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The most elaborate fantasy film attempted by the British cinema since Alexander Korda's 1940 production of The Thief of Bagdad, A Matter of Life and Death (aka Stairway to Heaven, 1946) began production on the day that Japan surrendered to General MacArthur, bringing an end to the Pacific campaign. The timing was fortuitous for the resulting film captured the imaginations of World War II veterans and their countrymen through its magical blend of romance, comedy and tearful drama. Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, A Matter of Life and Death was significant in several respects: Its bold and startling use of Technicolor is still considered one of the peak achievements of that process. David Niven became a major star after this, far surpassing his earlier successes in Hollywood. Most importantly, the film addressed the quickly deteriorating relations between Great Britain and the U.S. at the war's end through its depiction of the fragile romance between a RAF pilot and his American sweetheart.
Reminiscent of other celestial fantasies such as Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) and Down to Earth (1947), Stairway to Heaven alternates between the real world and a fantasy realm. When the movie opens, bomber pilot Peter Carter (David Niven) is seen inside his burning plane, desperately trying to make radio contact. His distress signal is picked up by June (Kim Hunter), an American WAC, and her soothing voice inspires the romantic in Carter. He leaps from the plane without a parachute and miraculously survives unharmed - to all appearances. In reality, he actually suffered brain damage in his fall and must undergo a serious operation. During the procedure, Carter enters a hallucinatory state in which his life is put on trial before a heavenly court. Having cheated death in his fall from the plane, Carter must defend his right to live under an intense prosecution by Abraham Farlan (Raymond Massey), the first man to die in the American War of Independence and an anti-British zealot.
The production of A Matter of Life and Death proved a daunting task for the filmmaking team of Powell-Pressburger and included a long pre-production phase. According to author Scott Salwolke (in The Films of Michael Powell and the Archers), "Forty-six detailed sketches were prepared and twenty-four series of architectural drawings drawn up, while detailed scale models were created, primarily for the sequences set in Heaven. The largest set piece for the film was the enormous escalator in heaven than weighed eighty-five tons and had 266 twenty-foot steps. The decision was made to film the heaven sequences in black and white, creating further difficulties. The footage was filmed in black-and-white, then re-produced in dye monochrome." In addition, the sequences on earth were shot in Technicolor which required the permission of the British Ministry and a nine-month wait due to the scarcity and expense of Technicolor stock: it was mostly requisitioned for aerial combat training films at the time. Certain scenes in the film also presented technical challenges such as the moment when David Niven washes up on the shore (cinematographer Jack Cardiff deliberately fogged the lens with his breath to achieve the misty, dreamlike look) and the twenty-five minute trial sequence, set in an enormous auditorium with seemingly endless rows of spectators - among them famous military leaders from each nation and historical period. "We did an awful lot of work on the film before it began to assume the shape and the rhythm of the film you know now," recalled Powell in his autobiography, A Life in Movies. "The sound track was a production in itself. Almost everything we had shot on location with sound had to be revoiced, and nearly all those voices had to be brought down from the Western Isles. There were voices from Mallaig, from Tobermory, and from Colonsay itself, the island which we used for the unattainable island, Kiloran."
The screenplay for the film was partially inspired by Powell and Pressburger's desire to examine current U.S./Great Britain relations through a fantastical looking glass and by a true account of a Royal Air Force sergeant who leaped from a plane in flames and survived with only minor injuries. David Niven, who had so impressed Powell in his previous film, The Way Ahead (1944), was the director's first and only choice to play pilot Peter Carter. Niven, who had been out of the Hollywood spotlight for six years, later remarked, "Six months is too long for an actor to be out of business - six years is almost certain disaster." Thanks to Powell, the actor's success in A Matter of Life and Death relaunched his career as an international leading man. The casting of female lead Kim Hunter, on the other hand, was attributed to Alfred Hitchcock who recommended her to Powell after working with the actress on several screen tests.
When A Matter of Life and Death was completed, it was chosen to be the first of an annual series of Royal Command Film Performances, an event attended by British loyalty and diplomats. While it was certainly an honor for Powell and Pressburger it also stirred up considerable controversy among British critics. The Daily Graphic wrote "There will be widespread editorial indignation at the choice for our first Royal Film Performance of a picture which might have been made specially to appeal to isolationist and anti-British sentiments in the United States." A reviewer for The Observer remarked that the film "leaves us in grave doubts whether it is intended to be serious or gay. When they tell me that it is a "stratospheric joke" I reply that a matter of life and death can never be a good joke." Some particularly took issue with the scenes set in Heaven, which in the words of one critic depicted a "futuristic Utopia. It's a planned society....bureaucratic, idealistic, totalitarian, colourless, theoretic." American critics, however, were overwhelmingly enthusiastic with Bosley Crowther of the New York Times leading the charge with his remarks "If you wished to be literal about it you might call it romantic fantasy with psychological tie-ins. But literally is not the way to take this deliciously sophisticated frolic in imagination's realm. For this is a fluid contemplation of a man's odd experiences in two worlds...it's a delight."
Like most original Technicolor film negatives, A Matter of Life and Death was in serious need of restoration several years after its original release. Luckily the British Film Institute agreed to perform some restoration work on it in 1995 and their subsequent work convinced them to completely restore the entire feature with the financial assistance of Sony Pictures. According to Cathie Christie in an article on the restoration, "They discovered that when the original film was edited the three strips [of Technicolor] were slightly out of alignment. Although this was less of the problem in 1946, it became more of a problem in 1999 when in addition to the misalignment, the technicians found that the three strips had shrunk in the ensuing 50 plus years. Adding to the challenge was the fact that each strip had shrunk at a different rate....The team was further tested, surprisingly, by the black and white sequences. There was no original black and white negative from the film, which was apparently cut together with duplicate negatives. The delicate process involved shooting a new positive of the black and white with black and white film stock. From the positive three separate fine grain negatives were made. The team then discovered that the original black & white negative had its own set of defects which transferred to the three newly printed negatives. However, not all the negatives had inherited the same defects. It became clear that it was impossible to cut the three new negatives together because of the varied defects, and in the end they chose the best of three b&w negatives and cut it into the new film." After all the extensive restoration, A Matter of Life and Death now looks as glorious and as striking as it did in 1946.
It is not surprising that Powell cites A Matter of Life and Death as his favorite Archers production and critics and film scholars continue to praise the film to this day such as Roger Ebert who wrote "Stairway to Heaven [the U.S. release title] is one of the most audacious films ever made - in its grandiose vision, and in the cozy English way it's expressed....There's also sly humor. Heaven has a Coke machine for the arriving Yanks; newly appointed angels are seen carrying their wings under their arms in plastic dry-cleaner bags...Today's movies are infatuated with special effects, but often they're used to create the sight of things we can easily imagine: crashes, explosions, battles in space. The special effects in "Stairway to Heaven" show a universe that never existed until this movie was made, and the vision is breathtaking in its originality."
Producer: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Screenplay: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Cinematography: Jack Cardiff
Film Editing: Reginald Mills
Art Direction: Alfred Junge
Music: Allan Gray
Cast: David Niven (Peter Carter), Kim Hunter (June), Robert Coote (Bob), Kathleen Byron (An Angel), Richard Attenborough (English Pilot), Bonar Colleano (American Pilot).
by Jeff Stafford