Cast & Crew
A 'Land Girl', an American GI, and a British soldier find themselves together in a small Kent town on the road to Canterbury. The town is being plagued by a mysterious "glue-man", who pours glue on the hair of girls dating soldiers after dark. The three attempt to track him down, and begin to have suspicions of the local magistrate, an eccentric figure with a strange, mystical vision of the history of England in general and Canterbury in particular.
H. F. Maltby
A Canterbury Tale - Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger's A CANTERBURY TALE on DVD
With A Canterbury Tale Criterion brings us what is perhaps the creative team's most experimental movie of the 1940s. What now seems a series of masterpieces were not all initially recognized as such. A Canterbury Tale was dismissed by critics, rejected by the English public and eventually drastically re-cut by Michael Powell. Only when restored in the 1980s did it take its place near the top of the Archer's 40s filmography. Centered on the war experience and promoting a fresh look at England as an idea worth fighting for, this odd bucolic mystery film is something of a Pilgrimage: It may require extra effort, but the spiritual reward is especially satisfying.
Synopsis: Three young strangers de-train at the last rail stop before Canterbury, in the middle of the wartime blackout. Soldier Peter Gibbs (Dennis Price of Kind Hearts and Coronets) is rejoining his outfit, camped nearby to await the invasion of Europe. Alison Smith (Sheila Sim) is a "Land Girl," a member of the national Land Army of urban dwellers relocated to the countryside to help bring in the crops. American soldier Bob Johnson (Sergeant John Sweet) simply got off at the wrong stop. As she makes her way through the darkened town, a stranger waiting in ambush dumps glue in Alison's hair. The two young men decide to help Alison uncover the culprit. In town they meet Thomas Colpeper (Eric Portman of 49th Parallel), a gentleman farmer and lay judge with old-fashioned ideas but a strong desire to teach the lore surrounding the Pilgrim Road to Canterbury. Alison takes her post at the Hop-farm of Prudence Honeywood (Freda Jackson) and learns from other glue victims that the attacks must be happening to discourage girls from going out at night with soldiers. Bob befriends the locals and Peter gathers information that points to the magistrate Colpeper as the probable Glue Man. But Colpeper is no ordinary crackpot; indeed, he inspires the youngsters to tap the magic of the Pilgrim Road to solve their own personal 'mysteries.
A Canterbury Tale has no special effects and no outright fantastic elements, but Powell and Pressburger suffuse it with a sense of "magic in life." They'd previously made a pair of pure propaganda thrillers for the war effort -- "propaganda" in the positive sense -- and an eccentric look at a satirical cartoon character (The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp) that focused on the friendship between a German and an Englishman. A Canterbury Tale has no movie stars (un-commercial twist #1) and a completely unconventional plot: Three strangers collaborate to unravel a fairly inconsequential mystery and receive 'magical' blessings from the roots of English literature and culture. The closest the film comes to wartime intrigue is a pirate-play battle between groups of local boys.
The magic emerges slowly but steadily. The Land Girl Alison is pretty but not a matinee beauty. The American soldier is played with an engaging 'Aw shucks" openness by an amateur actor borrowed from the ranks of GIs waiting to go to France. Unlike American movies from the war years, A Canterbury Tale doesn't pretend that the British are always chipper and obsessed with the need for victory. They're too busy coping with shortages and changes in the workforce -- and in towns like Canterbury, stoically enduring the German bombings. Watching their quiet unity, we feel a strong pull of nostalgia. Was life ever really lived on such a personal and communal level? The Kent locals warmly accept Bob Johnson, a complete cultural stranger. In one of the best scenes, a potentially closed-minded wheelwright strikes up an instant friendship with Bob because they share knowledge of the same craft, woodworking.
The movie refuses to generate a phony romance among its young 'Pilgrims' (un-commercial twist #2). It respects its characters by defining them as individuals before telling us their personal problems. (spoiler) Alison is recovering emotionally from the loss of her fiancé in the war, and has poignant memories of a vacation spent in a trailer on the Pilgrim Road. Bob is concerned because he's received no letters from his girlfriend in seven months and is too practical to believe that they've been held up by convoy problems. Peter's 'problem' isn't romantic in nature, and he keeps it to himself.
The big mystery is Eric Portman's Thomas Colpeper. He's an ardent conservative traditionalist, yet also attuned to the mystical presence of history that accompanies the ages-old Pilgrim Road. A Canterbury Tale teases us with hints of a serious mystery (un-commercial twist #3) before it settles into its playful rural adventure of discovery, but Colpeper remains slightly mysterious, perhaps even sinister. Powell and Pressburger seem drawn to ambivalent individualists, and Powell's most interesting characters were often his 'villains' - such as Conrad Veidt in The Spy in Black. Colpeper's nocturnal mission to 'chasten' girls who step out with soldiers has a lot in common with the sexually scrambled Mark Lewis of Peeping Tom. We intuit that, if the locals let him, Colpeper would put the town's medieval Dunking Chair back into service.
