A Matter of Life and Death
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Synopsis for
Stairway to Heaven (1946) More at IMDbPro »A Matter of Life and Death (original title)

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Squadron Leader Peter D. Carter is a British bomber pilot on his war back from a bombing mission over Nazi Germany towards the end of WWII. His bomber is badly damaged and won't make it back home, all his crew have parachuted to safety but Peter's parachute was damaged. His choices seem clear - jump or fry.

He makes one last call on the radio and makes contact with June, an American WAC at an air base in England. After reporting his situation and exchanging a few last thoughts, Peter decides to jump.

But Peter survives the fall. Landing in the sea, he is washed up on a British beach where he soon meets June, cycling home. After the shock of realising who each other is, and after a few tears, they declare their love for each other.

It seems that Peter only survived the fall because Conductor 71, who was supposed to conduct the deceased Peter to the afterlife, missed him in the fog. When Conductor 71 finds Peter and asks him along, Peter refuses to go saying that it was only because of that mistake that he actually met June and that now they should be allowed to live out their life together.

Peter is also suffering from occasional blinding headaches and June arranges for him to meet Doctor Reeves who diagnoses a brain tumour. Are the episodes where Peter meets the Conductor when time appears to stop and everyone around him is frozen, really happening? Or are they just in his imagination, caused by the tumour? The film-makers leave it up to the audience to decide.

Peter has appealed his "call up" to the afterlife and a tribunal is arranged in "the other place" (never explicitly referred to as "Heaven") where his case will be argued. But Peter must find a defence counsel from amongst those who are no longer alive. As he wonders who he can choose to represent him the tumour is growing and the necessity for an operation becomes A Matter of Life and Death.

On a stormy night Dr Reeves and June are anxiously waiting for the ambulance to take Peter to hospital. Dr Reeves rides out to meet it on his motorbike, but he crashes and is killed. However Peter is content to hear this news because Dr Reeves is now qualified to represent him at the tribunal.

The tribunal is assembled, the audience filled with many people from the current conflict and from all of history. The prosecutor is Abraham Farlan, the first American killed by a British bullet in the struggle for American independence. He is not fond of Englishmen, especially an Englishman who claims to have fallen in love with an American girl. Peter's case is argued with the debate ranging over the relative merits and demerits of the English and Americans. But this case isn't about national stereotypes, it is about individuals, so the tribunal decides to travel down to Earth to see Peter & June for themselves.

Peter puts his case well and claims that his love for June is due to the Conductor's mistake. The decision rests with the tribunal's opinion of June. At Dr Reeves' suggestion, June shows that she is willing to take Peter's place in the balance sheet and to give her life for him. But of course that can't be allowed to happen and she runs into his open arms.

The tribunal declares for the (un)common man and Peter and June are allowed to live out their life together.


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