#117 (tie) – A Canterbury Tale (1944), dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

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Pilgrims’ progress. Alison and Mr. Colpeper share a moment atop a hill overlooking Canterbury in Powell & Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale, a wartime homage to English tradition and a jovial examination of the ties between Britain and America.

Badly burned by the Triangle Shirtwaist fire that is Meet Me in St. Louis, we had the pleasure of being promptly salved by the soothing and airy A Canterbury Tale (1944), the next Powell & Pressburger entry on the Sight & Sound list. We’ve already yammered about one Powell & Pressburger film (the excellent Life and Death of Colonel Blimp), but have said little of the famed filmmaking duo, who were known as “The Archers”. Though they share directing, writing, and producing credits on their films, the majority of the directing duties fell to Michael Powell, who had been working in the business since the silent film days. Emeric Pressburger was a Hungarian emigré to Britain who was the principal writer of the films and handled much of the production duties. Together they went on a critically acclaimed run in the 1940s like nobody else — landing six films on the Sight & Sound list in six consecutive years (1943-1948). Perhaps the gentlest and most modest of those six is A Canterbury Tale, which follows an American sergeant, a British sergeant, and a young woman in the Women’s Land Army as they try to unravel a mystery in the countryside of Kent, before all journeying to Canterbury. Though slight in scope and full of gentle (and genuinely funny) humor, the film manages to tackle a wide array of issues, from Anglo-American relations, the urban/rural divide, and faith in the face of adversity, to our connection to history and the extent to which good intentions can mitigate bad actions. It’s a pilgrimage well worth making. (124 min.)

S. – In terms of scale of A Canterbury Tale is at the opposite end of the spectrum to The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, although the same skilful storytelling and nuanced performances are in evidence. We follow a trio of twenty-somethings that find themselves all in the same rural village for various reasons related to the war. A glue splashing incident that occurs during their initial meeting links them together as they are compelled to determine the identity of the glue-man that has been harassing the young women of Chillingbourne. Despite the mystery-solving theme there is no particularly urgency to the investigation, more of an intellectual curiosity on the part of each of the protagonists to get to the bottom of things. This light touch gave the film a very modern feel and allowed the real star of the piece, the English countryside, space to shine.

For British sergeant Peter Gibbs (Dennis Price), who is stationed in the village before his next mission, the hunt for the glue-man is an intriguing diversion. American sergeant  Bob Johnson (John Sweet)  is on furlough and only in Chillingbourne by mistake yet cannot bring himself to leave, perhaps because he finally feels like he is experiencing the “real” England. As the one who had to wash glue from her hair Alison Smith (Sheila Sim) is the most determined to discover who the perpetrator is, but also has personal reasons compelling her to stay. They are an appealing trio, with each character given real depth rather than relying on tired stereotypes to fill in the blanks.

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The other two protagonists of the film are sergeants from the American and British armies. Peter (the British soldier, right) is a London boy with something of a disdain for the countryside. Bob (played by John Sweet, an actual American sergeant serving in Britain) is more of a country boy and takes kindly to the rolling farmland of Kent and the local people, making him a more natural fit than Peter despite coming from 5,000 miles away.

J. – I watched this movie several years back but had next to no memory of it going into our recent viewing. That was a big red flag for me, but it was utterly unwarranted. A Canterbury Tale is an absolutely charming film, and I imagine that my spotty memory was due to the film’s low key plotting and gentle beauty. It is decidedly not chock full of action and incident, and even the mystery element is something of a red herring, as the film makes it pretty obvious from the get go who the glue man is. But it is, as you point out, S., a character study of these three young people and Thomas Colpeper (Eric Portman), the chief official of Chillingbourne and an ardent lover of local history.

And this examination of character allows for a wealth of comedy and pathos, although all of it is presented in an understated and playful manner. I particularly liked the way the film handled Bob Johnson, the American soldier. Powell & Pressburger briefly dipped into British-American relations during Colonel Blimp‘s World War I sequence, with the Americans coming off as loutish jerks. It’s a well played scene, but it definitely presents a stereotypical view of Americans that is only partially true. A Canterbury Tale takes a much more nuanced approach, which is perhaps not terribly surprising given the build up of US troops in Britain at the time. Sure, Bob has his ugly American moments, but he is also presented in favorable contrast with many of the English locals, being much more open and friendly than the townsfolk. And the film has some fun with Bob and Peter trying to do a bit of one-upmanship comparing their two countries, but it is all done without a hint of hostility. But more to the point, the film mines comedy from the differences between Brits and Yanks, but takes up a more heartfelt stance when plucking at the genuine threads of connection — like Bob and a local wheelwright bonding over timber prep — that continue to resonate on screen long after the Nazi threat was long past. As an American abroad I really took to the way the filmmakers tackled that dynamic.

