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.