--- ACTORS: David Niven, Kim Hunter, Roger Livesey, Marius Goring, Raymond Massey, Richard Attenborough
--- DIRECTED By: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
--- PRODUCED By: The Archers (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger)
--- WRITTEN By: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
--- YEAR Released: 1946
--- ORIGINAL Title: "A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH"
--- RUNNING TIME: 100 Minutes, B&W & COLOR
--- Region 0 (Playable Worldwide), NTSC-format DVD
War is raging over Europe. Inside a burning airplane, Peter Carter radios his last message, which is picked up by an American WAC, June. Peter explains to June that his plane is critically damaged and his crew dead or bailed out. The only remaining parachute is torn to ribbons. Giving the distraught June a last message for his mother, Peter tells her that he would prefer to jump rather than die in flames.
Produced by the inventive team known as The Archers: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. "Stairway to Heaven," also known as "A Matter of Life and Death" is the remarkable British fantasy film that became the surprise hit of 1946. The superbly crafted story is a tale of the power of love against “the powers that be”. However, its deception lies in the complexity of its “is it real or is it imaginary?” premise.
Squadron Leader Peter D. Carter (David Niven) is a World War II RAF pilot returning from a bombing raid over Germany who is forced to bail out of his crippled plane without a parachute over the English Channel. While deciding his fate aboard his crippled plane, he conveys his tale of woe to an American W.A.C. called June (Kim Hunter), before finally leaping from his plane to certain death. He wakes up to find he has landed on Earth utterly unharmed… which wasn’t supposed to happen according to the rules of Heaven. While making his way from the beach towards civilization Peter meets the voice from his final radio transmission – June, and love enters the equation. Peter is visited by Conductor 71 (Marius Goring), a heavenly messenger who informs him he should have died when jumping from his plane. Peter argues that he is now in love due to heavens incompetence and wishes to remain on earth, so a celestial trial is called to decide whether or not to claim Peter’s life or to let him survive to wed his American sweetheart (Kim Hunter).
During an operation while surgeons struggle to save his life, Peter dreams that his spirit is on trial, with God (Abraham Sofaer) as judge and Peter’s recently deceased best friend Dr Reeves (Roger Livesey) as defense counsel. Dr Reeves sweeps away the anti-British bias of the American prosecutor – and it remains only to prove that Peter and his American sweetheart are genuinely in love.
The High Court visits the theater in which surgeons are operating on Peter, Peter’s spirit leaves his body to be cross-examined by the prosecution. Then June is brought into the spirit world to finally win the case for Peter, she cares so much for him that she is willing to sacrifice herself to take his place in the Other World.
The film tries to have it both ways by suggesting that the Heavenly scenes are all a product of Niven’s imagination, but the audience knows better. Among the curious but effective artistic choices in this production was the decision to film the Earthbound scenes in Technicolor and the Heaven sequences in black and white.