Retro Review: ‘A Matter of Life and Death’


What say do we have over our ultimate fate? Famed British filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger debated this philosophical idea in 1946 in a film starring David Niven and Kim Hunter called a Matter of Life and Death (also known as Stairway to Heaven). Having recently discovered this film I can honestly say it is both epic and heartfelt in a way rarely seen.

As his bomber is going down, British officer Peter Carter makes radio contact with an American woman June. With seemingly moments left to live, Peter makes an instant connection with June before opting to leap from his plane rather than burn to death. Shockingly, he survives the leap as the Conductor (played by a scene-stealing Marius Goring), tasked with collecting his soul lost him in the fog. Upon his miraculous survival, Peter and June engage in a romantic relationship while the conductor tries to convince him to follow him to the other side. They reach the conclusion that because of the mix-up, he should be allowed a trial in the heavenly hall to make his case for remaining on earth. Peter’s doctor discovers that the pilot has a severe head injury which could be the cause of his “hallucinations” and arranges for surgery. This surgery happens to fall at the time of his spiritual trial to determine whether he moves on or stays with the love of his life.

This is a film which grabs you from the very beginning. With vivid technicolor we see a bomber squadron engulfed in flames as Peter carries on an impassioned conversation with June. Despite the fact that neither of one of them knew the other existed before this, the two of them have an instant chemistry. This is hugely important to the rest of the film as a Matter of Life and Death for all of it’s grand scale and philosophical ideals, it all revolves the fact that Peter and June have unexpectedly fallen deeply in love. While David Niven maintains his stiff British upper lip, there is no denying how he feels about this woman he has fallen for. Kim Hunter was recommended to Powell and Pressburger by Alfred Hitchock himself, and the Master of Suspense did not lead the duo astray. Hunter delivers a truly powerful performance which sucks the audience in and if she does not grab you by the heartstrings you may not have human emotions

For the visual style, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger use a vibrant technicolor for the scenes filmed in the land of the living. In the heavenly realm they choose a grand and rich black and white in the same way Orson Welles did in Citizen Kane, using the bleak color palette as a means to create a grand visual. Many have dubbed this a “reverse Wizard of Oz“. During the trial over Peter’s fate we see heaven’s arena packed with people of all races, genders, faiths, and backgrounds. It is beautiful and simple reminder of how connected we are as people. Carrying people to the hereafter is a stunning setpiece of a massive escalator, which was no trick of filmmaking but rather and honestly built gigantic escalator flanked by statues grand historical figures. This creative decision truly brings a sense of grandeur to the scenes this appears. \

Placing a supernatural love story in the heat of World War II, must have been no easy task but the people behind this film pull it off to perfection. For all of it’s grand scale a Matter of Life and Death is simply a story of two people in love and how that is a force which has the power to conquer anything. While it can be debated among viewers if this were happening or if it was an effect of his head injury, there is no denying how powerful the film is.