A Matter of Life and Death: A Heavenly Trial

THE GREATEST ADVENTURE A MAN EVER LIVED!

The relationship between the United States and Britain has always been a complex one. The Revolutionary War saw America trying to break free from British control, the War of 1812 was fought over Canada, but in World War II the former mortal enemies fought the Axis nations side by side. This film was produced right after that war and features a very interesting courtroom sequence that tries to shed light on the relationship between the two nations. It is hugely entertaining, but just a small part of a fantasy that has been labeled the best film the two directors ever made, along with The Red Shoes (1948).

The central theme of the story really is death, a topic most likely on everyone’s mind at the time of the film’s release. It stars David Niven as a fighter pilot whose plane is about to crash after having been hit by enemy fire. Peter Carter knows he’s about to die, but manages to make a connection with an American girl, June (Kim Hunter), over the radio before crashing. Only thing though is that he doesn’t die – the heavenly powers have made a mistake and Peter wakes up on Earth, unharmed. He can’t fathom why he’s still alive, but he’s nevertheless grateful and throws himself into a relationship with June. Peter is soon visited by an emissary (Marius Goring) from Heaven who explains to him what happened and tells him he needs to leave Earth and go to Heaven. The infatuated pilot refuses and wants his case tried before a heavenly court. He wants to show God that his love for June is so strong that he couldn’t possibly leave her now.

The story sounds perfectly ridiculous, but you never really see it that way when watching the movie. In one of his most memorable performances, Niven plays his character with such inspiring enthusiasm that it’s impossible not to sympathize with his quest for survival, his fight to make something out of this second chance that was granted him. Hunter did not really make that kind of an impact, but Goring is very amusing as the emissary, an aristocrat who was beheaded during the French Revolution in 1789.

Raymond Massey is equally great as the heavenly prosecutor, an American who was shot and killed by the British in the Revolutionary War and now harbors very resentful feelings toward anyone originating from the British Isles (which puts Peter Carter and his defender in a very awkward position).

Heaven is black-and-white
The film looks absolutely stunning, and the directors have made an interesting choice. All the sequences on Earth are in glorious Technicolor and all those in Heaven are in black-and-white. Most filmmakers would probably choose to splash Heaven with colors, but not Powell-Pressburger. One can only speculate as to why, but I guess we all experience Earth in color – Heaven on the other hand remains something unknown, something we have not seen. Heaven is like a dream and some say we dream in black-and-white.

Production designer Alfred Junge also contributed to the magnificent look of that place; there’s a terrific sequence where Peter and the emissary are sitting on a colossal stairway that seems to be leading to Heaven. That place is portrayed in a pretty traditional way, but the images are nevertheless eye-popping.

The trial is more humorous than anything else in the movie; the verbal duel between Massey’s prosecutor and Peter Carter’s defender (Roger Livesey) is sharp, quick-witted and speaks volumes about the historic relationship between the U.S. and Britain. Just like that relationship, this beautiful and spectacular film also deserves its place in history. 

A Matter of Life and Death 1946-Britain. 104 min. Color/B/W. Produced, written and directed by Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger. Cinematography: Jack Cardiff. Production Design: Alfred Junge. Cast: David Niven (Peter Carter), Kim Hunter (June), Raymond Massey (Abraham Farlan), Roger Livesey, Robert Coote, Marius Goring… Richard Attenborough.

Trivia: U.S. title: Stairway to Heaven.

Last word: “It’s part of being a magician. You see this lovely trick and you want to find out how to do it. How are we going to create a moving Stairway To Heaven, you know? It’s just a fascinating challenge to me. The Stairway to Heaven had to be all worked out in perspective and myself and Alfred Junge, the wonderful German art director, worked out all of the perspective shots; shooting up the stairs moving and shooting down the stairs moving and we shot them all in one day.” (Powell, BBC)

 

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