Classic Movies: A Matter of Life and Death

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A.K.A Stairway to Heaven starring David Niven.

Made in 1946, this fabulous film takes place in England during the Second World War. It has become a true classic, mainly because it is very different to most other films made at that time and also those made about the war.

It stars the wonderful David Niven and when the film begins we see that he is an air force pilot in a burning plane – somewhere over England. All his crew have bailed out with the exception of himself and another man, who is dead. The pilot, Peter, has managed to contact a local airfield and is talking to an American radio operator, June.

Peter tells her about the situation with the plane and says that he will be bailing out. June is horrified to learn that he has no parachute – he says that he’d rather bail out and die that way than fry in the burning aircraft. June is moved to teats knowing that she is hearing the brave pilot’s final words.

The other world

The dead crew member from the aircraft has now arrived at ‘the other world’ or the ‘afterlife. He knows that Peter had no parachute and couldn’t escape death so is patiently waiting in the lobby of ‘the other world’ waiting for Peter to arrive – but he doesn’t.

‘The other world’, which is never referred to as ‘heaven’ is filmed in black and white – the rest of the film is in colour – and must be on some list somewhere as one of the best movie sets ever. It’s is designed in the modernist style and quite astonishing.

Why the pilot didn’t arrive

Peter finds himself on a beautiful beach at dawn. His is floating in the shallows. He assumes this is the afterlife but soon realises that he is still alive. He meets June, the girl he had spoken his ‘last words’ to on the radio. They are instantly attracted to each other.

A Matter of Life and Death

His survival was an error

It seems that Conductor 71 (an angel if you subscribe to the ‘heaven’ aspect of the plot) had been assigned to collect Peter when he died and lead him to the afterlife but he made an error and missed him. The Conductor is now detailed to travel to earth and persuade Peter to return.

He appears to Peter who tells him that he has fallen in love and will not accompany him to ‘the other world’. When the Conductor visit Peter, no one else can see him, leading June and her doctor friend to believe that he is suffering from hallucinations.

The appeal

Peter is granted the right to appeal the decision and request an extension on his life span. This is where the visual aspects of the film come into their own as the appeal takes place in the stunning ‘other world’.

You can watch the entire film below.

Note that the film was re-titled Stairway to Heaven when it was released in the United States.


Jackie Jackson, also known online as BritFlorida, is a highly experienced designer and writer. British born and now living in the USA, she specialises in lifestyle issues, design and quirky stories. You can see a wide range of articles here, or visit her website Tastes Magazine. See The Writer’s Door for more information.

Author: Jackie Jackson

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1 Comment

  1. I seen this movie! It is a good movie, they do not make them like this anymore.

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