Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Waiting for "Heaven"

I grew up in the infancy of commercial broadcast TV. How we worshipped that little glass window! It opened up a sumptuous feast of worldly delights for this clod-hopping Texas farmboy. I jumped off the school bus at 3:45 every afternoon and ran the quarter-mile fencerow to catch the beginning of the 4 o'clock movie beamed out of Amarillo. It was often an indisputable classic, though I didn't know from "classic" back then and enjoyed Bud Abbott and Lou Costello maybe a little more than Sir Laurence Olivier in "Wuthering Heights."

One I especially remember seeing was called "Stairway to Heaven," a war movie made in Britain. An RAF pilot (played by David Niven) is going down in his flaming plane over the Channel, and he establishes a sudden emotional bond with an anonymous American woman (Kim Hunter) on the ground, the only voice he can raise on his radio and the last voice he is likely to hear before he dies. He tells her he loves her. She tells him she loves him too, knowing he's about to die.

But he doesn't die (and this part, it turns out, was based on an actual happening during the war, when an RAF pilot survived bailing out of his plane without a working parachute). The death angel, the pilot's "conductor" to the afterlife, misses him in the blasted English fog. By the time his conductor locates him 20 hours later, the pilot has found the American woman he last spoke to on the radio, and they're in love. Fantasy? Hell yes, but nothing like what's coming. Because the pilot owes heaven his death, and because everything is now changed by the love between a man and a woman, heaven grants the pilot a trial to determine whether he will live or die.

I was riveted by this movie ... the wartime ethos of sacrifice and shared purpose, the eternal hope in the healing power of love. I saw it just that once, interrupted often by commercial breaks. No matter. I have remembered it all these years. Those images have never died.

It was made in 1946 by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, that remarkable team who made "The Thief of Bagdad," "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp," "Black Narcissus," "The Red Shoes," and several other stunning movies. I've watched them all in the last two years by way of the brave new world of DVD. But "Stairway to Heaven" was never available ... until now.

First off, its original title was "A Matter of Life and Death." "Stairway to Heaven" was put on it for American release. I have just watched it for the second time in my life, the two viewings separated by 52 years. I was afraid that my teenager infatuation, like most such infatuations, would just look silly after all this time. But, no, the movie holds up, an emotional tribute to British/American solidarity in what was perhaps our last just war. It was propaganda, of course. And let's get real: most movies ARE propaganda, aimed at flattering our self-perceptions and our egos.

I ain't against a movie making me feel good about being American. And Michael Powell's conception of a war-time heaven is so surprising, and so visually engrossing, it's a comfort to know the movie can be commanded again into my mailbox any time I need a fix.

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