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A Canterbury Tale (Criterion Collection)

Eric Portman , Sheila Sim , David Thompson , Emeric Pressburger    Unrated   DVD
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's beloved classic is a profoundly personal journey to Powell's bucolic birthplace of Kent, England. Set amidst the tumult of the Second World War yet with a rhythm as delicate as a lullaby, the film follows three modern-day incarnations of Chaucer's pilgrims -- a melancholy "landgirl," a plainspoken American GI, and a resourceful British sergeant -- who are waylaid in the English countryside and forced to solve a bizarre village crime en route to the mythical town. Building to a majestic climax that ranks as one of the filmmaking duo's finest achievements, the dazzling A Canterbury Tale has acquired a following passionate enough to qualify as a pilgrimage all its own.

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Beware the Glue Man Oct. 1 2006
By bernie TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:DVD
The tale starts out with a historical reference to Chaucer. For a fraction you wonder if you are watching the film you expected. And then you see the Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger eagle that transitions us form mid-evil times to present day (1944) England.

Time is taken to give depth and background to all the main characters by the use of interactive dialog. We find that each brings different technical skills and interpretations of the road to Canterbury:

U.S. Army Sergt. Bob Johnson (U.S. Sergeant John Sweet) on his way to Canterbury mistakenly gets off in the hamlet of Kent. He is accused of having his stripes on upside down.

British Sgt. Peter Gibbs (Dennis Price) is temporarily stationed at Kent while staging for overseas. He was and theater organ player before the war.

Alison Smith (Sheila Sim) a London store clerk before the war is now seeking a job as a `Land Girl'. She seems to have an uncanny knowledge of Kent and the Pilgrims' road to Canterbury.

The night they got off the train at Kent they had a strange encounter with the mysterious "Glue Man". Then befriended by the local magistrate, Thomas Colpeper, JP (Thomas Colpeper, JP). Mr. Colpeper is interested in the history of the Pilgrims' Road from Kent to Canterbury.

Until you get pretty much through this story you are never really sure where they are trying to take you. Is the focus on a local mystery? The interaction of the players or the lives of the characters themselves?
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Amazon.com: 4.7 out of 5 stars  32 reviews
76 of 79 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A luminous, magical masterpiece from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger July 26 2006
By C. O. DeRiemer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:DVD
In 1980, Emeric Pressburger said, "A script can only create nests in which magic may settle." With A Canterbury Tale, he and his partner, Michael Powell, created one of the most magical, luminous and eccentric movies ever made. The film is far removed from the obvious patriotic product they were asked to produce and yet it is one of the most effective evocations of why Britain and America were fighting a common enemy.

The plot is so slight and off-hand it can't be taken too seriously. It's just a device to have three modern pilgrims stay awhile in the English village of Chillingbourne on Chaucer's pilgrims road to Canterbury. The three are Alison Smith (Sheila Sim), a land girl from London, come to work on a farm and who has been notified her fiance has been killed in action; British sergeant Peter Gibbs (Dennis Price), a trained organist who played organs in cinema houses and is joining his unit on the outskirts of the village; and U. S. sergeant Bob Johnson (real life Sergeant John Sweet, recruited by Powell to play this part), on leave for a few days who got off the train at the wrong station and who hasn't heard from his wife for months. Someone in the village is pouring glue on the hair of village girls who have been dating soldiers. As the three leave the train station during blackout, Alison has glue poured on her hair. The three make their way to the magistrate, Thomas Colpepper (Eric Portman), who seems cold and uninterested in Alison's plight. The three determine to find out by themselves who the mysterious "glueman" really is.

Powell and Pressburger use this slight device to evoke a deep feeling of the continuity of life, the sense that history is just as much a part of what is now as what has been. Michael Powell's lean kind of humor is used to explore the life of the village and the interaction of the American sergeant with village people. The point of the movie the government wanted was to demonstrate that Britain and the U.S. shared the same values in the fight against Germany. At the time the movie was made, England was filling up with American G.I.s as the months leading to the 1944 invasion of Normandy sped by and there was much tension. Powell and Pressburger deal with this issue in a variety of subtle ways, most affectingly when Sergeant Johnson finds himself in a conversation with an aging carpenter. They find they surprisingly have much in common. They both know wood and care for craftsmanship. The old man, suspicious at first of this American, winds up inviting him to dinner.

