BluRay/DVD Reviews

A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (U.S. ‘Stairway to Heaven’)

By • Feb 15th, 2001 •

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DVD released by Carlton Film Distributors.
English subtitles; in depth biographies; Scene access; Behind the scenes commentary; English: Dolby Digital (Mono: L, C, R).

‘This is a 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. Any resemblance to any other world, known or unknown, is purely coincidental’

Thus begins this whimsical tale of young Squadron Leader Peter Carter who, on a foggy night in 1945, with his ‘sparks’ Trubshaw dead and having ordered the survivors of his crew to bail out, finds himself in a stricken and ablaze Lancaster Bomber over the English Channel with no parachute. His desperate radio signals are picked up by June, a pretty young American sergeant in the WACS and, in sharing what they think are Peter’s last words on Earth, a special bond, perhaps even love, forms between them. Finally, saying his farewells to June, Peter bails out into what undoubtedly is oblivion.

Meanwhile, up in Heaven, Trubshaw patiently waits for his friend in the certain belief that he must have ‘bought it’. When Peter fails to make his appointment in the Great Beyond the alarm bells, literally, start to ring.

Back on Earth, Peter awakes washed up on a beach believing it to be Heaven, but as it turns out is in fact (and very conveniently as far as the story goes) near the aerodrome and village where June lives and works. They (almost immediately!) meet and are of course besotted with each other (a whirlwind romance or what?).

However there is consternation in the Firmament as Peter is now nearly 20 hours late. Conductor 71, a French aristocrat who lost his head in the Revolution (a wonderfully mischievous; appropriately flamboyant and masterful portrayal by Goring, who almost steals the film), who should have collected Peter at the appointed time but missed him in the fog (‘…because of your ridiculous English climate!’), is dispatched to retrieve him.

This Heavenly emissary first encounters Peter whilst he and June are enjoying an intimate interlude in a garden. Conveniently suspending time (though the plants still move) so that June is totally unaware of his presence (as will be the case whenever he appears on Earth), he puts forward the problem, but Peter counters that circumstances have now changed – the day before he was prepared and ready to die, but now he is in love. He sends the Conductor back with a flea in his ear and a request for an appeal, as the mistake was theirs and not his.
Back in the ‘real’ world Peter describes his experiences to June, who as a result introducers him to charismatic thrill-loving motorcyclist and people watcher Dr. Frank Reeves, who fortunately can dish out enough profound neuro-babble to convince us he knows exactly what’s going on. He discovers that Peter has been having headaches for some time, and with him also being the sensitive type (an aspiring poet and history scholar torn by war from his vocations), it has led to hallucinations, sensory manifestations and so on. Dr. Frank (obviously not the sensitive type) therefore decides that Peter must have a brain operation to cure these ills (a Cuckoo’s Nest fan perhaps?), whilst at the same time both he and June continue to indulge him in his fantasies of otherworldly goings on.

Peter once more meets with Conductor 71. He has won his right to appeal. His case will go to a Heavenly tribunal, but he now has the problem of deciding who should be his defending counsel. Prosecuting on behalf of the Celestial Records Dept. will be Abraham Farlan, the first Boston patriot killed in the War of Independence (Massey at his all time puritanical and scowling best), and who is, shall we say, a little biased against this happy-go-lucky, ner-do-well Englishman (to be honest any Englishman), especially where the honour of a Boston born girl (June) is involved.

And we’re still only half way through the film…

From here-on-in follow two parallel life and death struggles: One from Peter’s perspective of the Celestial trial, the other from June and the surgeons’ monitoring of his touch-and-go survival from the risky brain operation. Needless to say I won’t spoil the outcome for those who haven’t seen it.

