A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH
aka The Stairway to Heaven
Surely one of the best movies whose content was ever dictated by a government, A Matter of Life and Death is practically the perfect wartime romantic melodrama... except, I guess, for those parts where the content was dictated by a government.
Written and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
With David Niven (Squadron Leader Peter Carter), Kim Hunter (June), Roger Livesey (Dr. Frank Reeves), Robert Coote (Flying Officer Bob Trubshawe), Kathleen Byron (An Angel), Joan Maude (The Chief Recorder), Abraham Sofaer (The Judge), Marius Goring (Conductor 71), and Raymond Massey (Abraham Farlan)
Spoiler alert: moderate
Probably the most celebrated British filmmakers of the Golden Age of English language cinema—after Hitchcock, obviously, though he's been so celebrated, and so absorbed into Hollywood history, that it seems fairer not to count him, anyway—the team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were maybe the most British, too. Thrown together in 1939 by another contender for Britain's most famous filmmaker of the era, Alexander Korda, for his production of The Spy in Black, each man understood he had found himself in the presence of his counterpart; and thus began a fruitful collaboration that spanned two decades before its amicable dissolution.
But, as of V-E Day, they had not found significant success beyond their home islands yet: 1943's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, though held as a classic today on both sides of the Atlantic, was viewed unfavorably by Churchill's government and suffered an export ban; when it was finally released in the U.S. as the war wound down, I'm not sure anyone on our side especially cared. Otherwise, Powell & Pressburger had mostly spent the war years dutifully serving the needs of their country, in the process joining forces officially (incorporated with a rad company logo and everything) as "The Archers," the writers, directors, and producers of several films that, whatever their merits, were avowedly propaganda (Pressburger once compared himself favorably to Joseph Goebbels). In 1945, even though the war in Europe was ending, apparently they still weren't done. In the spring of that year—not long before the Allies' joint defeat of the Nazi menace (and in anticipation of a struggle against Japan that most believed would take much longer than it did)—they were asked by the Ministry of Information to make a film that would smooth out the frictions that had developed between the American and British peoples over the course of the war. In response, Powell & Pressburger asked what the Ministry thought they'd been doing all this time with America-nudging movies like 49th Parallel (about stranded Nazi submariners murdering their way through Canada towards a then-neutral United States) and A Canterbury Tale (not a Chaucer adaptation, but a tale of an Anglo-American friendship, set in Canterbury). To this the Ministry said "please do it anyway," and Powell & Pressburger did accede to their request, albeit so much on their own terms that production of their final propaganda film didn't begin till September of '45, and it wasn't released in either country till the winter of the following year, when even the war in the Pacific had been over for almost sixteen months.
The outcome—A Matter of Life and Death in Britain, The Stairway to Heaven in the U.S. (its name changed on the advice of its American distributor, who distrusted the commercial viability of the word "death")—was the achievement that earned Powell & Pressburger their reputation as two of the greats. It was what allowed them to burnish that reputation throughout the remainder of the 1940s, too, with a string of equally-beloved films, chiefly Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, and beloved for many of the same reasons: the heaving melodramatic emotions narrowly channeled through the restraint of an ineluctable Britishness, until even Britishness could no longer hold them; the willingness to push the boundaries of realism against fantasy, even full-on phantasmagoria; and Technicolor cinematography by Jack Cardiff so splendid and painterly it practically drips off the screen. Technicolor was, indeed, the reason that production on Life and Death was delayed for some nine months—to secure the necessary equipment from America—and hence one of the reasons its core mission had been rendered practically irrelevant by the time it was actually released, though one has to imagine Powell & Pressburger (perhaps especially Pressburger, usually the chief screenwriter of their duo, though each of them did something of everything) really did care an awful damn lot about soothing those Anglo-American relations. Truly, you wish it might have had a different mission altogether: it ripens in the worst place it possibly could, in the climax itself, and I'm not sure there's ever been another film like this one in history, where the fullest expression of its purpose is also its most atrocious flaw.
Usually, however, it manages to make its government-issued theme the same thing as its actual themes, and Life and Death is a love story that begins one night in the darkness of the universe, for it is a movie that begins with a contemplation of the universe—its hugeness and its emptiness, and what that says about the significance of the creatures on a spinning rock the narrator seems to have a mild bit of difficulty even locating amidst the other astronomical flotsam. But eventually, he gets there, and shows us something we'd recognize, the dark shapes of Europe and Britain, lit only by a crescent moon and by a conflagration somewhere in Germany, the results of a thousand bomber raid. Our concern, however, is presently above the North Sea, and here we find our Lancaster pilot, his parachute riddled with holes and now alone with his broken and burning aircraft—his only company at all being the corpse of his comrade, Bob. He won't make it, he supposes: radioing ahead, he finds an American WAC officer on the other end of the line. Her name is June. His name is Peter. They talk for as long as he's able, and he asks her if she's in love with anybody, before realizing that's a stupid question. He tells her instead, "I love you, June. You're life, and I'm leaving you."