Colpeper has the only romantic role to play, but his desires are eventually frustrated. Initially dismissing Alison as just another thoughtless young woman, he grows closer to her and follows her around Canterbury hoping for an opportunity to declare his affections. Colpeper might think himself similar to the Laird of Killoran in I Know Where I'm Going!, who boldly presses his attentions on a woman he knows to be engaged to another. But the miracles of Canterbury work against Colpeper. Peter and Bob's wishes are granted in small gestures of hope and self-realization, and Alison receives a world-shattering revelation. Colpeper's miracle is that his crimes will be forgiven. But he'll never win Alison, and must stand to one side as the unusual blessings are given out.
A Canterbury Tale is another marvel of Archers storytelling that shows unusual visual restraint -- it's almost naturalistic. Only one moment involving an ironic halo effect recalls the 'magic realism' associated with the arts 'n crafts invention in I Know Where I'm Going! with its smoke-puffing top hats and trains that chug through tartan-covered landscapes. The movie begins with a wonderful Chaucerian prologue, aided greatly by Allan Gray's magical music. It segues to 1944 in a way that predicts Stanley Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Across a jump cut, a 13th century falcon becomes a wartime Spitfire.
A Canterbury Tale is remarkable in that its propaganda message is so delicate, England's own critics failed to appreciate it. Powell himself considered the film a failure and re-cut it, adding actress Kim Hunter in new scenes as Bob's previously unseen girlfriend. (See Footnote #1 at the bottom) Other wartime fare offered escapist adventure or hyper-dramatic stories lauding sacrifice and home-front ethics. A Canterbury Tale doesn't pretend that people become insufferably virtuous in wartime. It demonstrates for British citizens and soldiers why their country's traditions and culture are worth fighting for, without overstating the case. It's the only wartime movie I've seen that earns the right to end with the hymn "Onward Christian Soldiers."
Criterion's 2-disc presentation of A Canterbury Tale gives us a sharp and clean transfer of the restored version (125 minutes versus 95) with excellent audio. The movie has many light scratches and other marks that for visual quality put it a half-notch lower than the average Criterion -- I assume that the scratches in the remarkable falcon/Spitfire scene are un-removable.
Anybody who has seen a Powell/Pressburger film wants to know more about them. Karen Stetler, the producer responsible for all of Criterion's Archers discs, gives this presentation some of the charm of her I Know Where I'm Going! extras. That title now brings as many converts to the Archers' hearth as The Red Shoes once did. Sheila Sim appears in a relaxed interview talking about the experience of filming 60 years ago. As with many actors who were in great pictures at a young age, Ms. Sim marvels at how little she understood of what was going on. Apparently there were other "Land Girl" wartime movies but it's still surprising to see Alison walking into Canterbury on a holiday wearing work pants and other country gear, instead of one of her city dresses.
A short film by Nick Burton and Eddie McMillan includes a 2001 interview with actor Sergeant John Sweet, who eventually returned to teaching in the states. He exudes wisdom and charm and is fundamentally the character in the movie. Sweet characterizes himself while filming as too self-directed and preoccupied to take in the wonders of England, and then wisely says that's exactly how one is supposed to be when one is young.
David Thompson offers a docu of a walking tour of the film locations. Victor Burgin's impenetrable museum video installation piece Listen to Britain is included, along with its namesake, the original classic Humphrey Jennings wartime short film.
Critic Ian Christie offers a fine commentary, discussing a multitude of issues raised by the film as well as charting the history of its making and its makers. It's really helpful to those of us, like Sgt. Roczinsky, who 'didn't get' Chaucer in high school and don't know what a Land Girl was. (See Footnote #2 below).
A welcome but rather depressing extra shows us the revised opening and closing filmed for the abortive American release, narrated by Raymond Massey. The re-cut creates a bookend flashback showing Sgt. Johnson on vacation with his new wife (Kim Hunter), in New York and in the same café in Canterbury where he received her letters. The narration talks as if the war is still going on, yet Johnson taking his new wife to England is definitely happening after the war: The re-cut presumes that the Allies will be victorious, throwing a film based on hopes and uncertainly completely out of kilter. We should consider ourselves lucky that the British saved the materials to restore the original. As has happened with so many American movies, we could be talking about a "lost picture" that nobody alive ever saw.