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The film has great fun with the subtle and not so subtle differences between Americans and Brits, with Sweet turning in a lopingly comical performance that flits between bemusement, good natured taunting, and gee whiz perplexity. This scene of him dealing with a British operator and then a hotel clerk is particularly fun.

S. – The historical element provides an interesting connection point for the main players. Despite getting off on a sour note with Alison suspecting that Colpeper knows more than he is letting on about the glue man, the pair discover a mutual enthusiasm for the pilgrim’s path when Colpeper hosts a public lecture. The tale of medieval pilgrims receiving blessings after travelling the road to Canterbury serves as a subtext for the film as the four main characters all find themselves having to make that journey.

The scene centred around Colpeper’s lecture is a perfect example of how wonderfully this film works. The camaraderie amongst the locally stationed troops that make up most of the gathering feels natural, most of them there due to a lack of any alternative entertainment but willing and interested to hear about something new. Colpeper’s appeal not to forget the past in this time of change because something valuable will be lost, is both earnest and nervous as he desperately wants to impress the group of outsiders. And strikingly, the voice of Alison, the lone female in the crowd, surprising Colpeper by her presence and also her connection to the history he is so passionate about. We get the see that the very change he is anxiously opposed to has brought him an ally and new knowledge about his cause in a masterful display of “show don’t tell” storytelling. Colpeper’s initial dismissal of Alison evolves into a true connection when they meet out at the historical site in a scene that is beautifully shot and reveals a softer side to the domineering town official.

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The film is beautifully photographed and makes the most of compositions that utilize bold contrast between light and shadow. The scene featuring Mr. Colpeper’s lecture is wonderful to look at on its own, but the lighting also has a storytelling component, casting suspicion on the magistrate and his motives.

J. – I was actually under the impression that the troops were at the lecture as part of Peter’s plan to track down the glue man, whom the trio suspect is Colpeper. But it hardly matters, as the important parts of the scene are to establish a new twist in the relationship between Colpeper and Alison, as well as to set up a confrontation between Peter and Colpeper. But beyond that, the film also makes extensive use of deep shadows and unorthodox camera angles to add a slight air of menace to the lecture and further implicate Colpeper as the dastardly hurler of glue. Colpeper’s passion for antiquity and the countryside takes on a slightly sinister cast during these proceedings, which is of course borne out by the resolution to the mystery. The lecture and the subsequent scene in his house with Peter and on the hilltop with Alison also grant the man a very strange aura that is fitting for a good, competent, insightful man who is also frustrated and alone.

This is particularly true of the scene with Alison that you mentioned (a still from which is atop this yammer). There is absolutely an air of romance in that scene, and I think pretty much any other movie would have acted on that tension to actually create a pairing. Indeed, there are a few moments like that in A Canterbury Tale where the expected path — the more active or passionate path — is cast aside for something subtler and in many ways more rewarding and real. I think particularly of the discussion on the cart between Bob and Alison when he tells her about the apparent dissolution of his relationship with his girl back in the States and she opens up about her fiance having been shot down in the war. Again, in pretty much any other movie that would have been the start of something romantic between these two — but this film instead plays off of that expected path, providing instead a moment of pathos that feels much more real, and happens to be quite funny despite the pain of the characters. The film was loaded with little moments like that, where it makes a pokey zig when most films would sharply zag. But it still knows how to have good old fashioned fun, as the scenes with the village children show in spades.

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Though it has the glue man narrative thread running through it, A Canterbury Tale is more like a loose collection of wonderful character moments and conversations. The two most finally drawn characters are probably Bob and Alison, who share a particularly funny and touching moment while riding on a horse-drawn cart in the hills.

