Stairway to Heaven (1946)
"A Matter of Life and Death" (original title)

Approved  |   |  Comedy, Drama, Fantasy  |  March 1947 (USA)
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Ratings: 8.1/10 from 12,941 users  
Reviews: 132 user | 66 critic

A British wartime aviator who cheats death must argue for his life before a celestial court.

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Directors: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
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Complete credited cast:
Robert Coote ...
An English Pilot
Bonar Colleano ...
An American Pilot
Joan Maude ...
Chief Recorder
Marius Goring ...
Robert Atkins ...
The Vicar
Bob Roberts ...
Dr. Gaertler
Edwin Max ...
Dr. Mc.Ewen
Betty Potter ...
Mrs. Tucker
The Judge


Returning to England from a bombing run in May 1945, flyer Peter Carter's plane is damaged and his parachute ripped to shreds. He has his crew bail out safely, but figures it is curtains for himself. He gets on the radio, and talks to June, a young American woman working for the USAAF, and they are quite moved by each other's voices. Then he jumps, preferring this to burning up with his plane. He wakes up in the surf. It was his time to die, but there was a mixup in heaven. They couldn't find him in all that fog. By the time his "Conductor" catches up with him 20 hours later, Peter and June have met and fallen in love. This changes everything, and since it happened through no fault of his own, Peter figures that heaven owes him a second chance. Heaven agrees to a trial to decide his fate. Written by John Oswalt <>

Plot Summary | Plot Synopsis


The Greatest Experience In The Emotion Of Love! See more »


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Parents Guide:





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Release Date:

March 1947 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

A Matter of Life and Death  »

Box Office


£320,000 (estimated)

Company Credits

Production Co:

Show detailed on  »

Technical Specs


Sound Mix:

(Western Electric Recording)


(Dye-Monochrome)| (colour) (Technicolor)

Aspect Ratio:

1.37 : 1
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Did You Know?


"The Hedda Hopper Show - This Is Hollywood" broadcast a 30 minute radio adaptation of the movie under the alternate title "Stairway to Heaven" on May 17, 1947 with David Niven and Kim Hunter reprising their film roles. See more »


In the end credits, Bonar Colleano's name is misspelt Bonor Colleano. See more »


[first lines]
Narrator: This is the universe. Big, isn't it.
See more »

Crazy Credits

Foreword (Scrolled up the screen at the start of the film): This is a story of two worlds the one we know and another which exists only in the mind of a young airman whose life & imagination have been violently shaped by war [Pauses, then scrolls up to reveal] Any resemblance to any other world known or unknown is purely coincidental. See more »


Featured in A Profile of 'Black Narcissus' (2000) See more »


Shoo Shoo Baby
(1943) (uncredited)
Music and Lyrics by Phil Moore
Sung on the radio by an unidentified man at the trial
See more »

Frequently Asked Questions

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User Reviews

Stunning archery
30 January 2000 | by (Canberra, Australia) – See all my reviews

The opening flourishes left me purring with delight at their inventiveness - the altered version of the Archers' logo, the introductory disclaimer, the way the camera pans over the cosmos. It's strange to think that `It's a Wonderful Life' came out in the same year. No great coincidence: the 1940s was awash with heaven-and-earth films; but the glowing cotton wool nebulas and cutesy angels of the competition look tattered, something best passed over in silence, when placed next to Alfred Junge's vision.

It continues to look great all the way through, as more and more striking ideas are sprung upon us. I'm not a great fan of mixing colour with black and white in general. One of the two visual schemes almost always looks ugly when placed next to the other. Not so here. Powell dissolves colour into monochrome and monochrome into colour as if it's the most natural thing in the world, a mere change of palettes. Both the colour photography and the black and white could stand on their own.

As for the story ... this may be Pressburger's best script, or at least it would have been had the conclusion been a more logical outcome of preceding events. Other than that it's tight, yet with more going on than I can possibly allude to here. Was the heavenly stuff real or imaginary? (Or both? Perhaps Carter dreamt up a fantasy that was, as it so happened, true.) Everyone says we're meant to neither ask nor answer this question, but I don't see why. I'm sure we ARE meant to ask the question. The film even gives us clues as to what the answer is - indeed, the problem is that there are too many clues and they seem at first to be pointing in different directions. The fact that other things ought to occupy our attention as well doesn't mean that this shouldn't occupy us as well. There is, as I've said before, a lot going on.

Consider the scene in which Abraham Farlan (Heaven's prosecuting lawyer) plays a radio broadcast of a cricket match, and contemptuously says, `The voice of England, 1945.' Dr. Reeves (the defence) acknowledges the exhibit with a great deal of embarrassment, and then produces one of his own: a blues song from America, which Farlan listens to as though he's got a lemon in his mouth. Reeves looks smug.

Snobbery? Well, I don't see why it's snobbish to condemn blues music - and that's not what Powell and Pressburger are doing, anyway. As the song is being played, we get a shot of the American soldiers listening to it: several of them nod their heads to the rhythm, perfectly at home. THEY don't find it incomprehensible. There's something valuable about the song and neither Reeves nor Farlan knows what it is. Reeves probably realises as much. All English audiences (and all Australian, Indian, etc. audiences as well) know without being told that there is something of value in the cricket broadcast, too; and that while Reeves understands THAT, he is unable to explain it to Farlan - hence the blues broadcast, which shows that people can understand each other without sharing an understanding of everything else. It's a clever scene.

One last thing. I found David Niven a bit cold, without the charisma he would acquire later in his career; but even so, I don't think a film has grabbed my heart quite so quickly after the action began, as this one did.

48 of 57 people found this review helpful.  Was this review helpful to you?

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