Movie Classic: ‘A Matter of Life and Death’

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We watched a film classic yesterday: A Matter of Life and Death (1946), also known as Stairway to Heaven.

David Niven plays a WWII British pilot who is killed in action when he’s forced to bail out of his plane without a parachute. But for reasons that aren’t made quite clear, even though he’s supposed to die, he doesn’t.

His arrival in “the next world” is delayed by 20 hours, during which time he falls in love with an American girl (Kim Hunter). Because he has hallucinations about a “conductor” who is trying to move him on to the next world (only they aren’t hallucinations, are they?), he comes under the treatment of a neurosurgeon (Roger Livesey).

Ultimately he has to have a trial in the next world to see whether he can go on living or have to die, after all.

Now, this is an extremely creative and entertaining movie, but no one ought to watch it expecting a theology lesson. The Christian viewer has to have his wits about him, because the “next world” in the movie might be Heaven, but if it is, it’s an interfaith mish-mosh of Heaven in which pretty much anything goes, doctrinally: Plato and Mohammad, for instance, are set on the same plane with Moses and Our Lord Jesus Christ. It’s no use getting offended: this movie is a romantic fantasy, whose theme is the great power of love.

The war was still going on when production of the film began; and if you’re too young to have seen it for yourself, you need to know that World War II had its hand on everything. No one could get away from it. The war permeated every aspect of life, for everyone. Those of us who didn’t live through it ourselves might find this rather hard to grasp; I know I do. I find I don’t quite like it. But maybe that’s because I wasn’t there. Slightly older persons tell me there was something quite good about everybody being on the same page, every day. But it’s hard for me to imagine.

“The next world” is full of Allied soldiers and airmen, but no Germans or Japanese. A British or American audience of 1946 would have been scandalized to see any of the enemy in those scenes.

Anyhow, it’s something different, with a witty screenplay, high-quality acting, and will give you a few things to think about.

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