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A Matter of Life and Death (film)

A Matter of Life and Death
Directed by Michael Powell
Emeric Pressburger
Produced by Michael Powell
Emeric Pressburger
George Busby
Written by Michael Powell
Emeric Pressburger
Starring David Niven
Roger Livesey
Raymond Massey
Kim Hunter
Marius Goring
Narrated by John Longden
Music by Allan Gray
Cinematography Jack Cardiff
Edited by Reginald Mills
Distributed by Eagle-Lion Films (UK)
Universal Studios (US)
Release dates
1 November 1946 (UK premiere)
15 December 1946 (UK general release)
Running time
104 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Budget £320,000 (est.) or £650,000.[1]

A Matter of Life and Death (1946) is a romantic fantasy film created by the British writing-directing-producing team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and set in England during the Second World War. The film stars David Niven, Roger Livesey, Raymond Massey, Kim Hunter and Marius Goring.

The film was originally released in the United States under the title Stairway to Heaven, which derived from the film's most prominent special effect: a broad escalator linking Earth to the afterlife. The decision to film the scenes of the Other World in black and white added to the complications. They were filmed in Three-strip Technicolor, but the colour was not fully developed, giving a pearly hue to the black and white shots, a process cited in the screen credits as "Colour and Dye-Monochrome Processed in Technicolor". This reversed the effect in The Wizard of Oz[nb 1]. Photographic dissolves between "Technicolor Dye-Monochrome" (the Other World) and Three-Strip Technicolor (Earth) are used several times during the film.

In 1999, A Matter of Life and Death placed 20th on BFI's list of Best 100 British films[3] In 2004, a poll by the magazine Total Film of 25 film critics named A Matter of Life and Death the second greatest British film ever made, behind Get Carter.[4]


  • Plot 1
  • Cast 2
  • Production 3
  • Release 4
  • Critical reception 5
  • Analysis 6
    • Are the visions real? 6.1
    • The other world 6.2
    • The identities and significance of the statues 6.3
    • Anglo-American relations 6.4
  • Adaptations 7
    • Radio 7.1
    • TV 7.2
    • Theatre 7.3
  • In popular culture 8
  • References 9
  • External links 10


Squadron Leader Peter Carter (David Niven) is a British Royal Air Force pilot trying to fly a badly damaged and burning Lancaster bomber home after a mission over Germany on 2 May 1945. He has ordered his crew to bail out, without revealing that his own parachute has been shot up. He manages to contact June (Kim Hunter), an American radio operator based in England, and talks with her for a few minutes before jumping without a parachute.

Peter should have died at that point, but Conductor 71 (Marius Goring), the guide sent to escort him to the "Other World", misses him in the thick fog over the English Channel. The airman wakes up the next day on a beach near June's base. At first, he assumes he is in the afterlife, but then, after a de Havilland Mosquito flies low overhead, discovers to his bewilderment that he is still alive.

Peter meets June, cycling back to her quarters after her night shift, and they fall in love. Conductor 71 (an aristocrat executed in the French Revolution) stops time to explain the situation to Peter and urge him to accept his death and accompany him to the Other World, but Peter demands that the matter be appealed. While Conductor 71 consults his superiors, Peter continues to live his life. Conductor 71 returns and informs him that he has been granted his appeal and has three days to prepare his case. He may choose a defending counsel from among all the people who have died, but has great difficulty picking one.

Peter's visions are diagnosed by June's fascinated friend Doctor Reeves (Roger Livesey) as a symptom of a brain injury – chronic adhesive arachnoiditis from a slight concussion two years earlier – and he is scheduled for surgery. Reeves is killed in a motorcycle accident while trying to find the ambulance that is to take Peter to the hospital, which allows him to act as Peter's counsel.

Reeves argues that, through no fault of his own, his client was given additional time on Earth and during that time he has fallen in love and now has an earthly commitment that should take precedence over the afterlife's claim on him. The matter comes to a head – in parallel with Peter's brain surgery – before a celestial court – the camera zooms out from an amphitheatre to reveal that it is as large as a spiral galaxy. The prosecutor is American Abraham Farlan (Raymond Massey), who hates the British for making him the first casualty of the American Revolutionary War. Reeves challenges the composition of the jury, which is made up of representatives who are prejudiced against the British. In fairness, the jury is replaced by a cosmopolitan mixture of modern Americans whose origins are as varied as those they replace.

