Marius Goring in A Matter of Life and Death

A Matter of Life and Death


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



29 December



UK pays off Second World War debt, 2006

On this day in 2006, the last working day of the year, the British Government made the last of 50 payments to the US and Canada, money it had borrowed off them in 1945 at the end of the war, when the British economist John Maynard Keynes had been dispatched to Washington with the begging bowl. With the national debt standing at 180% of gross domestic product, the government had expected, or hoped for, a grant. Instead it was offered a loan, on terms of 2% interest annually, a rate that turned out to be quite advantageous to the UK in the long run. Britain had effectively bankrupted itself and its empire fighting the First World War, and at the end of the Second was so weakened that the empire simply started falling apart. Britain hastily divested itself of its colonies, granting independence almost as fast as members of the royal family could be despatched around the world to witness the lowering of the flag. Decades later, in 2006, the final payment of $83 million was paid from the UK to the US, and a loan which had initially been US$ 3.75 billion (plus US$1.19 billion from Canada) and grown to US$7.5 billion (US$2 billion for Canada) with interest was declared paid in full. The same cannot be said about loans made from the US to the UK after the First World War.




A Matter of Life and Death (1946, dir: Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger)

Made when American GIs stationed in Britain were being portrayed as “overpaid, oversexed and over here”, this film takes the American boy/English girl stereotype that was pissing off so many fighting British Tommies and reverses it. So in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s deliberate pouring of oil on troubled waters it’s a British fighting man, played by David Niven, who falls for the American girl (Kim Hunter). The complication, in a film full of them, being that they only meet as Niven’s plane is hurtling towards earth, and even then it’s not a meeting in person – she’s a radio controller forced to listen to the pilot as he bails out, without a parachute, but not before he’s told her “I love you, June. You’re life and I’m leaving it.” But Peter Carter (Niven) doesn’t die. Miraculously. In fact he washes up on the beach just in time to catch June as she is cycling back to her billet, upset, at the end of her shift. And the two fall in love in earnest. But then Providence realises it has made a mistake – this man really should have died – sends an emissary to earth, who calls Peter to a court in heaven, where he has to go before a celestial court to plead his case. What will win out, divine bureaucracy or true love? The propagandistic intention of this film does declare itself a little over insistently in the third act, when Peter is being prosecuted by an American Revolutionary (Raymond Massey) and defended by the peruqued French Revolutionary emissary (Marius Goring) sent to earth to collect him. But in all other respects this film is a work of intellectual wit and technical brilliance – the way Heaven is in monochrome and Earth is in colour (“One is starved for Technicolor up there” says Goring on his arrival on this side of the eternal veil); the still incredibly impressive “stairway to heaven” (the film’s US title) that conveys people to you know where and back; the fabulously clipped and frightfully British attitudes on display; Powell and Pressburger’s evident love for their largely rural locations (always noticeable in their films); the freeze-frame sections; the strange “closing eye” special effect; the amazing modernist viewing portals from Heaven into its administrative heart below. If you have not seen it, you should. If you have seen it, you are probably now saying “but he’s forgotten the…”.



Why Watch?


  • In a brilliant career, this is one of Powell and Pressburger’s great films
  • Roger Livesey as bluff old cove Doctor Reeves
  • Cinematography by Jack Cardiff, one of the greats
  • Look out for Lois “Miss Moneypenny” Maxwell in a bit part


© Steve Morrissey 2013



A Matter of Life and Death aka Stairway to Heaven – at Amazon





4 thoughts on “A Matter of Life and Death”

  1. To me A Matter of Life and Death is just that- simply the best film ever made.

    From beginning to end it oozes class. It is stimulating, thought provoking, a mirror to the post war world and the relations between peoples.

    The cinematography is simply stunning and the effect of mixing monochrome and Technicolour to accent the different worlds works seamlessly. The characters and plot development are near perfect and the attention to detail promotes a thoroughly believable fantasy.

    No matter how many times I watch the film – and I have watched it a lot – it never fails to touch me. It makes me smile, it makes me laugh, it makes me think, it makes me cry. It is as fresh today as it was in 1946.

    If I were allowed just one film to keep and watch again A Matter of Life and Death would be that film.

