Michael Powell’s Stairway to Heaven

I love movies and there were moments over my life when I wanted to be a film director. One of the greatest directors is a man I discovered only a few years ago though his career was a mid-twentieth century thing, and I could have seen his films much sooner in my life. Michael Powell was a true “film-maker” who showed the story through his direction and, often, but not always, the use of special effects. His most famous film is probably The Red Shoes.

He made many semi-propaganda films during and about WW II and they are all beautiful and heart-wrenching. One of them tells the story of German spies in Canada and is a cross-Canadian spy hunt — 49th Parallel. Another (my favorite of his WW II films) is A Canterbury Tale.

One of his WW II was marketed in the US as Stairway to Heaven. Its real title is A Matter of Life and Death. One of its interesting features is an immense escalator that takes people to Heaven.

In A Matter of Life and Death, the main question concerns the future of the protagonist, a British airman who’s bailed out of his plane and has landed on a beach. He doesn’t know what condition he’s in and experiences a long “out of body” experience during which he falls in love with the girl who rescues him. The question becomes one for Heaven and Earth to resolve. Should the airman live so he can experience love and life, or should he make the journey up the escalator to Heaven because, you know, he’s really fatally wounded?

None of Michael Powell’s films address easy questions. In A Canterbury Tale we see Canterbury after it’s been bombed and nearly destroyed by the Germans, yet, the Cathedral stands. The film opens with characters from Chaucer’s work on the old Pilgrim Road. The sense of history, time, literature, and immortality pervades what is a very contemporary-to-the-moment story line of American GI’s (Powell cast real, live American GIs to play these parts) stranded in a little town, a mysterious and mischievous “villain,” an equally mysterious good-guy — but most telling is the city of Canterbury itself where people go on about their daily lives passing bombed out buildings where signs have been erected telling what WAS there, not in memoriam so much as a way to be sure people don’t get lost now that so many ancient landmarks have been reduced to rubble.


5 thoughts on “Michael Powell’s Stairway to Heaven

  1. What a lovely, reminiscent article. Those old movies did have something special that I miss in today’s films — even though the technology has advanced beyond anything producers imagined back then.

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