Reeves and Farlan both cite examples from British and world history to support their positions. In the end, Reeves has June take the stand (she is made to fall asleep in the "real" world by Conductor 71 so she can testify) and proves that she genuinely loves Peter by telling her that the only way to save his life is to take his place. She steps onto the stairway to the Other World without hesitation and is carried away, leaving Peter behind. Then the stairway comes to an abrupt halt and June rushes back to Peter's open arms. As Reeves triumphantly explains, "... nothing is stronger than the law in the universe, but on Earth, nothing is stronger than love."

The jury rules in Peter's favour. The Judge (Abraham Sofaer) shows Reeves and Farlan the new lifespan granted to the defendant; Reeves calls it "very generous", and Farlan jokingly complains, then agrees to it. The two then engage in supportive banter with one another, and against the stern Chief Recorder, who protests against the breach of law. The scene then shifts to the operating room, where the surgery is declared a success by the surgeon (Abraham Sofaer).


Kim Hunter and David Niven in the film.

In order of appearance:


A Matter of Life and Death was filmed at D&P Studios and Denham Studios in Denham, Buckinghamshire, England, and on locations in Devon and Surrey. The beach scene was shot at Saunton Sands in Devon, and the village seen in the camera obscura was Shere in Surrey. Production took place from 2 September to 2 December 1945, used 29 sets, and cost an estimated £320,000, equivalent to £12,330,000 in 2016.[6] [7]

A Matter of Life and Death had an extensive pre-production period due to the complexity of the production: The huge escalator linking this world with the other, called "Operation Ethel" by the firm of engineers who constructed it under the aegis of the London Passenger Transport Board, took three months to make and cost £3,000, equivalent to £116,000 in 2016. "Ethel" had 106 steps, each 20 feet (6.1 m) wide, and was driven by a 12 hp engine. The full shot was completed by hanging miniatures.[5] The noise of the machinery prevented recording the soundtrack live — all scenes with the escalator were dubbed in post-production.

There was a nine-month wait for film stock and Technicolor cameras because they were being used by the US Army to make training films.[2] The decision to film the scenes of the "other world" in black and white added to the complications. Where the "other world" is seen, it was filmed in Three-Strip Technicolor, but the colour was not fully developed, giving a pearly hue to the black and white shots, a process cited in the screen credits as "Colour and Dye-Monochrome Processed in Technicolor".[2] (as Conductor 71 remarks during an early transition, "One is starved for Technicolor up there.")

Other sequences also presented challenges, such as the stopped-action table-tennis game for which Hunter and Livesey were trained by champions Alan Brooke and Viktor Barna;[5] the scene where Carter washes up on the beach, the first scene filmed, where cinematographer Jack Cardiff fogged up the camera lens with his breath to create the look he wanted; and the long, 25-minute trial sequence, which required a set with a 350-foot (110 m) long by 40-foot (12 m) high backcloth.[8]


A Matter of Life and Death was chosen for the first ever Royal Film Performance on 1 November 1946 at the Empire Theatre, in London.[9] The performance was in aid of the Cinematograph Trade Benevolent Fund and £30,000 (£1,111,388 in 2016 pounds[10]) was raised.[9] It then went into general release in the UK on 15 December 1946.[11] The film subsequently had its US release in New York on 25 December 1946 under the name Stairway to Heaven.[12]

In 1986 the film was screened out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival.[13]

Critical reception

Upon its premiere in New York City, Bosley Crowther said "the delicate charm, the adult humor and visual virtuosity of this Michael Powell—Emeric Pressburger film render it indisputably the best of a batch of Christmas shows...[T]he wit and agility of the producers, who also wrote and directed the job, is given range through the picture in countless delightful ways: in the use, for instance, of Technicolor to photograph the earthly scenes and sepia in which to vision the hygienic regions of the Beyond (so that the heavenly 'messenger', descending, is prompted to remark, 'Ah, how one is starved for Technicolor up there!'."[14]


Are the visions real?