* Footnote #1.
In 1943-44 Kim Hunter, had a stage reputation but was still only a minor actress in American films. Powell's autobiography "sort of" accounts for her presence in retakes for A Canterbury Tale and as the star of A Matter of Life or Death by telling us that Powell was enchanted by the Val Lewton horror film The Seventh Victim. The movie so impressed him that he bicycled the only print in wartime England across London to show it to Carol Reed!
* Footnote #2.
Mr. Christie points out a serendipitous fact. Actor Esmond Knight continued to work in movies after being blinded as a sailor on the Prince of Wales during its battle with the Bismarck. Knight played sighted small parts and was accepted as a sighted actor. He actually got a role in 1960's Sink the Bismarck!... playing the commander of the Prince of Wales!
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by Glenn Erickson
A Canterbury Tale - Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger's A CANTERBURY TALE on DVD
A Canterbury Tale
Three train passengers - an American GI, a British soldier, and a "land girl" (part of the UK force of young women dispatched to agricultural jobs while men were off fighting the war)-find themselves in a small Kent town along the road to Canterbury when the girl becomes the eleventh victim of the strange "Glue Man," who goes about smearing glue into the hair of young English women he catches in the company of American military men. The three begin to investigate the mystery and in the process explore the local countryside, its history and tales of pilgrims. As the trio eventually converges on Canterbury Cathedral, they receive unexpected "blessings," bestowing each one's most fervent wish. The ups and downs of this multi-layered plot celebrate the heritage and future of England and its spiritual roots in the countryside, bringing a mystical quality to a story of war that, despite its setting at the famous Christian cathedral, is almost more pagan in quality, particularly in the character of the fairytale ogre, "Glue Man."
Following on the heels of three wartime hits-49th Parallel (1941), One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942), and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)-this was the first production of the writing-directing team that was not a major box office success. It also had poor reviews initially in the UK press. In contrast to the earlier war pictures, A Canterbury Tale is thematically and pictorially closer to the films in which Powell explored his fascination with the mystical power of landscape, as in "I Know Where I'm Going!" (1945) and Black Narcissus (1947), and as such it has a certain mysticism to it that audiences and critics of the time, deeply immersed in the harsh realities of the war, were not at first ready to accept. Even after the war, the picture suffered from the studio's insistence that Powell re-edit it for release in the US, cutting more than 20 minutes (including an opening that depicted Chaucer's famous pilgrims on their way to Canterbury with a seamless segue into the war years), adding narration by Raymond Massey, and shooting bookend scenes with Kim Hunter as the American soldier's postwar girlfriend, apparently to make it feel more contemporary and palatable to Stateside audiences.
Nevertheless, A Canterbury Tale has grown in respect and admiration over the years as one of the most personal and idiosyncratic releases by the famous team. Pressburger later called it his favorite of all their films. It was fully restored by the British Film Institute in the late 1970s; the new print was hailed as a masterwork of British cinema and has since been re-issued on DVD in both the UK and US. There have been festivals and exhibitions in Canterbury honoring the film and Powell (who was born and raised in the Kent countryside depicted so lovingly in the movie), during which fans tour the locations. Today, the film counts among its admirers producer-director Steven Spielberg.
Powell captured many exterior shots of his beloved Kent countryside, as well as numerous bombsites in Canterbury, which had been terribly damaged during the infamous Baedeker raids of May and June 1942. Filming could not take place in the cathedral itself because the stained glass windows had been removed and boarded up for their own protection and the organ, which figures prominently in the climax of the story, had been placed in storage. Art director Alfred Junge used clever perspective to recreate portions of the building's vast interior in the studio. The cathedral bells seen in the opening and closing shots were a miniature replica of Canterbury's tower that allowed the camera to track up to and through them. The miniatures were "rung" by actual professional bell ringers pulling strings with fingers and thumbs timed to a playback recording of the real bells.
Roger Livesey, so memorable in the lead of Colonel Blimp, turned down the role of town magistrate Colpeper; the role was taken by Eric Portman, who had appeared in both 49th Parallel and One of Our Aircraft Is Missing. The rest of the principals were less known. Sheila Sim made her film debut as the land girl, a role Powell and Pressburger had planned to give Deborah Kerr, who became unavailable after signing a contract with MGM. The part of the American GI was given to a real soldier, Sgt. John Sweet, an American stationed in England and spotted by Powell in a production of Our Town that was touring military bases. It was Sweet's only film role; he returned to teaching in the US after the war. The young British recruit was played by Dennis Price, fairly new to films at the time, who went on to a long career, and is best remembered today as the unflappable serial killer in the comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949).
