“Stairway to Heaven" (1946) is one of the most audacious
films ever made - in its grandiose vision, and in the cozy English way it's
expressed. The movie, which is being revived at the Music Box in a restored
Technicolor print of dazzling beauty, joins the continuing retrospective at the
Film Center of 15 other films by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the
most talented British filmmakers of the 1940s and 1950s.
"This is the universe," a voice says at the beginning
of "Stairway to Heaven." "Big, isn't it?" The camera pans
across the skies - but the story, as it develops, is both awesome and intimate,
suggesting that a single tear shed for love might stop heaven in its tracks.
story opens inside the cockpit of a British bomber going down in flames over
England in the last days of World War II. The pilot, Peter (David Niven),
establishes radio contact with a ground controller, an American named June (Kim
Hunter). Peter is unflappable in the face of death, and an instant rapport
springs up between the two disembodied voices ("I love you, June. You're
life, and I'm leaving it"). Then Peter jumps out of the plane before it
follows is a breathtaking pastoral moment, as the pilot, somehow alive, washes
ashore and sees a young woman, far away, riding her bicycle home. It is, of course,
June, and soon they are deeply in love. But there is a problem. Peter was not
intended to live. Heaven has made an error, and an emissary, Heavenly Conductor
71 (Maurice Goring) is sent to fetch him back. Peter refuses to go, and a
heavenly tribunal is convened to settle the case. This fantasy is grounded in
reality by a brain operation the pilot must undergo; perhaps his heavenly trial
is only a by-product of the anesthetic.
British title of this film was "A Matter of Life and Death," and when
the Americans retitled it "Stairway to Heaven," Powell wrote in his
autobiography, he felt they had missed the point. But "Stairway to
Heaven" may be a more expressive title, and certainly there is a stairway
in the film, part of the incredible contribution of production designer Alfred
Junge, who also provides one of the most spectacular shots in movie history, a
view of heaven's underside: Vast holes in the sky with tiny people peering down
over the edges. The heavenly scenes are shot in black and white, and the movie
is filled with technical tricks, as when "real life" freezes while
spirits leave their bodies.
film's most audacious leap is to the trial in heaven to decide whether Peter
will be allowed to stay on earth. Junge creates a heavenly amphitheater that
fills the sky, and fills it with infinite ranks of heaven's population.
Standing on one precipice, the prosecutor, an American played by Raymond
Massey, argues against the British pilot. In one of the comic touches that
deflates any excess profundity, he argues that Peter and June could never be
happy together because they come from different cultures. First, we hear a
radio broadcast of a cricket match; then an American big band broadcast. He
asks the jury: "Should the swift current of her life be slowed to the
crawl of a match of cricket?" But of course the question is not whether
Peter and June will be happily married, but whether they will be married at
all, and here the tear of love, captured on a rose petal by the Heavenly
Conductor, becomes crucial evidence.
to Heaven" has as its subtext the jockeying for power between Britain and
America that took place after World War II.
critics, at the time, sniffed that the film was too pro-American. What today's
audiences will find amazing is the sheer energy of its invention. Powell and
Pressburger (who always shared the writing, directing and producing credits,
and whose production company was known as the "Archers") were not
timid in reaching for new visual effects, and among the many startling sights
in "Stairway to Heaven" is an eyeball's point-of-view of its eyelid
closing,before the brain
also sly humor. Heaven has a Coke machine for the arriving Yanks; newly
appointed angels are seen carrying their wings under their arms in plastic
dry-cleaner bags; the dialogue at the trial includes complaints like,
"Would you repeat the question? It has `enamored' in it." Today's
movies are infatuated with special effects, but often they're used to create
the sight of things we can easily imagine: crashes, explosions, battles in
space. The special effects in "Stairway to Heaven" show a universe
that never existed until this movie was made, and the vision is breathtaking in
a kid, Martin Scorsese discovered the Archers on TV, watching Million Dollar
Movie on a New York station that would show the same film seven days in a row.
He says that's how he did his homework.
appropriate that the restoration of "Stairway to Heaven" and the
revival of the other 15 Archers films (running at the Film Center through May)
are "presented by Martin Scorsese."