But the movie is far more about values. That Colpepper is the glueman is obvious early in the movie (this is no spoiler), yet why does he do it? He's no captive of the past. He speaks, however, for the continuance of values and history, that they are a part of us. Values and history give us strength and give worth to our lives and our work today. He tries to explain this one afternoon to Alison. "There is more than one way of getting close to your ancestors," he tells her. "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."

In their own way, just as with Chaucer's pilgrims seeking blessings and miracles, Alison, Bob and Peter are pilgrims, too. On their way to Canterbury at last, Peter plans to give the evidence they discovered about the glueman to the police. Alison will find the caravan she and her fiance had stayed in. Bob will meet a friend and see the cathedral. They will find unexpected blessings which are as emotional for us as they are to the three. Even Colpepper finds a blessing. The movie's commentator, British film historian Ian Christie, says, "The characters are searching, but they don't know for what. The landscapes they move through are rich in associations but they are often ignorant of these, and so their progress is full of uncertainty, which we are encouraged to share." Powell and Pressburger managed to create, from what was asked to be a simple propaganda movie, a film which has turned out to be an eccentric masterpiece. If in doubt, just watch the opening when Chaucer's pilgrims are on their way to Canterbury and a hunting hawk is released. It soars into the sky, up and up, turning and twisting, and before we can register it, the dot that was a hawk has become a Spitfire, circling and twisting down towards us, and we're in wartime Britain in 1943.

I've watched this movie several times on VHS tape and the Region 2 DVD. I'd always considered it one of Powell and Pressburger's near-great films. After watching twice Criterion's immaculate DVD presentation, which for the first time brings out the subtleties of the night sequences and makes evident how luminous and warm the black and white photography was, I've changed my mind. I unreservedly rank A Canterbury Tale with the other great and marvelous, quirky and completely original Powell and Pressburger films:

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) is a one-of-a-kind look at a life and how it changed but also held true to "Englishness." Unusual and innovative, with great performances by Roger Livesey and Anton Walbrook. Amazing that it was commissioned as a propaganda piece during WWII and wound up with Churchill having a fit over it. Available from Criterion.

A Canterbury Tale (1944)

I Know Where I'm Going (1945) is one of the most romantic films ever made, and without an iota of sentimentality. Wendy Hiller and Roger Livesey. Available from Criterion.

A Matter of Life and Death (1946) is a strange and deeply affecting reflection on love and life and death. David Niven, Kim Hunter and Roger Livesey.

Black Narcissus (1947) is an intense and gorgeous film about repressed feelings, frustration and the exotic. Deborah Kerr and David Farrar. Available from Criterion.

The Red Shoes (1948) is a lush, beautiful, mesmerizing and melodramatic story of torn feelings and obsession. The ballet of the Red Shoes is almost 60 years old and has yet to be bettered as an extended dance sequence in a movie. Anton Walbrook and Moira Shearer. Available from Criterion.

By 1943, with The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Michael Powell, doing the directing, and Emeric Pressburger, doing the writing, had become The Archers, agreeing to take joint and equal credit for the writing, directing and producing of their movies. What movies they were. I can't think of any individual or pair of movie makers who were responsible for so many creative, idiosyncratic, different and just plain great films as these two.

