Stairway to Heaven
Called Stairway to Heaven in America, A Matter of Life and Death is a film created by the hugely-influential filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The duo are often considered to be directors who were ahead of their time and when you consider how A Matter of Life and Death discusses the profound and fascinating idea of life-after-death within the context of World War II, you can see how. This was not your usual romantic-drama, this was a film that equally argues its case for life-after-death and atheism as our lead character, Peter (David Niven) appears to have skipped death and is consequently put on trial by the court of Heaven. Whilst, on Earth, we are told he is hallucinating.
The Big Break
The film initially opens on text that reads: “This is the story of two worlds, the one we know and another which exists only in the mind…”. Suddenly, it scrolls up to continue the statement: “…of a young airman whose life and imagination have been violently shaped by war.”
The very nature of creating a film about life-after-death and the judgement of God and starting a film noting how it only “exists in the mind” is incredibly brave. More fascinating is how the film continues to keep this theme throughout the film. Peter has survived jumping from an airplane without a parachute and you either see that as luck or you see it as a miracle … and his ‘dreams’ and ‘hallucinations’ are either angels or figments of his mind. A specific line goes further to establish the context as everything he recalls from his dreams and hallucinations is from his memory, stating “nothing is fantastic”.
At one point, the camera is sat from the perspective of Peter lying on a stetcher moving into the hospital ward. Clearly, Brian De Palma’s opening – and finale -to Carlito’s Way is inspired by this very sequence. The huge stage-sets at Denham Studios, created by Alfred Junge, must have inspired Ken Adams and his Pinewood Studio James Bond sets. Even the start of the film as we see June speaking to Peter as the Lancaster is about to crash down, in the WW2 context, must have inspired those final moments in Captain America: The First Avenger. Seriously – watch the two together, Joe Johnston must have known what he was doing – just compare Kim Hunter to Hayley Atwell. Then we have the ambiguity around the context – are we watching a man fight the madness that has corrupted his mind following war … or are we watching a Final Destination guy-who-has-cheated-death scenario. Clearly, noting all those inspirations show how much ahead of their time Powell and Pressburger truly were – and how important this film truly is.