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A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

aka Stairway to Heaven

"The Greatest Adventure a Man Ever Lived!"

Details: 104 mins · English, French · PG (USA)


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Small Peter Carter
Small Kim
Small An Angel
Small An English Pilot
No_movie_poster Bob
Small An American Pilot (also as Bonor Colleano)
No_movie_poster Chief Recorder
Small Conductor 71
Small Doctor Reeves
No_movie_poster The Vicar
No_movie_poster Dr. Mc.Ewen
No_movie_poster Mrs. Tucker
Small The Judge
Small Abraham Farlan


Small Emeric Pressburger Director
Small Michael Powell Director
Small Emeric Pressburger Production
Small Michael Powell Production
Small Emeric Pressburger Writer
Small Michael Powell Writer
No_movie_poster Reginald Mills Editing


"The Greatest Adventure a Man Ever Lived!"


Squadron Leader Peter Carter (David Niven) is a British Royal Air Force pilot trying to fly a badly damaged and burning Lancaster bomber home after a mission over Germany on 2 May 1945. He has ordered his crew to bail out, without revealing that his own parachute has been shot up. He manages to contact June (Kim Hunter), an American radio operator based in England, and talks with her for a few minutes before jumping without a parachute.

Peter should have died at that point, but Conductor 71 (Marius Goring), the guide sent to escort him to the "Other World", misses him in the thick fog over the English Channel. The airman wakes up the next day on a beach near June's base. At first, he assumes he is in the afterlife, but then discovers to his bewilderment that he is still alive.

Peter meets June, cycling back to her quarters after her night shift, and they fall in love. Conductor 71 (an aristocrat executed in the French Revolution) stops time to explain the situation to Peter and urge him to accept his death and accompany him to the Other World, but Peter demands that the matter be appealed. While Conductor 71 consults his superiors, Peter continues to live his life. Conductor 71 returns and informs him that he has been granted his appeal and has three days to prepare his case. He may choose a defending counsel from among all the people who have died, but has great difficulty picking one.

Peter's visions are diagnosed by June's fascinated friend Doctor Reeves (Roger Livesey) as a symptom of a brain injury – chronic adhesive arachnoiditis from a slight concussion two years earlier – and he is scheduled for surgery. Reeves is killed in a motorcycle accident while trying to find the ambulance that is to take Peter to the hospital, which allows him to act as Peter's counsel.

Reeves argues that, through no fault of his own, his client was given additional time on Earth and during that time he has fallen in love and now has an earthly commitment that should take precedence over the afterlife's claim on him. The matter comes to a head – in parallel with Peter's brain surgery – before a celestial court – the camera zooms out from an amphitheatre to reveal that it is as large as a spiral galaxy. The prosecutor is American Abraham Farlan (Raymond Massey), who hates the British for making him the first casualty of the American Revolutionary War. Reeves challenges the composition of the jury, which is made up of representatives who are prejudiced against the British. In fairness, the jury is replaced by a cosmopolitan mixture of modern Americans whose origins are as varied as those they replace.

Reeves and Farlan both cite examples from British and world history to support their positions. In the end, Reeves has June take the stand (she is made to fall asleep in the "real" world by Conductor 71 so she can testify) and proves that she genuinely loves Peter by telling her that the only way to save his life is to take his place. She steps onto the stairway to the Other World without hesitation and is carried away, leaving Peter behind. Then the stairway comes to an abrupt halt and June rushes back to Peter's open arms. As Reeves triumphantly explains, "...nothing is stronger than the law in the universe, but on Earth, nothing is stronger than love."

The jury rules in Peter's favour. The Judge (Abraham Sofaer) shows Reeves and Farlan the new lifespan granted to the defendant; Reeves calls it "very generous", and Farlan reluctantly agrees to it. The scene then shifts to the operating room, where the surgery is declared a success by the surgeon (also played by Sofaer).

Release Dates:

Theatrical : United States of America