S. – The local kids staging an elaborate battle was an amusing diversion and another clever way to show off the charms of village life. While Bob had mixed luck making friends with the adults of Chillingbourne he was instantly accepted by the rascals roaming the streets. The first of which he comes across peering in through his first floor hotel window atop an enormous mound of hay being carted through the town. It becomes clear that Yankee Bob is in fact a country boy and homesickness begins to exert a pull greater than the lure of his pal partying in London. The scenarios presented here have the potential to be quite hokey yet this is deftly avoided by never lingering on anything sentimental. Even when more personal revelations are made, the focus is quickly brought back to the present moment. A similar modus operandi was in play during Colonel Blimp and seems to be Powell and Pressburger’s prescription for dealing with the stress of wartime: don’t dwell on the unknown but direct your energies on the here and now. They deliver a convincing argument by demonstrating just how amazing the present can be. It reminds me of I Was Born But…, one of the early list movies that I dearly love, in the way the directors are able to infuse a gentle warmth into the surroundings and bring out the best in what is a small and simple story.

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The introduction of the village kids into the narrative gives the film a bit of chaotic energy that keeps the character-based story from getting too slow or pathos-laden. The movie does a particularly great job of staging the kids’ mock battle like it was something out of All Quiet on the Western Front.

J. – The scenes with the kids are wonderful, and bring to mind our last ill fated yammer on Meet Me in St. Louis (sorry to bring it up again, S.). We mentioned that the one scene that really struck us from that musical was the kids going wild on Halloween. That was a solid scene that really worked well from a child’s-eye perspective, but it is blown out of the water by the use of the kids in A Canterbury Tale. Powell and Pressburger find a way to absolutely let the kids be kids, but also have the gumption to film the village children’s mock war like it is an actual combat film, creating a very exciting (and comedic) battle that enables the film to bring the actual war into the story without getting into the nasty business of death and destruction. It has a kineticism and extra layers of meaning that even the best moments of Meet Me in St. Louis couldn’t muster. I hate to keep kicking that movie while it’s down, but it popped squarely into my mind as we were watching A Canterbury Tale and I found the gap in quality to be illustrative of how impressive The Archers are in their storytelling.

Speaking of which, we need to turn our attention to the final bit of the story in which our trio of protagonists end up confronting Mr. Colpeper on the train headed to Canterbury. This was probably the least successful portion of the film for me in some ways, largely because it wrapped everything up a bit too neatly and happily. But that’s really the mildest of problems, and the film compensates through its heartbreaking depiction of the after effects of German bombing and the vivid trauma that Alison faces when she sees her fiance’s old clothing being destroyed by moths. These sequences also feature lovingly photographed shots of the town and the cathedral that make the city — damaged though it is — almost as lovely as the surrounding countryside (although the interiors of the cathedral were largely models or alternate locations, as Canterbury Cathedral’s windows and organ had been packed away to protect them from aerial bombardment). But even though the film is retracing the old pilgrimage trail and heading to a cathedral, I would argue that it is not really a film that focuses on faith in terms of God or religion. Indeed, I don’t believe the former get’s mentioned at all and the latter is only hinted at. No, I think it is about faith in and appreciation of Britain, the country’s history, and the collective goodwill of its people and allies. In this regard the cathedral is a symbol of the nation more than a church, and the film serves as a direct, explicit link to the birth of England’s literary heritage in Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th century Canterbury Tales.

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A great deal of power is wrung from Alison’s walk down a Canterbury street full of holes where businesses used to be, silently showcasing the effects of the war without ever explicitly stating what has happened or bewailing the destruction.

S. – I would have to agree that the train carriage confrontation feels a little too forced, especially coming after the excellent scene at the pilgrimage site. Having so elegantly unfurled the narrative up until that point it did seem rather clumsy. But since identifying the glue-man was always a thinly-veiled plot device perhaps the resolution of the mystery was destined to be lacklustre. I was surprised that things were tied up in a rather neat little bow for each of the pilgrims at the end, but also quietly pleased that Bob’s girl was true after all. I think you are spot on, J., that it is the spirit of the people that is celebrated at the finale. Among the ruins of Canterbury there is still a thrumming heart of citizens willing and able to celebrate the many blessings they are grateful for.

Related yammers:
#183 – “I Know Where I’m Going!” (1945), dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
#90 – A Matter of Life and Death (1946), dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
#93 – The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
#183 – I Was Born, But… (1932), dir. Ozu Yasujiro
#183 – Listen to Britain (1942), dir. Humphrey Jennings & Stewart McAllister

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