A Matter Of Life And Death (1946 with David Niven and Kim Hunter)


UK / 1946

Directors and Writers: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Cast: David Niven, Kim Hunter, Marius Goring, Roger Livesey, Raymond Massey

A strong contender for the best British movie ever made, this devastating fantasy has ceded little impact and continues to champion the merits of the Archers’ unique film-making talents.

During the Second World War, RAF Squadron-Leader Peter Carter (David Niven) is forced to bail out from his stricken aircraft while in radio contact with American ground controller June (Kim Hunter). He survives, but is dangerously ill and hallucinates about his fate at the hands of a celestial court.

It does exist, and in heaven a bureaucratic mistake is blamed for the failure to claim Carter’s soul. A trial is set, with Conductor 71 (Marius Goring) prosecuting. The late Dr Reeves (Roger Livesey) is nominated to defend and they descend to Earth to decide if the airman’s flourishing love for June should extend his life and rewrite history.

For two nations scarred by war the film serves as a homily to reunite, set aside injustice and work together. A suitably epic production – conceived to rival Korda’s lavish sets – was commissioned, with the centrepiece a £3,000 escalator used to divide heaven from earth (and which the gave the film its American title, Stairway to Heaven ).

This performance was possibly Niven’s best; a textbook display of passionate integrity mirrored by the intelligent advocacy of Livesey (his third role for the Archers) and the playful severity of Goring. Jack Cardiff’s photography adds yet more power, best seen in the celebrated sequence in which the celestial court becomes a spiral nebula – a combination of efforts which saw the film chosen as the very first Royal Command Performance. In the intervening years it has become a celebrated project, re-released and repeated, but never equalled.