The film opens in the usual monochrome of the day with the familiar J. Arthur Rank gong which segues into the ‘Archers’ logo, a black, white and grey RAF roundel that swiftly and magically changes to a vivid red, white and blue – a taste of things to come for the rest of the film. Then, with special effects that shame most of the SF films of the following ten or twenty years, begins a portentous narration: “This is the Universe…” followed by a twist that could have come straight out of ‘Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’: “Big isn’t it.” This immediately diffuses our solemnity and sets the tone for what is to follow. In a deliberate reversal of what the audience would expect, Earthly activities are in glorious Technicolor whilst Heaven is in monochrome. As Conductor 71 remarks on arriving on Earth among a deliberate blaze of red and pink rhododendrons, having just been introduced in a monochrome sequence, “One is starved for Technicolor up there”. Just as an aside, watch this scene carefully – Goring clearly mouths the word ‘colour’ but, in an early example of product placement, it was dubbed to ‘Technicolor’ in post-production. Cleverly they don’t give you too much of a good thing. Just as you’re getting used to it they keep taking the colour away and then reintroducing it as spectacularly as before, just to keep reminding you that this is something special. Now though, paradoxically, the black and white sequences seem twenty years older than the rest of the film.

Commissioned as a propaganda film to ease the then strained Anglo-American Alliance, it is no accident that the Heavenly debate over English Peter and American June’s future together becomes the bickering between two nations. Eventually Massey produces a radio and we are treated to a typically mundane and English cricket commentary presented as the ‘Voice of England’ that America will never understand. Our English Counsel counters with his own radio (eagerly provided by the French Conductor 71, who is now clearly on the side of Peter, Love, and, more likely, Anglo-French relations) and tunes into the Voice of America playing a boogie-woogie jazz number. In response the horrified and despairing Massey states “I don’t understand a word of it.”. “Neither do I” says the Englishman. Agreement at last. Times have changed and things will never be the same again. We just have to get used to it.

In the aftermath of six years of war, with families still hurting and grieving over the loss of so many loved ones, A Matter of Life and Death offered joy, hope and optimism, and a sense of this post-war time of change – ‘out with the old’ (black and white) and ‘in with the new’ (Technicolor). I can’t help but feel that the audiences of the time were echoing the one line of dialogue uttered in the film by a very young Richard Attenborough: “It’s Heaven isn’t it.”

This DVD presentation restores the vivid colour photography of the then yet to become legendary Jack Cardiff that must have stunned audiences in 1946. The Special Features are a little disappointing. I suppose there’s a limit to what you can do when most of the people associated with the film are no longer with us, but what they have done could be better. They include in depth text biographies of David Niven, Kim Hunter (22 years later unrecognisable, but equally compelling, as Zira in the original Planet of the Apes), Raymond Massey, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The thumbnail stills offered are also, at least on my copy, very blurred but the worst culprit is the ‘Behind the Scenes Commentary’ promised on the cover. This turns out to be simply a separate 10 minute interview with Cinematographer Jack Cardiff, which though interesting, informative and well crafted, is all too brief and certainly not what was implied.

The film itself though is a pure delight and in my mind the greatest film from the prolific and truly talented producing/directing team of Powell and Pressburger. It is, for it’s time, technically brilliant in every aspect; also brilliantly directed; wittily scripted, perfectly cast, beautifully designed and lavishly mounted, and was justly chosen as the first film to be shown at a Royal Command Performance.

Thoroughly recommended and a wonderful piece of not only cinema history but of history itself, to have in any collection. They sadly don’t, can’t and never will, make ‘em like this any more.

My only, and very, very slight nitpick is that the illustration on the DVD cover is the reverse of the image seen in the final minutes of the film, and I do get so annoyed with this kind of lack of attention to detail. But that’s just me. Enjoy.

An excellent website featuring stills, reviews, trivia and goofs from the film can be found at

David Niven Sq. Leader Peter Carter
Kim Hunter June
Roger Livesey Doctor Frank Reeves
Marius Goring Conductor 71
Raymond Massey Abraham Farlan
Robert Coote Bob Trubshaw
Bonar Colleano American Pilot
Richard Attenborough English Pilot

Production Design by Alfred Junge.
Cinamatography by Jack Cardiff.
Music by Allan Gray.
Edited by Reginald Mills.
Written, Produced and Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
Released by Universal International Pictures.

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