Many local people, including a lot of young boys and a family of wheelwrights, were recruited as extras for the extensive outdoor scenes. The part of Thomas Duckett was played by Charles Hawtrey, a well-known comic actor and frequent performer in the long-running Carry On... movie series. Fans of the Beatles may recognize the name from the bit of funny studio chatter by John Lennon at the opening of the "Let It Be" album ("I dig a pygmy, by Charles Hawtrey..."). Lennon was most likely referencing this actor and not the Edwardian stage actor-manager Sir Charles Hawtrey, from whom the comic player took his screen name.
The world premiere of A Canterbury Tale took place in May 1944 at a theater in Canterbury. That event was later commemorated with a plaque unveiled by stars Sim and Sweet in October 2000 (Price and Portman had passed away by then). The movie was screened in the cathedral nave in September 2007 to help raise money for the building's restoration fund.
A bit of gruesome trivia about this movie: Margaret Mitchell, the author of Gone with the Wind, was on her way to see it in 1949 when she was hit by a taxi while crossing an Atlanta street. She died of her injuries a short time later.
Directors, Producers, Screenplay: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Cinematography: Erwin Hillier
Editing: John Seabourne
Production Design: Alfred Junge
Original Music: Allan Gray
Cast: Eric Portman (Colpeper), Sheila Sim (Alison Smith), Dennis Price (Peter Gibbs), Sgt. John Sweet (Bob Johnson), Esmond Knight (Narrator/Seven-Sisters Soldier/Village Idiot).
By Rob Nixon
A Canterbury Tale
It is an awful mess, I don't blame you for not knowing where you are. But you get a very good view of the Cathedral now.- Passer-by
There is more that one way of getting close to your ancestors. Follow the Old Road and as you do, think of them; they climbed Chillingbourne Hill just as you did. They sweated and paused for breath just as you did today. And when you see the bluebells in the spring and the wild thyme, and the broom and the heather, you're seeing what their eyes saw. You ford the same rivers, the same birds singing. And when you lie flat on your back and rest, and watch the clouds sailing as I often do, you're so close to those other people, that you can hear the thrumming of the hoofs of their horses, and the sound of the wheels on the road, and their laughter, and talk, and the music of the instruments they carried. And they turned the bend in the road, where they too saw the towers of Canterbury. I feel I have only to turn my head to see them on the road behind me.- Thomas Colpeper, JP
Pity.- Thomas Colpeper, JP
Pity?- Bob Johnson
Pity when you get home and people ask what you've seen in England and you say "Well I saw a movie in Salisbury. And I made a pilgrimage to Canterbury and I saw another one."- Thomas Colpeper, JP
You've got me all wrong. I know that in Canterbury I have to look out for a cathedral.- Bob Johnson
Yes do look out for it. It's just behind the movie theatre. You can't miss it.- Thomas Colpeper, JP
Did you hear the news about last night Mr. Horton?- Alison Smith
There wasn't nothing on the wireless.- Jim Horton
No I didn't mean that sort of news. I meant what happened here last night.- Alison Smith
We get all our local news at 6 o'clock, Miss.- Ned Horton
You got a local newspaper?- Bob Johnson
No. That's when the pub opens.- Ned Horton
That's your room. You won't get much of a view I'm afraid.- Prudence Honeywood
You should have seen the view from my room in London.- Alison Smith
Was it a long street with every house a different sort of sadness in it?- Prudence Honeywood
It was a long row of back gardens, and the tall, sad houses were all the same.- Alison Smith
Ghastly in winter.- Prudence Honeywood
Because Canterbury Cathedral's windows had been taken out because of the air raids, the interior of the cathedral was rebuilt in Denham Studio.
The Cathedral bells seen in the opening and closing shots were a miniature replica of Canterbury's Bell Harry Tower to allow the camera to track up to and through them. The bells were "rung" by bell ringers from the Cathedral who pulled the strings with finger and thumb to a playback of the real bells.
The organ music had to be played on the St. Alban's cathedral organ because the one at Canterbury Cathedral had been dismantled and stored away for the duration of the war.
The boys in the river battle were paid #9 each for two weeks work. #1 10/- when on standby and #3 per day when working.
James Tamsitt had a haircut to make him look tidy before he went to London with Leonard Smith (II) and David Todd (I) to do some scenes at Denham Studio. But his new haircut didn't match the unruly mop he had in scenes filmed on location. So he had to wear a wig.
Among the various books and pictures seen in Colpepper's sitting room is a photograph of the Shetland Island of Foula, the location of director 'Powell, Michael' 's first acclaimed feature film _Edge of the World, The (1937)_ .