The Criterion presentation is immaculate. The two-disc DVD set includes an excellent commentary by Ian Christie and a number of extras. Some of these include a new video interview with Sheila Sim, a documentary about John Sweet and a documentary visiting the film locations. Included is a booklet with important film essays.
21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The sense of the past Aug. 8 2006
By Jay Dickson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:DVD
One of the most intellectually complex of all the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, "The Archers," A CANTERBURY TALE was intended to boost morale during the war concerning British and American relations during the preparations for the D-Day invasion of the continent. Three modern pilgrims on their way to Canterbury and its environs--a self-assured "Land Girl," a cynical cinema organist now serving in the army, and a clever and folksy American GI--attempt to solve a bizarre local mystery in the Kentish town of Chillingbourne: the identity of the enigmatic "Glue Man" who keeps pouring glue into the hair of local women after dusk. The film is much more than a mystery, and as the DVD commentary by Ian Christie and the accompanying textual materials in this lovely Criterion release make clear, it is so much more indeed it becomes almost unclassifiable. It is a comedy, particularly in the charming bits with the local children. Like all of Michael Powell's films, it is also a romance involving sexual hysteria. Above all it is a pastoral meditation on the status of England and its heritage at a truly crucial time in its history, and it asserts both the discontinuities with the agrarian past and the need to reconnect with it during a troubled time of modernity. The "aw shucks" demeanour of the Oregon GI (John Sweet) can take some getting used to, but Sheila Sim is really extraordinary as the Land Girl, and Dennis Portman is also quite fine as the local squire who becomes central to the trio's investigations. The tremendous closing sequence of the film involving the organ of the Canterbury Cathedral is one of the most striking evocations of the sublime in the history of film.
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Do You Believe In The Soul?" Aug. 15 2006
By Kevin Killian - Published on Amazon.com
Format:DVD|Verified Purchase
It doesn't have the instant charm of I KNOW WHERE I'M GOING, and Sheils Sim, the ingenue whose first film role this was, doesn't have the swanky, leading lady adorableness that Wendy Hiller radiates in IKWIG, and yet when all is said and done it may be A CANTERBURY TALE that you'll remember longer.

If you are new to Michael Powell's work you might want to watch THE RED SHOES or PEEPING TOM right away, maybe BLACK NARCISSUS. His other movies take a little getting used to, as most of them are genuinely odd. And perhaps nothing is as odd as the storyline of A CANTERBURY TALE, in which eleven young women have been molested at night by a fleeting stranger in Home Guard uniform pouring glue in their hair during the blackout. Okay, that's weird, but what's even stranger is that right away we find out who the culprit is, and the suspense is going to be, will the three pilgrims let him off the hook or not?

On the commentary track, Sheila Sim, now 80 something and still very sharp and lovely, recalls an earlier version of the script in which the "Glueman" didn't use glue at all, but rather ran around ripping girls' skirts with a pair of scissors, and in her recollection this aspect was changed because of its sexual connotations. Interesting that Powell thought of the glue-on-hair scheme since he was the film world's greatest hair fetishist, just as Cecil B. DeMille had a thing for feet. Sim relates that it wasn't until she read Powell's memoirs A LIFE IN MOVIES did she realize he was bitterly disappointed that Deborah Kerr had ankled the part, and that she (Sim) was not even a close second. But I think by the end of the film her performance is so beautiful it makes you happy Kerr stayed home and did something else instead. All of them are good, but of course the jewel in the crown is the performance of John Sweet as the American sergeant Bob Johnson, with his little slits for eyes and his mountain of fried hair and his incomparable aura of sincerity, as though America was both the youngest and the oldest nation in the world. There's nobody like him in the movies, not even Henry Fonda in YOUNG MR LINCOLN or James Stewart in DESTRY RIDES AGAIN or Burl Ives in FROSTY THE SNOWMAN is anywhere near as folksy as the amazing Mr. Sweet.

