Stairway to Heaven

Published July 12, 2011

This summer EPPC Resident Scholar James Bowman is presenting on behalf of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Hudson Institute in Washington a series of five films on the general theme of Heaven. The films are being shown at the Hudson Institute, 1015 15th Street N.W., Suite 600, and you can go to the EPPC or Hudson websites for details or to register to attend. The series continued on Tuesday, July 12th with a screening of Stairway to Heaven (also known as A Matter of Life and Death) of 1946 by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, starring David Niven, Kim Hunter, Roger Livesey, Marius Goring, Raymond Massey and Robert Coote. Before showing the film, Mr. Bowman spoke for a few minutes about the movie as follows.

Somebody mentioned after last week’s showing of Between Two Worlds that it was like an episode of “The Twilight Zone”—except that “The Twilight Zone” was still 15 years in the future at the time the movie was made. Perhaps Rod Serling got his inspiration from having seen it. By coincidence, the next day Maureen Dowd published her column in The New York Times on the subject of “The Twilight Zone” and in particular its trademark trick ending, the twist in the tail. Apart from paying tribute to Rod Serling, she was trying to make a rather banal point about how technology is just the same, since we don’t know how things are going to turn out, but she reminded me of an important difference between the movie we had seen and the characteristic feature of the TV show, namely that the former let the audience in on the surprise early. The twist in the tail was instead in the neck—with, it might be thought, predictably fatal consequences.

Well, yes, if the twist was that everybody was dead. We knew that almost from the beginning. But there was another twist that we failed to notice in the discussion last time, though not a very twisty twist. Apologies to those of you who weren’t here last week, but I promise I’ll get on to this week’s movie in just a moment. The twist I’m thinking of was when Henry and Ann (played by Paul Henreid and Eleanor Parker), having found themselves on the mysterious ocean liner, wandered into the saloon where there was an art deco grand piano and Henry, the ruined concert pianist sat down to riff through Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s haunting melody. “My hands are steady! I can play!” cries Henry. “This is what I wanted!” he goes on, rhapsodically. “A world to ourselves. No slaughter, no hate and hounding, no brown-shirts, no black-shirts, all the ugly, terrible things people do to each other, shut out, forgotten. Oh, Ann, this is what we wanted, a world in which there was room for music, for love.”

Of course it is nothing of the kind, and by the time Henry and Ann discover, along with the audience, the terrible consequence of their suicide, this early outburst, this false dawn of eternal felicity is forgotten. Perhaps it would have been remembered but for the need to give Henry and Ann a happy ending after all—which, whatever else may be said for it, rarely comes as a surprise in the movies. The element of pleasurable surprise is no less difficult to manage in this week’s movie, Stairway to Heaven by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, whose original, British title was A Matter of Life and Death. The American title is superior, I think, since in spite of the coincidence of the Led Zeppelin song of the same name, it calls attention to the film’s central image, an enormous escalator that was called “Operation Ethel” by the engineers of the London Passenger Transport Board who built it at a cost of £3000—which, depending on how you calculate it, would be between a hundred thousand and half a million pounds today.

That should give you some idea of the relative budgets of last week’s movie—which, as we noted at the time had virtually no special effects and only about three very simple sets—and this one. For the time and place in impoverished post-war Britain, Operation Ethel was a pretty decent special effect, but it might have risked making the film’s version of heaven look cheesy rather than mysterious and impressive if it hadn’t been for Powell and Pressburger’s decision to treat the whole concept as a bit of a joke from the outset. There’s even what we should now call a post-modern moment when the heavenly messenger played by Marius Goring descends from the movie’s stark, black and white heaven to a lushly colorful earth and remarks to himself that “One is starved for technicolor up there.” By this time we are also aware of the joke in having the first glimpse of what might be the Elysian Fields that of a naked goat-herd playing on a pipe. But that allusion to classical pastoral had already been undermined by the film’s vision of heaven as a vast modernist office-building.

These are fun surprises that exist for their own sake and not for any plot or thematic purposes, but the basis of the post-modern in movie-making is the author’s admission that he has abandoned the old-fashioned effort to surprise us in those sorts of traditional ways. He knows that we have seen enough movies already so that we must know how this one is going to turn out. That’s why he is prepared to sacrifice suspense—those happy endings are by now a requirement of the marketing people anyway—and instead seeks to entertain us by other means. For example, by the amusing special effect of an enormous moving stairway to heaven or a foppish pre-Revolutionary French aristocrat who lost his head but who plays up to the French stereotype as so many of the film’s other characters play up to their national stereotypes. There are always jokes to be made out of such materials—or there were before we learned to think of stereotypes as vicious—and the film will go on to make a number of them.

