Stairway to Heaven, also known as A Matter of Life and Death, begins with a prologue announcing that the movie is a story of two worlds, the first of which is that of our life here on Earth; the second, in the mind of a young airman. This is followed by a disclaimer of any resemblance between this imaginary world and any other world, known or unknown. I guess they didn’t want to be sued by Heaven for slander, which would have been justified, because it is the worst depiction of Heaven ever imagined.
Granted, no depiction of Heaven has ever succeeded in making it look like a place where anyone would want to live. Its minimal appeal is that it is better than no afterlife at all. But this particular Heaven really is the pits. First, it is colorless, both literally and figuratively, with only the scenes on Earth being in color. Second, it is lifeless, both literally and figuratively, for with the exception of the new arrivals (who are in such a jolly good mood, they get on your nerves), everyone else in Heaven is lethargic and dull. Third, souls in Heaven are prudish beyond all reason. We all know that there is no sin in Heaven, which is part of what makes it so boring, but in this Heaven, you are not even allowed to say, “Holy smoke!” Fourth, there is no love in Heaven, but there is hate. Conductor 71, having dismissed love as the feeling of the moment, says that the prosecutor in Peter’s case hates Peter’s guts, as part of a hatred for the British that has lasted for two centuries, on account of his having been an American killed by the British during the American Revolution. This hatred turns out to be petty and spiteful beyond belief.
We don’t get to see God. At least, not the one in Heaven. We do, however, see a godlike human. There is a doctor that has a strange device that allows him to project onto a table in his attic all the goings on in the town in which he lives, like an all-seeing, all-knowing God. I suppose the purpose of this part of the movie is to mix up Heaven and Earth, fantasy and reality.
Apparently, Heaven in this movie is really caught up in World War II, because they have a special Aircrew Section just for the pilots of the Allied forces. We never get to see the Aircrew Section for the Axis Powers for some reason. The receptionist, or whatever she is, shows a newly arrived pilot where they keep the files on everyone on Earth: Russian, Chinese, black or white, Republican or Democrat. She doesn’t mention anything about the files of Germans, Japanese, or Italians. Gosh! You don’t suppose they all went to Hell, do you?
I suppose one of the reasons for announcing in the prologue that this is just a world of the imagination is to keep us from being critical, as if only reality can be criticized. Well, all I can say is that the guy who imagined this has one of the drabbest imaginations ever imagined. That guy in question is Peter Carter, who bailed out of a burning airplane without a parachute, but somehow did not die. Or he did die, and the movie is mostly his hallucinatory dream on the way down. Well, real or imagined, it is deserving of criticism either way. Or, let me put it this way. The people who really imagined all this were Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and they are the ones who really get the blame, not the pilot in the movie.
The plot of this movie is the opposite of Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), which was remade as Heaven Can Wait (1978). In those movies, Joe Pendleton dies and goes to Heaven before he was supposed to, and Mr. Jordan, who is in charge of these things, has to find a new body for Joe and send him back to Earth. In Stairway to Heaven, on the other hand, a man who was supposed to die and go to Heaven remains on Earth accidentally, and steps are taken to get him to go to Heaven, where he belongs. In the Mr. Jordan movies, we are exasperated that Joe would still care so much about his life on Earth once he knows that all that stuff about God and Heaven is true. That knowledge should be life transforming, but Joe just wants to get back to doing what he was doing before. I guess some people are hard to impress. But in the present movie, once we see what a dreary place Heaven is, we cannot blame Peter for wanting to put off the day when he will have to go there too.
Just about the time we have settled into the idea that this business about Heaven is the hallucination of a man who has jumped out of a plane without a parachute, it turns out that his hallucinations are caused by a brain tumor, the symptoms of which began six months before he jumped. So, is the tumor also the hallucination of a man who is falling to his death, or is the leap out of a burning plane the hallucination of a man with a brain tumor? In either event, the hallucinatory premise for what we are watching probably explains why at times it feels as though we are watching Alice in Wonderland.
Anyway, brain surgery is performed on Peter while his trial is taking place in Heaven. Ultimately, it comes down to a question of which should prevail, the Law of Heaven, or love on Earth. Finally, June, the woman Peter loves, is willing to die in Peter’s place, thereby proving that she loves him, the result of which is that they both get to live. The judge quotes Sir Walter Scott’s poem about how love conquers all, the last line of which says, “For love is heaven, and heaven is love,” an assertion that stands in contradiction to all that has come before. At the same time, the surgery back down on Earth proves to be a success.
So, Peter and June will get married and live happily ever after. Or rather, they will be happy until they die. Then they will go to Heaven and have to exist in that dreadful place for eternity.