Eric Portman could be a killer, he's so cold and grim. When he and Sheila Sim share a "secret understanding," the movie seems to be all about carnal love and the way it flip flops into the spiritual. Their scene, hiding in the heather on top of a hill, is the centerpiece of a modern morality tale. The film opens windows in the soul. It has a little knock in it, like a motor car. A CANTERBURY TALE has been beautifully restored; you can see every drop of glue in Sheils Sim's side-parted hair. Haven't seen them all, but I'd say this might be the best DVD of summer 2006.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Poetic, Nostalgia Infused Tale Of Spiritual "Pilgrims" In World War II England Nov. 28 2006
By K. Harris - Published on Amazon.com
Format:DVD|Verified Purchase
I must admit that even as a fan of many films in the Powell and Pressburger oeuvre, I had never seen "A Canterbury Tale" until its Criterion release. Set during World War II, the primary action unfolds in a small township outside of Canterbury. Beginning with a poetic reference to Chaucer's "pilgrims," we meet three disparate souls headed on their own individual journeys--a British soldier off to battle, an American soldier on furlough, and a British girl arriving for a wartime job assignment. They are united briefly by a strange attack by a glue wielding madman who douses our heroine's hair with the sticky stuff.

Such an odd event joins this trio--and they form an unlikely friendship to investigate the crime of the serial gluer. A town leader soon becomes their prime suspect, but ultimately this is just a sly dramatic device. It allows our characters, and us by extension, to get to know the town and its people--and that's really what this story is about.

For the most part, the film is a pleasant examination of personality, history, and countryside. But for the conclusion, our "pilgrims" find their way to Canterbury. A bittersweet emotion creeps in as the town reflects much devastation from the war. This is juxtaposed with the gloriously untouched Canterbury Cathedral where each character will realize an end (or at least another step) to their spiritual journey. But the film has literally been so subtle--I was totally unprepared for the emotional impact the ending would have. The sequences are shot with such delicacy and detail--it is the music, or a vantage point, or simply the swirl of the camera that leaves an indelible impression.

The film is so much quieter, so much more human than I would have imagined. Every scene is infused with a nostalgic sweetness as people grasp for a small town normalcy despite the chaos in the world. For even as these citizens have embraced wartime duties, the town still exists as an idyllic respite from conflict. The countryside becomes a character--in fact, rarely have I seen a setting so evocative, so representative of the feeling of a film. And there is a real sense of and respect for history that is quite uncommon.

I'd recommend the film at 4 1/2 stars--there are a couple of slight blemishes. The performance of John Sweet as the American is problematic but interesting. At first, it strikes me as singularly amateurish, but this soon made it goofily endearing. And the friendship by the threesome seems a bit forced in the initial stages. They become intricately entwined after spending 5 minutes together walking from the train station. But these are very minor issues in a real delight of a film. KGHarris, 11/06.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Indelible Masterpiece July 28 2006
By David Baldwin - Published on Amazon.com
Format:DVD|Verified Purchase
There are not enough superlatives to describe what a great film this is. Having only seen Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's "The Red Shoes" recently I purchased this on a whim. Never having previously heard of this film I was immensely rewarded viewing it. The film was ostensibly a morale booster for war torn Britain but it works on so many levels. The complexity of it's themes make it timeless. This film celebrates the landscape of Britain, the vast array of people who toil in it to make it great, their perserverence, and not least of all, their spirit. The film follows three "pilgrims" to Canterbury who have suffered recent personal setbacks who make the journey for some kind of enlightenment: A land girl(Sheila Sim) whose RAF fiancee is missing in action, an American G.I.(John Sweet) who is lovesick from not hearing from his sweetheart, and a British organist(Dennis Price) who toils in a London cinema even though he is academy trained. Their journey brings them something of an epiphany in ways that are unimaginable. The cast is uniformly superb but I think special mention should be made for John Sweet, a real life American serviceman enlisted by Powell for this film. Sweet may have been an amateur but it's the very realness of his performance that draws you to his character. It makes you wonder that if this film were more of a success that Sweet could have had a career on the big screen than in the classrooms as a teacher in Ohio. As if that were not enough the package contains supplementary material that enhances your enjoyment of this film. Aside from enlightening interviews with Sweet and Sim, the film also contains footage filmed for an American audience with Kim Hunter that did not appear in the British cut. This footage detracts from the director's cut and goes to show how the studio honchoes underestimate the audience's intelligence. Also of interest is a documentary about a Michael Powell film society's pilgrimage through locations featured in the film on the centennial of the director's birth and a vintage documentary highlighting the sights and sounds of Britain at the height of World War II.
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