Next week’s movie, Albert Brooks’s Defending Your Life of 1993, will show that, half a century later, the joke of the heavenly bureaucracy—which may have had its origins in Mark Twain’s story “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven” or Rudyard Kipling’s “On the Gate,” written as a response to the multitudes killed (including Kipling’s only son) in the First World War—is by now well-established. But I think that Mr Brooks’s version of it derives ultimately from the brash, absurdist, war-time humor of Powell and Pressburger rather than the gentler and subtler mockery of Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait, which we saw in week one. Like Kipling’s story, Between Two Worlds had its origin in World War I, having been based on a play written by a shell-shocked veteran of that conflict, and the film version came out in the middle of the next war when audiences could not but have included unusually large numbers of the recently bereaved. The fate of the immortal souls of their loved ones was there obviously no laughing matter, either to them or their luckier neighbors, which makes the Powell-Pressburger picture all the more remarkable.

It also makes the joke at its center a rather risky one. This is the trial in heaven with a ridiculously be-wigged judge (Abraham Sofaer) and an avowedly biased jury full of yet more national stereotypes weighing the plea of a young English pilot (David Niven) to return to earthly life in order to marry his American sweetheart (Kim Hunter). As if this were not ridiculous enough in itself, Powell and Pressburger seem to have taken their brief from the ministry of information to do something to improve Anglo-American relations much too seriously, as they make the young pilot’s trial into an Anglo-American squabble of more than usual silliness. Putting Raymond Massey as the virulently anti-British prosecutor in colonial garb and making him spout Chamber of Commerce puffery about America’s superiority to all other nations could easily have had as disastrous an effect with American as with British audiences.

And yet it doesn’t seem to have done so. Opinions may differ, of course, but I think they get away with it partly because of the stress they lay upon the whole incident as a dream taking place in the mind of the young pilot, Peter Carter, as he is being operated on (by the same actor, we notice, who plays the judge) to fix the brain lesion which is supposedly causing his hallucinations and partly because, however unseriously they treat death and the afterlife, Powell and Pressburger always take love seriously. In this we see the thread of continuity between their movie and our two earlier ones, Heaven Can Wait and Between Two Worlds—and also the films I’ll be showing in the next two weeks. There does seem to be something to what Philip Larkin called our “almost instinct, almost true: What will survive of us is love.” So, at least, more poets than he have thought, including Sir Walter Scott in the judge’s quotation summing up the trial: “Love rules the court, the camp, the grove/And men below, and saints above/For love is heaven, and heaven is love.”

Another such poet was Dante, whom I mentioned in this connection when speaking about Heaven Can Wait. In Stairway to Heaven we can see another parallel with Dante’s Paradiso, which comes in Canto XXII when the poet says “I turned my eyes down through all the seven spheres, and I saw this globe of ours such that I smiled at its mean appearance. And I approve that opinion as best which esteems it of least account, so that those who think of something else can be called righteous.” I think that Powell and Pressburger are doing something similar but with a different object in the extraordinary opening sequence of the movie. The insignificance of our world and its wars in the vastness of the cosmos is their starting place, not so that we can be righteous by thinking of something else but so that we can be prepared for the absurdities of the heavenly bureaucracy and the judicial system that Squadron Leader Carter has to negotiate before he can be united with his accidental lover—for their love is an avowed absurdity too.

Yet for all that, the film’s breaking of boundaries turns out to be not so much between earth and heaven, between this life and the next, as between mental health and mental illness. Maybe that’s why they make Carter even before he falls in love a doubly romantic figure: not only a heroic warrior—which the real-life David Niven was too—but a poet. In the words of Shakespeare,

The lunatic, the lover and the poet

Are of imagination all compact:

One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,

That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,

Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:

The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,

Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.

Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, makes this speech just before we are introduced to the comic performance of Pyramus and Thisbe by the rude mechanicals that is being rehearsed in a scene from the movie which Powell and Pressburger seem to have inserted at the last minute, since it is not in the shooting script. I think that scene could be a hint that this is the text from which the film takes its argument—namely that earthly love and the supernatural realm’s “forms of things unknown” are equally poetical hallucinations, but that both are hallucinations which we are at liberty to believe and even must believe are real.