  2. Few movies can be viewed almost 60 years later, yet remain as engrossing as this one. Technological advances have not dated this classic love story. Special effects used are remarkable for a 1946 movie. The acting is superb. David Niven, Kim Hunter and especially Roger Livesey do an outstanding job. The use of Black and White / Color adds to the creative nature of the movie. It hasn’t been seen on television for 20 years so few people are even aware of its existence. It is my favorite movie of all time. Waiting and hoping for the DVD release of this movie for so many years is, in itself, "A Matter of Life and Death".

  3. A Matter of Life and Death, what can you really say that would properly do justice to the genius and beauty of this film. Powell and Pressburger’s visual imagination knows no bounds, every frame is filled with fantastically bold compositions. The switches between the bold colours of "the real world" to the stark black and white of heaven is ingenious, showing us visually just how much more vibrant life is. The final court scene is also fantastic, as the judge and jury descend the stairway to heaven to hold court over Peter (David Niven)’s operation.

    All of the performances are spot on (Roger Livesey being a standout), and the romantic energy of the film is beautiful, never has there been a more romantic film than this (if there has I haven’t seen it). A Matter of Life and Death is all about the power of love and just how important life is. And Jack Cardiff’s cinematography is reason enough to watch the film alone, the way he lights Kim Hunter’s face makes her all the more beautiful, what a genius, he can make a simple things such as a game of table tennis look exciting. And the sound design is also impeccable; the way the sound mutes at vital points was a decision way ahead of its time

    This is a true classic that can restore anyone’s faith in cinema, under appreciated on its initial release and by today’s audiences, but one of my all time favourites, which is why I give this film a 10/10, in a word – Beautiful.

  4. WW2. RAF pilot Peter Carter’s plane is shot to pieces and his parachute is destroyed. In his final distress call he talks to American WREN June on the radio and they bond at that time, when Peter knows he is doomed. They bid farewell and Peter jumps to his death. Later he wakes on a beach to find he survived and he runs to meet June and the two quickly fall in love. However, in heaven there is panic as one of the collectors of souls admits he missed collecting Peter at the moment of his death due to the thick fog all round. When Peter learns of this he appeals and a heavenly court case is convened in order to decide his fate.

    This film was made on request from the MOD (ministry of defence). At the time they wanted a film that was set in wartime and stressed the importance of Britain and America overcoming any cultural differences between them and to stand together. The end result could have easily been a big flag waving exercise that would have been historically added to the pile of average propaganda made around the time (albeit for good reason).

    However the actual end result is that the film transcends what it could have been and turns into something that is quite wonderful – witty and moving at the same time. The actual story is a little cheesy and on paper sounds like it could be a disaster and in reality it could have been. The film is never clear if it is real or if it is all in Peter’s head and it doesn’t matter. The plot allows plenty of nice touches as well as romance. The romantic/emotional side of films don’t always wash with me but here I was gripped from the start simply by the powerful radio scene. It’s very British (stiff upper lip) but still very moving.

    The film just about hangs in there during the middle section where Peter falls in love and his supposed hallucinations are discussed by doctors but the film really comes strong in it’s climactic court scene. It is witty and plays on national stereotypes really well and makes the point without forcing it down our throats. It works very well and even the sentimentality is well handled and is never as sugary as it could have been.

    Niven is superb and is typically British in the lead. Hunter is pretty good but a little too sappy. The strength of the film is in it’s support cast – the final courtroom scene relies more on the support cast than Niven or Hunter (who are barely in it towards the end) and yet it works very well. In fact the best characters are all in the afterlife and not the film’s real world. The best element of the film is that the direction and sets are great. The gimmick of b/w and colour works better than expected and the use of it really works well – but shouldn’t heaven be in colour and earth in monochrome? Maybe that was the point, I guess. The sets are really good and it’s easy to be impressed by that staircase even by today’s standards – not technically but just in the power of the image.

    Overall this is a solid film. I don’t think it deserves all the praise that it gets and if I had to list my top 100 then I’m not sure it would be in there but that’s not to take away from it because it is a wonderful piece of work. The emotion is powerful without being sentimental and the film is witty and moving in equal measure.

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