Program Notes: Stairway to Heaven (1946)
In a burning bomber over the English Channel, a Royal Air Force pilot (David Niven) makes contact with an American radio operator (Kim Hunter). His crewmen are dead or already have bailed out; his parachute has been destroyed.
This young Englishman, Peter Carter, knows that for him the war is over, that he's going to die in a few moments. What he wants now is to spend his last minutes in pleasant conversation with this girl, whose name is June. Then he'll jump chuteless from the failing aircraft because, he says, it's better than frying.
Grim stuff? No, this gripping scene is our entry to one of the most satisfying film fantasies ever made. Stairway to Heaven (also known as A Matter of Life and Death) was produced in 1946 at the behest of the British government, which wanted a bit of friendly propaganda to mend frayed postwar relations between England and the United States.
Well, it got that, and much, much more. The writing-producing-directing team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger – best known for the surreal dance classic The Red Shoes – created a romantic fable of such visual, verbal and emotional resourcefulness that one is hard pressed to think of another title that even comes close to its sublime satisfactions.
As things turn out, Peter Carter doesn't die. He washes up on an English beach, meets June and falls madly in love.
But in the hereafter things aren't quite so calm. It seems Peter's number was up, but a low-level official known as Conductor 71 (Marius Goring) failed to retrieve the flier at the moment of his death. Now Conductor 71 urges Peter to come along quietly, but the lovestruck young man is having none of it. It's all heaven's fault, and he wants to appeal to a higher authority.
Stairway to Heaven is a rarity, with one foot in fantasy and the other in reality, and yet it's always perfectly in balance. On a celestial plane, Peter's case is argued before a tribunal; the prosecutor (Raymond Massey) is a Yankee fatality of the American Revolution who hates the British and views the Peter-June romance as outright miscegenation.
Back in the real world, a benevolent neurologist (Roger Livesey) diagnoses brain damage as the cause of Peter's heavenly hallucinations and prescribes immediate surgery to save the young man's life.
Are Peter's contacts with the "other side" merely the result of a medical pathology, or do they truly exist? This is a movie where you can have it either way.
But there's more here than a clever story. The dialogue is romantic, crisp, and often terribly funny.
Moreover, the film exudes a wry wariness about the mythic joys of the afterlife that is thoroughly refreshing. It's significant that although the real world has been filmed in absolutely glorious Technicolor, the world beyond is captured in black and white (a technique borrowed years later by German director Wim Wenders for his Wings of Desire, about an angel who decides to become a mortal).
Stairway bogs down a bit in the trial scenes, which spend too much time debating British/American relations (proving once again that politicians never should be arbiters of art). But overall this is a film of absolute and utterly seductive magic.
See Bob's general introduction to the Beyond This Vale of Tears film series.
Other films in the series “Beyond This Vale of Tears: Hollywood Visits the Afterlife”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- December 3: Stairway to Heaven (1946) Not rated
- December 10: Between Two Worlds (1944) Not rated
- December 17: Hereafter (2010) Rated PG-13
- December 24: Heaven Can Wait (1978) Rated PG
- December 31: Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983) Rated R
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- December 5: A Guy Named Joe (1943) Not rated
- December 12: What Dreams May Come (1998) Rated PG-13
- December 19: The Lovely Bones (2009) Rated PG-13
- December 26: Defending Your Life (1991) Rated PG
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He's married to the former Ellen Vaughan; they are the proud parents of LA-based comedian, writer, director and TV personality Blair Butler. He used to be a dog person but now lives with two cats, thus demonstrating the flexibility of the human condition.