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The Powell & Pressburger Pages

Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.

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   Classics of the Foreign Film: A Pictorial Treasury
   Parker Tyler (Canadian)
Published by
   New York: Citadel Press. 1962
   New York: Bonanza Books. 1962
   London: Spring Books. 1962

Submitted by Richard Joly via Richard Layne

Stairway to Heaven
or A Matter of Life and Death

June in Ambulance
A WAC (Kim Hunter) is very much concerned about a British pilot (David Niven) who has dropped from his burning plane to drop into the sea. All Englishmen are supposed to die willingly for their country; this one is behind schedule.

On the staircase
Marius Goring, as Conductor 71, tries to persuade the RAF pilot, suffering from concussion, that he ought to keep his date with death. But life has given the flyer a different idea since his crash.

Not unnaturally, the pilot wishes to live, if only so he can be married to his WAC. A doctor, himself a recent casualty, is elected to argue the pilot's cause before a heavenly tribunal.
Doc Reeves
Abraham Farlan
Raymond massey, here an American who signed the Declaration of Independence, supports the pilot's plea by accusing Britain of its past political injustice; this courtroom in far space is magnificently photogenic.

All are here for the denoument; the pilot, the WAC, the doctor-barrister, the American revolutionary, and the gorgeously apparelled, ineffably benign Supreme Jidge. The trend of the case is plain enough in this most filmically intense among Britain's fantasies.
If Renoir's Grand Illusion was a very French way of reacting to war, with an ironic, concise moral enlightenment emerging from it's heroic trials, the Michael Powell - Emeric Pressburger collaboration, A Matter of Life and Death (1946), is a very English way of reacting to it; a more national way. in fact, than the internationalism of Renoir's deep, dry draught of grandeur and illusion; more, to be sure, an insular way. Yet, if so, only because the individual, like England itself, had lately taken on the aspect of a besieged island regarding matters of life and death. The American distributors wished a more picturesque title for the work, releasing it as Stairway to Heaven, which emphasized (as things American do) the materialistic element of any large problem. The "Stairway to Heaven" is a great cinematic "prop". A supernatural escalator which vanishes in space at the top, it ushers its riders directly into Heaven while reminding one of the enormous escalators in London's underground transportation system. Highly photogenic, it is so grand and classical, with statues of great men lining it, that the Other World is apt to be more memorable that the film's stubbornly routine version of This World - undoubtedly, if chillily, the paradox of it all.

   In consonance with modern streamlined living, and the proliferant art defining it, this Other World is a thing of dissolving vastness, its tangible surfaces smooth and hygienically clean, "functional" and reminiscent of the way Romantic-Surrealist artists, such as Tchelitchew and Dali, isolate their figures within empty, retreating distances; here it seems as if human beings became denizens of an abandoned World's Fair building meant to receive thousands every day. The Heavenly Courtroom, indeed, has heavy traffic. Since it is wartime, most of the souls are in uniform and of diverse nationality; their new domain has a family resemblance to the main assembly hall at the United Nations. Stairway to Heaven survives, like many film classics, partly because of its prophetic nature.

   This nuanced prophesy is a credit to British fantasy of the H. G. Wells school - the most photogenic among British genres - a bright clad scion of good humour, sweet nature, and the unfailing British trait of dignity at whatever cost. An agreeable young military plane pilot is found in a burning plane without a parachute. fated to fall in love with an American WAC, who can hear him from the station on the ground, he radios her what he thinks may be his last words; since he is a poet too, one might think these words a vain, romantic outpouring. But that is neither the British nor the popular way. Reaching the impressive corridors of the Other World while undergoing surgery, after his leap into the sea, he faces the Supreme Judge (a glorification of earthly British justice in beautiful, long wig) and enters a plea to be allowed to remain in This World so he can be married to the American. This "matter of life and death" then generates what some might consider an irrelevant political quarrel - but such irrelevancy is not the British way of settling issues.

   The pilot's argument, though a bit ambitious, is both sensible and historically pertinent; good faith between the U.S. and Britain. There's the beauty of it, the good sense and moral fibre: the same qualities that withstood the Blitz and may be presumed to ask for a reward. As for maundering through Continental fantasy, grim or naughty, that would not be at all a patriotic occupation. If airy nonsense must be talked about a matter of life and death (including marriage), let it be, as the makers themselves describe their film, "a stratospheric joke". This joke, I think, is more interesting and sophisticated then a similar British predecessor, Outward Bound. As fantastic, it cleanly repudiates the Continental flair for the grotesque and the morbid (shades of Caligari!). If the extravagant induces laughs, their origin must be light entertainment, Gilbert and Sullivan or Dickens; if gasps and wonder, they should derive from Infinity and Eternity, or their alleged vestibules. See The Time Machine in later pages and Things to Come on previous ones.

   Thus the nicest thing about Stairway to Heaven are pure British genius: impeccable behaviour under sorest stress; regal form, regardless of caste, in the face of just about anything; and to avoid muddling: hop to it! I visualize this film as an oblique reproach to the avant-garde stance of Cocteau's artist myth (recall that the pilot is a poet) in The Blood of a Poet, where we see earthly immortality earned by the artist's self-exhibition, his self-sacrifice and the soul-sweat clinging to his life and works. Such "spice" is too tangy for the British palate and, to truthful, The Blood of a Poet is not the encompassing social document it might be. Powell and Pressburger, be it noted, made several impressive documentaries before taking flight on this handsome, expensively staged fantasy.

   The land of socialized medicine has viewed the fate of human life here, aptly enough, as predicated on a surgeon's handiwork. As science labors and is tried on a social level, so is the soul. Sensuously, all this is given its logical transcendental garb; the color starts by suggesting the diminution of the spectrum in sunless outer space, and when actually in the Other World, goes into blue monochrome. The pilot's case is heard before an audience of thrillingly blue men and women who have died in England's present and previous wars; the dramatic mechanism is the surviving hostility (originating in the American Revolution) that would keep apart an Englishman and an American he wishes to take for his wife. Roger Manvell, the British critic, considered the film's satiric method frivolous and its viewpoint inconsistent. Be that as it may, his criticism seems well overridden by the work's strong cinematic ingenuity. The use of the camera to give the feeling that we are on the operating table, the anaesthetic mask descending over our vision as a reddish inside-of-the-eyelid image possesses the whole screen, is but one device making Stairway to Heaven one of the most filmically sensitive of England's feature films, deserving rank with the somewhat different tour de force of Dead of Night ... Does the pilot live and get his WAC? Why not? Of course. And with indisputable justice.

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