While the film never specifically states whether Peter's visions are real, the actor playing the judge also plays the brain surgeon. As is shown in the paper, "A Matter of Fried Onions"[15] and subsequent work by Diane Broadbent Friedman, there was a large amount of medical research carried out to ensure that the symptoms shown agreed with a correct medical diagnosis of Peter Carter's condition. However, despite being asked several times within the film, no accepted answer to how Peter could have survived the fall is given.

There are two scenes set within "the other world" in which Peter is not present (Trubshawe's arrival and just before the start of the trial) which seem to imply the existence of the other world. A minor point regarding a borrowed book (which forms a third "other world" experience while Peter is still unconscious following his operation) also seems to hint at the possibility of its existence, however all of these could be explained simply by Peter's mind filling in blanks during times he is unconscious.

The other world

The producers took pains never to refer to "the other world" as heaven, as they felt that was too restrictive and limiting. An introductory title screen – repeated as the Foreword to the 1946 novelisation by Eric Warman[5] – contains an explicit statement: "This is the 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", but goes on to say "Any resemblance to any other world known or unknown is purely coincidental".

Powell and Pressburger objected to the American distributor's renaming the film Stairway to Heaven, to no avail. The distributor believed that American audiences would not want to see a film with the word "Death" in the title, especially just after World War II. When Powell pointed out that the 1934 film Death Takes a Holiday was released without any problems, he was told that the title was acceptable because death was holidaying.[16]

The architecture of the other world is noticeably modernist, a vast and open plan, with huge circular observation holes, beneath which the clouds of Earth can be seen. This vision was later the inspiration[17] for the design of St.Paul's Bus Station, Walsall in 2000, by architects Allford Hall Monaghan Morris. The film's amphitheatre court scene was rendered by BT in a TV advertisement c.2002 as a metaphor for communication technology, especially the Internet.[18]

The identities and significance of the statues

Lining the escalator are large statues of historically prominent men. A list of the names of the statues appears in Michael Powell's handwriting on pages 49 and 50 of the script.[19]

They are:

Many of these have in common a characteristic beyond their prominence in politics, art and philosophy: in 1945 most were believed to have had epilepsy (as did John Bunyan, seen in the film serving as the conductor for Dr. Reeves).[20]

Anglo-American relations

The film was originally suggested by a British government department to improve relations between the Americans in the UK and the British public[21] following Powell and Pressburger's contributions to this sphere in A Canterbury Tale two years earlier, though neither film received any government funding nor input on plot or production. There was a degree of public hostility towards American servicemen stationed in the UK prior to the D-Day invasion of Europe. They were viewed by some as latecomers to the war and as "overpaid, oversexed and over here" by a public that had suffered three years of bombing and rationing, with many of their own men fighting abroad. The premise of the film is a simple inversion: the English pilot gets the pretty American woman rather than the other way round, and the only national bigotry – against the British – is voiced by the first American casualty of the Revolutionary War. Raymond Massey, portraying an American, was a Canadian national at the time the film was made, but became a naturalised American citizen afterward.



The film was twice adapted for the American CBS Radio series Lux Radio Theatre, both with the title "Stairway to Heaven", starring Ray Milland on 27 October 1947 (episode 587)[22] and featuring David Niven on 12 April 1955 (episode 918).[22]

The film was also adapted for the American NBC Radio series Screen Director's Playhouse series as "Stairway to Heaven", airing on 26 July 1951 and starring Robert Cummings and Julie Adams.[23]


An adaptation titled "Stairway to Heaven" aired as a live performance on the American television show Robert Montgomery Presents on 9 April 1951 on NBC, starring Richard Greene.[24]


The film was adapted as the musical Stairway to Heaven at the King's Head in Islington in November 1994.[25] It was also made into a play by the Kneehigh Theatre for performances at the National Theatre in London, premiering in May 2007.[26]