I hope you won’t think it ungallant of me if I also notice that Kim Hunter’s June, if not exactly presenting “a brow of Egypt”—Shakespeare’s usual racist (as we should call it) synecdoche for a lack of feminine pulchritude—was not a typical Hollywood beauty, nor could we say that she and Niven had very much of that mysterious “screen chemistry” together that directors are notoriously in pursuit of. Could it be that this was deliberate on Powell and Pressburger’s part—they are supposed to have taken a pass on Betty Field as well as a number of bigger stars for the role and picked Miss Hunter on Alfred Hitchcock’s recommendation—in order to lend the greater force to her most salient line in the film, which is “There’s no sense in love”? Like the idea of the celestial bureaucracy which discreetly obscures—just as it does in our two previous films and as it will do in our next two—whatever may lie beyond it, the idea of love is an absurdity, but it is an absurdity that almost all of us already believe is real.

The great love stories of history tend to be fatalistic, and romantic love itself is often regarded as a fated thing. Peter Carter claims his is too, telling Robert Coote’s Bob Trubshawe that “We were born thousands of miles apart, but we were made for each other.” And yet he also defies his fate, fighting not just the earthly powers that be but the heavenly ones as well. Roger Livesey as Dr. Frank Reeves, acting as Carter’s counsel before the heavenly tribunal, says: “I am pleading for the rights of the individual against the system,” which also has a romantic sound to it. Perhaps we should remember in this context one of the first things Carter says to June as his plane is going down and he imagines he is going to die at the beginning of the film. After his age, education and religion (Church of England) he says: “Politics: Conservative by nature, Labour by experience.” As we saw last week in Between Two Worlds, there is more than a hint here of the left wing tide which, by the time the film was made, had already swept away the wartime Conservative-led government in Britain and was still seen by many as a revolutionary force.

Some people think that the modernist set for the heavenly scenes of the film, designed by the great German set-designer Alfred Junge, were meant to convey an idea of the heaven-on-earth that people still hoped would be the product of the post-war socialist government. Certainly, heaven is supposed to be built on egalitarian lines, as the American airman who asks for officers’ quarters is firmly told that “we’re all the same up here.” And yet at his trial, Peter is always addressed by his rank of Squadron Leader, while even Raymond Massey’s Abraham Farlan stands upon his dignity as an officer of the court. There is, however, something confident and forward-looking about Stairway to Heaven, as there is not in Between Two Worlds, partly because of its modernist appearance and partly because it makes irreverent jokes even about that. “I’ll have my wings soon anyway, big white ones,” says Peter to June over the radio at the beginning. And then: “I hope it hasn’t gone all modern, I’d hate to have a prop instead of wings!” And then we see the assembly line full of wings. That’s all right, then. It’s not that modern.

Part of this infectious optimism is also owing to Dr. Reeves’s scientific self-confidence. We first meet him as he manipulates a camera obscura which gives him a God-like view of the village and its inhabitants, and his God-like powers extend to the cure of Peter Carter’s mental infirmity at the same time that he is winning Peter’s case in the other world’s magnificent courtroom by pleading against what he himself has already called a “highly organized hallucination comparable to an experience of actual life.” Like the movie itself, he seems not to care that it is a hallucination, and not to allow that to prejudice his dealings with it as if it were real. At the very beginning of the film the film-makers have put up a notice that “This is the story of two worlds; the one we know and another which exists only in the mind of a young airman whose life and imagination have been violently shaped by war.” And then the notice scrolls up and we read: “Any resemblance to any other world, known or unknown, is purely coincidental.”

Well, it’s another joke, but one that wishes to leave the question of the reality of the afterlife open. Nothing new there, of course, but there are so many binary opposites being synthesized here—fated love with escape from fated death, fantasy with reality, Conservative with Labour, the old with the new, the ultimate in established authority with revolutionary new possibilities, war with peace, mental illness with mental health, Heaven with Earth, monochrome with color, Britain with America, absurdity with truth and love with law—that the hypothetical synthesis of life with death hardly seems a hurdle any more difficult to get over. It’s that implausible believability of the whole thing and not the outcome of the trial which is the surprise ending, the Twilight Zone twist in the tail—and yet one that is no less gratifying because we can see it coming.

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