And, in a certain sense, Life and Death will never top this opening, which is a diamond-flawless short film, impeccably acted by David Niven and Kim Hunter and rather gorgeously photographed by Cardiff in what amounts to the best (or, at least, the showiest) color cinematography in the film, between the blaring, more-or-less Expressionistic red emergency lights and shadows that cover June and the flaming engine that outlines Peter inside the hulk of a (real) Avro Lancaster, all while being cross-cut with great sensitivity by editor Reginald Mills with what is definitely the film's best (but not showiest) editing. But then, it had to be the best scene in the movie, if any of the movie to follow it was ever going to work. It does everything it needs to, and that's amazing considering the most important thing it needs to do is so perfectly absurd—that is, convince you to invest in the fate of characters you've known for less than five minutes, and to believe in the possibility of a love shared between two people who have never met, and who have said these words to each other solely because it is war, and one of them is about to die.
Except Peter does not die. He awakens on a beach—and supposes he is dead for a while, as he clambers through what he perceives as the shores of Elysium, until the bizarrely nude shepherd boy looks at him like he's mad and tells him he's in the boroughs of Lincolnshire. But as luck would have it, he's planted himself on the same beach that June's stationed on, and—there she is. This seems to exhaust Peter's reserves of good fortune, however, for we know, from following Bob to where he went, that there has been a real celestial cock-up, such as has not happened in a thousand years. The conductor of souls sent to collect Peter missed his mark (he blames that lousy British fog), but the powers behind the world are hardly to be denied, and he descends again into the middle of Peter and June's idyllic, gladen tryst and holds a small conversation with Peter in space, but outside of time, whereupon this comparatively-ungrim reaper tells Peter that it's time to go.
Well, you can tell nobody asked Powell & Pressburger to soothe Anglo-French relations.
But Peter balks, and demands an appeal, on the basis that without their mistake, he'd have never fallen in love, and thus his and June's right to their love is superior to the afterlife's right to his death; the conductor huffs, but knows the law of the universe is a tricky subject. Peter does get his appeal; yet, in the meantime, as far as he or June or his doctor can tell, he's going a little bit insane, and the real problem is the broken, bleeding bits inside his skull that, if they don't do something about them quick, are going to kill him whether his verdict is favorable or not.
So first and foremost is Life and Death an impossibly sweet romance, rendered in the best kind of melodramatic style, where it doesn't ask you to take it particularly literally—so that it's not even that jarring when, for example, the film goes out of its way to correct your (my) misreading of a previous line that suggested a timeframe of six months, and remind you that, actually, June and Peter's courtship has progressed to a commitment of cosmic scope in something like four days, tops. Powell & Pressburger, along with Niven, draw a sharp character out of Peter's unflappability and desire—he's a genuine warrior poet, apparently—and while June's contribution to the story is mainly to look very happy, then look very sad, there's a tremendously appealing guilelessness to Hunter's performance that makes it completely understandable why Peter loves June, and, indeed, makes it heartbreakingly plausible that that she loves him, too.
But this romance is supported by strong strains of magic, and that is where the balance of the film's power lies. It's never completely clear whether Peter's visions are real—though an opening title card, probably a cop-out to any easily-offended Christians, explicitly states that they aren't, and (according to generations of highly-impressed physicians) Powell & Pressburger made a surprising effort to get Peter's hallucination-inducing brain injury right. Yet what the film itself does is treat these phantasms as being more real than real, a heavenly expression of earthly questions, and proof of the value of life even in this vast, cold, and rather indifferent universe. (I wonder if it's not a total coincidence that it shares a year of release with that other morbid but ultimately-uplifting fantasy, It's a Wonderful Life, which happened to be the first year that the slaughter of British and American servicemen was no longer an ongoing one.)
"Heavenly," I said, though, which does not conjure the right picture. "One is starved for Technicolor up there," the conductor says, in a meta gag that comes off more smoothly in Marius Goring's goofy, camp, even faintly-bigoted performance than I expect it does on paper, though he's right, for the Technicolor, from time to time, is literally starved right out of the picture. This afterlife, let's call it—for the film never really calls it heaven, and it certainly doesn't appear to be heaven—is an amoral and impersonal one, one of cinema's first celestial bureaucracies, and likely the best until Defending Your Life really dug into such a thing as a proper concept. On its face, it's a product of a disaffected and much less spiritual world, replacing the kinder, loving notions of Christianity with the modern, efficient, industrial allocation of souls to their proper place.