In popular culture


Explanatory notes

  1. ^ As Powell pointed out, we know that this world is in colour[2]
  2. ^ "Trubshawe" was a name often given to minor characters in Niven's films at his insistence, as a back-handed tribute to his old army friend Michael Trubshawe.[5]
  3. ^ Only the base of the statue of Muhammad can be seen


  1. ^ Macnab 1993, p. 192.
  2. ^ a b c Powell 1986
  3. ^ "Best 100 British films - full list".  
  4. ^ "Get Carter tops British film poll." BBC News, 3 October 2004. Retrieved: 22 June 2012.
  5. ^ a b c d Warman 1946
  6. ^ IMDB "Filming Locations: 'A Matter of Life and Death' (1946)." IMDb. Retrieved: 23 May 2015.
  7. ^ "Business Data: 'A Matter of Life and Death' (1946)." IMDb. Retrieved: 23 May 2015.
  8. ^ Stafford, Jeff. "Article: 'A Matter of Life and Death' (1946)." Retrieved: 23 May 2015.
  9. ^ a b "Crowds Cheer the King and Queen". The Times (London), 2 November 1946, p. 4.
  10. ^ UK CPI inflation numbers based on data available from Gregory Clark (2015), "The Annual RPI and Average Earnings for Britain, 1209 to Present (New Series)" MeasuringWorth.
  11. ^ "Cinemas." The Sunday Times, 15 December 1946, p. 8.
  12. ^ Betts, Ernest. "Spotlight." Daily Express (London), 27 December 1945, p. 2.
  13. ^ "Festival de Cannes: A Matter of Life and Death.", 17 July 2009.
  14. ^ Crowher, Bosley. "Movie review: 'Stairway to Heaven', A British Production at Park Avenue, Proves a holiday delight." The New York Times, 26 December 1946.
  15. ^ Friedman, Diane Broadbent. "A Matter of Fried Onions." Seizure. Retrieved: 1 October 2009.
  16. ^ Stein, Ruthe. "Michael Powell's 'Age of Consent' on DVD.", 11 January 2009. Retrieved: 11 January 2009.
  17. ^ Rattray, Fiona. "Top deck." The Independent , 2 July 2000. Retrieved: 15 February 2012.
  18. ^ BT "filtrum" ad on YouTube
  19. ^ Friedman 2008, p. 206.
  20. ^ Friedman 2008, p. 209.
  21. ^ Desowitz, Bill. "Resurrecting a Cosmic Fantasy of Love and Death." The New York Times, 31 October 1999.
  22. ^ a b "Lux Theater." Retrieved: 27 February 2015.
  23. ^ "Screen Director's Playhouse." Retrieved: 27 February 2015.}
  24. ^ "Robert Montgomery Presents." Retrieved: 27 February 2015.
  25. ^ "Stairway to Heaven." Retrieved: 27 February 2015.
  26. ^ "A Matter of Life and Death." Retrieved: 27 February 2015.
  27. ^ Rowling, J.K. and Daniel Radcliffe. "Film: 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.' Timecode: 0:42." Yahoo! Inc., 2011. Retrieved: 20 May 2013.
  28. ^ "Great British Film." Retrieved: 27 February 2015.


  • Christie, Ian. Arrows of Desire: The Films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. London: Faber & Faber, 1994. ISBN 0-571-16271-1.
  • Christie, Ian. A Matter of Life and Death. London: British Film Institute, 2000. ISBN 0-85170-479-4.
  • Friedman, Diane Broadbent. A Matter of Life and Death: The Brain Revealed by the Mind of Michael Powell. Bloomington, Indiana: AuthorHouse, 2008. ISBN 978-1-4389-0945-5.
  • Macnab, Geoffrey. J. Arthur Rank and the British Film Industry. London: Routledge, 1993.ISBN 978-0-4150-7272-4.
  • Powell, Michael. A Life in Movies: An Autobiography. London: Heinemann, 1986. ISBN 0-434-59945-X.
  • Powell, Michael. Million Dollar Movie. London: Heinemann, 1992. ISBN 0-434-59947-6.
  • Warman, Eric. A Matter of Life and Death. London: World Film Publications, 1946.

External links

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