Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

A Matter of Life and Death

(Stairway to Heaven, UK, 1946)

Released in the US as Stairway to Heaven. I can’t say the title change is inappropriate—there is a huge, infinite stairway in the movie—but the writing-directing team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger didn’t like it, so I’ll go with the original. (MP and EP worked under the name of their company, The Archers.) The Archers were sort of the George Lucas and Stanley Kubrick of their day. They used cutting edge special effects, including some they created on their own, to enhance their stories. They are probably best known for The Red Shoes, though they did a lot of films from the ‘30s through the ‘50s. The colors of these films are breathtaking, and the panning shots, the dissolves, all the other technical devices are first-rate.

This is a story that struck me as familiar as soon as it got going. You may not have seen Here Comes Mr. Jordan, a 1941 film starring Robert Montgomery, but you probably did see the re-make, Heaven Can Wait, from 1978 and starring Warren Beatty. In both films an athlete (boxer in ’41, quarterback in ’78) are involved in a heavenly mix-up, dying before their time. An arrangement is made whereby they can occupy the body of someone else until something else can be worked out. Or something like that. Here, an RAF flier (David Niven) is in a doomed plane coming back to England in 1945, unable to land, and he has no parachute. He contacts a lovely WREN (Kim Hunter) and they fall in love over the radio. This is a riveting, unforgettable scene. Then he jumps … but he doesn’t die, due to a mix-up with the angel (or whatever) who was assigned to get him. So he’s living on borrowed time.
Through a lot of complications, he is either on an operating table undergoing brain surgery and imagining all this, or in a giant heavenly court appealing his case to be allowed to keep on living, because he’s fallen in love. … or both. Take your pick.

The sets are mind-boggling, such as the aforementioned stairway, and even more, the huge courtroom. They had literally thousands of extras in period costumes. And another odd thing. Like The Wizard of Oz, the film is partly in color (sorry, colour) and partly in B&W. But it’s the parts on Earth that are in colour, which seems counterintuitive to me. Maybe the point was that heaven was bland? Or, more likely, that all the dead people in Heaven were drained of colour (life) and the living people weren’t. Whatever, they missed a great opportunity to show all those costumed extras in dazzling Technicolor. (In fact, the angel, upon returning to Earth, looks at a flower and remarks on how nice it is to be back in Technicolor!)

It’s all very clever, and the trial is full of comic jabs and high-falutin’ philosophy that all seems to boil down to, oddly enough, a fight between British and American culture. Considering the post-war time and the uneasiness Brits were probably feeling with all those Yanks still hanging around Blighty, I guess that’s understandable. The Empire was gone, and America was clearly the big winner of the war.

I liked it quite a lot, though I can’t say I understood it all. It’s a remarkable film, not like anything you’ve seen, I would imagine, and that’s worth a lot right there.