of Peking'. In doing so he conflates two events, the 1860 Anglo-French sack of the Imperial Summer Palace in Beijing (Arrow/Second Opium War) and the 1901 sack of Beijing by the Eight-Power Alliance which crushed the 'Boxer Rebellion' (Russia, Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy, Japan, and the USA), which involved extensive robbery and some sexual assault and murder of the civilian populace. Going into the gory details could have been a bit too much of a zinger on Farlan's part, quite apart from it implicating the USA as well.
    • Likewise Farlan talks about how freedom in America is guaranteed from birth and defending his worldview and experiences from his death during the Revolutionary War. This seems to imply that Farlan thinks that America during the Revolution was a bastion of democracy and liberty when it was in fact an unequal Republic with limited suffrage and slavery. Indeed Frank Reeves gives a typically understated British Take That! by his choice for an American jury, a Melting Pot of immigrants and minorities that would obviously have never gotten a shake if America had remained unchanged from the time of the founders.
  • 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.
  • Blackface: The American juror, Jefferson Lincoln Brown, is implied to be African-American, by his name, tone of voice, and the quick cut to the black Army servicemen in the courtroom right after he introduces himself. The character is actually portrayed by a white actor. This is noticeable when the jury is on the stairway looking to render their verdict and you catch a glimpse of his face in technicolor and see that is a white actor portraying an African-American.
  • 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...
  • Central Theme: There is nothing on earth more powerful than love.
  • Chess Motifs: 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. Conductor 71 continually reminds Peter Carter that he will soon meet the chess master Philidor.
  • 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.
  • 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: The trial is essentially a romantic fantasy about Britain's Angst that the Americans rather than the English will be the global superpower after the war. Abraham Farlan represents the fervent patriotism of the Revolutionary War era while Frank Reeves cites the Melting Pot nature of America's open-to-all-immigrants ethos.
    "An American baby sucks in Freedom with the milk of the breast at which he hangs!"
  • "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.
  • Evil Brit: Farlan takes this view and he makes it a point by commissioning a mystical jury comprising peoples from England's enemies and colonies. He points out that most of the world sees England this way on account of its Empire, which considering the time and year of its release would count as Self-Deprecation on the part of its British film-makers.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Peter opens the film preparing to go down with his plane and does so bravely and calmly. Subverted in that he doesn't actually die, kicking off the film's plot.
  • 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.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: Conductor 71 comes down from Heaven to Earth, and in so doing he goes from black-and-white to colour. He rapturously sniffs the rose in his lapel:
    Conductor 71: Ahhhh. We are starved for Technicolor up there.
    • Bonus points because the colour parts of this film really were in Technicolor.
  • 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. Dr. Frank Reeves the neurosurgeon Takes a Third Option in seeing both the psychological and physiological aspects as equally important.
    • The movie ends with June saying that she knows they won. She might have experienced the trial in her dream, or she might just mean that he pulled through the operation and the danger is past.
  • Mistaken for Afterlife: After bailing out of his plane without a parachute, Peter comes to on an idyllic beach while an Arcadian shepherd boy tends his flock nearby, and wonders if this is Heaven. Turns out he just washed ashore at a beauty spot on a nice day.
  • Mundane Made Awesome: Inverted: the awesome is made mundane, in that the afterlife (or at least the entrance to it) 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.
  • 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.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: The Angel, the Chief Recorder and the Judge.
  • Reign of Terror: Conductor 71 was an aristocrat who lost his head during The French Revolution apparently during 2 Germinal on the Revolutionary Calendar (22nd March in the Gregorian).
  • Screen-to-Stage Adaptation: 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.
  • 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]
    • Likewise someone with the specific brain condition Carter suffers from could feasibly experience vivid hallucinations like Carter's visions.
  • Single Tear: When the ghost of Peter Carter kisses his one true love June, a single tear falls from his eye. More interestingly, although she is petrified and in another time altogether she also sheds a single tear - which is later used as proof of her love for him.
  • Sliding Scale of Gender Inequality: Even in the afterlife, it's still the 1940s. Some roles of authority, such as the Chief Recorder, are filled by women, but the Judge and both juries — who are drawn from all countries and walks of life — are all male, and Peter and Conductor 71 never consider the possibility of a woman defending him.
  • 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.
  • Survivor's Guilt: One interpretation is that Peter's visions, filled with crowds of dead British and American soldiers, is largely an elaborate way to deal with his guilt of living while many fellow soldiers, including his crewmates, died. He largely has to convince himself that love with June is truly worth surviving in their place.
  • 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 is 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 immigrants from historical enemies of Britain, so as to prove a point.
  • Tuckerization: Robert Coote's character was given the last name "Trubshawe", after David Niven's friend Michael Trubshawe, the source of numerous references and/or character names in Niven's movies.
  • Unconventional Courtroom Tactics: 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.
  • Worthy Opponent: Ultimately Farlan concedes this of Dr Reeves and Peter.
  • Your Mind Makes It Real: Dr. Frank Reeves notes that while Dr. Peter Carter's hallucinations have a physical basis and can be treated surgically, it also has a psychological basis and even if the trial is entirely imaginary, Peter has to win it to survive. This was grounded on the advice of Powell's neurological consultant and it certainly anticipated later advances in the field.