The closest it gets to Christian is that when the dead show up, they're assigned a pair of wings, but those wings come from a giant storeroom with ten thousand sets, all freshness-sealed in plastic bags. It's an afterlife where they give you a job, and don't really expect you to enjoy it: by little past the halfway mark, it's obvious to everyone in the audience, if not Peter himself, that his conductor has come over pretty much fully to his side. They evidently let everybody and anybody in, regardless of creed and regardless, apparently, of deed, as well: Abraham Lincoln's there, which is a bit obvious, but so are Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great—that is, ruthless conquerors. And the quickest way up is a monumental escalator light years long, a cosmic machine that existed (in part, anyway) in real life, a magnificent piece of production design by the magnificent production designer Alfred Junge, whose rendition of not-quite-heaven is, for all its chilliness, starkly beautiful and imaginative and not even unpleasant. When you get there, there's a machine that gives you free Cokes.
But it is always shot in black-and-white. Earth is shot in color. Presumably, you get it, though it's not just color, but Technicolor. Visually, it's life itself that's actually more real than real. And doesn't that make sense? Life is brief and intense; the afterlife is forever, and though pretty and well-appointed and full of interesting people (who never seem to grow in any way no matter how long they've been there), it seems like it might start to drag, at least after a while. Noting that it's 1946, it's subliminally significant that they give women real jobs in the afterlife, too, including the job of the conductor's boss: I rather doubt Powell & Pressburger had any particular problem with career women (Powell would be married to one, champion film editor Thelma Schoonmaker), but it underlines the notion that love is for the living, and when you're dead, there are no families, no children. In short, you don't feel. You definitely don't fuck.
Which was the exigence for Life and Death's existence, anyway, since the problem as some British saw it was too many American servicemen fucking too many British women, and Life and Death simply flips that equation; as long as that's all its doing to remind its Anglosphere audience that we're all in this together, it's perfectly square with everything else, and it's perfectly great, a masterpiece—from its high-flying mystical vistas to its sweetly-rendered transatlantic coupling to the fun cross-channel jousting between Peter and his conductor to the Technicolor-orange light of an afternoon spent playing table tennis to the "special effects" of people standing really, really still while Niven and Goring step carefully around them. (Amongst its littler pleasures, Life and Death is one hardcore Mannequin Challenge; I only ever counted one screw-up.)
What isn't masterful at all, however, is when it bores fully into its Anglo-Americanness, and, in fact, it's modestly terrible. Eventually (and on the night of his all-important operation, naturally) Peter gets his celestial trial, and, sure, it's another superb series of visuals: from the crowd scenes of dead soldiers and female auxiliaries there to offer their silent support (plus a bunch of fey French aristocrats, present presumably to support poor Conductor 71)—each shot of them presenting a frame-filling spectacle of identical uniforms—to the legitimate trippiness of the pull-out that reveals that it takes a venue the size of a planet to seat them all. It even brings in the great declaimer of the 1930s and 1940s, Raymond Massey (best known for passionately shouting H.G. Wells's futurist political slogans in Things To Come), to play Peter's prosecuting attorney, a certain Abraham Farlan. But Farlan was the first American to die in the War of Independence, and, God, does he ever hate the British, and it's ten full minutes of listening to a good actor berate a nationality. It's oddly-pointed in a lot of different ways: in the same scene, Life and Death makes fun of cricket by calling it boring, then critiques the hell out of British imperialism by calling it murderous. (Farlan has somehow stacked the jury with archetypal victims of British belligerency and oppression, from Ireland to India.) Anywhere else, it might be called good—well, maybe just interesting—but the effect in this gorgeous magical romance, besides mildly breaking the premise (for it's astonishingly horrible to imagine that such bald-faced nationalist hatreds persist in the legal system of the afterlife), is to just stop it cold so we can listen to two national rivalries play out until they're exhausted. And you will tell your TV to shut up, just shut up, several times, before they finally are.
Somewhere in this heap of well-intentioned, parodic jingo, however, a thread of something meaningful is discovered, and this is Farlan's incredulity that two people could have ever fallen in love the way Peter and June have. "One in a thousand" wartime trysts are born of love, he says. And that, you know, is the beauty of the film; it never even imagines that anything else other than love could be responsible. And I doubt it spoils too much about this fantastical romance to suggest that it tells us that, yes, love is stronger than death. In the end, A Matter of Life and Death is the most exquisite kind of wish-fulfillment possible in fantasy: one that gives its audience exactly what it wants, but, even so, is laced through with a disquiet and a melancholy and an acknowledgment of the reality its fantasy denies. It is dedicated to the hundreds of thousands who loved as well and as deeply as its heroes, but, when death came for them, were not so fortunately overlooked; nevertheless, I think for the most part they would have liked it.