A Canterbury Tale begins with a reading of the prologue from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales as pilgrims travel to the city, but this is not an adaptation. Six hundreds years pass by in a cut as the flight of a falcon becomes an airplane and the falconer becomes a British soldier of 1943 as Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger tell the story of different pilgrims.
Alison Smith is a Land Girl, one of the many women who volunteered, others later drafted, to do the agriculture work while the men were away at war. Her boyfriend was a pilot shot down by enemy fire. British Sergeant Peter Gibbs is a trained musician who before the war could only get a job playing an organ in the cinemas. American Sergeant Bob Johnson, a congenial fellow from Oregon, is doing a little sightseeing and enjoys watching movies. He is disappointed that he hasn’t heard from his girl in seven weeks.
While these characters travel to Canterbury for different purposes than Chaucer’s pilgrims, they receive blessings their counterparts sought.
They all meet one evening when Johnson, who is headed to Canterbury, gets off one stop too early at the wrong station in the town of Chillingbourne. Since it was the last train of the night, he has to wait until morning. Gibbs disembarked to meet up with his regiment. At the request of the station master, they accompany Smith to town hall because women aren’t allowed to travel unaccompanied at night by order of the town’s magistrate, Mr. Colpeper.
On their way, a man jumps out of the shadows, pours some liquid on Smith’s head, and runs off into the night. At town hall, the substance is revealed to be glue and Smith is the latest victim of the glue man. There doesn’t appear to be a great urgency to catch the glue man, so the newly arrived trio work to solve the mystery.
A Canterbury Tale is a very intriguing film that I found my thoughts constantly returning to. It’s part war drama, yet it never deals with the enemy. It’s part whodunit, yet there’s not much mystery to the villain’s identity. Ultimately, it’s a spiritual film that deals more with characters than plot as Powell pays tribute to the pastoral way of life from his youth that was in danger of being lost due to the war.
The most compelling character is Colpeper, who is an angelic figure. As the town magistrate he sits in judgment. Even though his methods are questionable, he works to better the lives of the townspeople and soldiers, such as his lectures about the countryside. Rather than entering or leaving the frame, he mysteriously appears and disappears in some scenes. While sitting in a beautiful field, Colpeper tells Smith, “Pilgrims to Canterbury often receive blessings.” Seemingly a nice sentiment that turns out to be a prophecy fulfilled.
The film is presented in a newly restored high-definition digital transfer. The black and white photography of Erwin Hillier looks fantastic. He uses a great deal of shadow and was unafraid to shoot in darkness. In a few scenes, there are some areas of slight damage to the print, not enough to detract from the visuals, but noticeable.
The film’s pacing reflects the nature of the slow, mannered way of life on the inhabitants of this small town. It will not hold the attention of some viewers, which may explain why the film was considered a failure when it was released in the UK. In order to sell the film to America, Powell reedited the film. It was trimmed by 20 minutes, which it could have used and may have worked better. Scenes were reordered though I’m not clear how or why. What we do get to see of the American version are two new scenes, a prologue and a scene at the end, which turn the film into flashback as Johnson tells the story of his time in Kent to his new wife, played by Kim Hunter. Maybe making the American character the lead would help sell tickets, but it certainly detracts from a film that extols the virtues of the English countryside.
The two-disc set has plenty of supplemental features. Film historian Ian Christie provides a commentary track. Sheila Sim, who played Alison Smith and is married to Sir Richard Attenborough, recorded a 20-minute interview in 2006. She discusses gaining the part that was written for Deborah Kerr and working with the cast and Powell. From 2001, “A Pilgrim’s Return” captures John Sweet as he attended the Michael Powell celebration of the Kent International Film Festival. This was his first visit to Canterbury since making the film 57 years earlier.
One day every August since 1997, historian Paul Tritton and Steve Cook, a member of the Powell & Pressburger Appreciation Society, lead a walking tour of the film’s locations and their guests read the film’s dialogue. In 2005, documentarian David Thompson shot footage of the tour, “A Canterbury Trail”. It coincided with the centennial of Powell’s birth, so this trip included sites of Powell’s childhood in Kent.
“Listening to Britain” is a video piece by artist Victor Burgin inspired by Humphrey Jenning’s WWII documentary of the same name, which is also included as an extra, and A Canterbury Tale. It is meant to run in a continuous loop in a dark room. Urgin provides a written introduction about this piece he created in post-9/11 2001.
Written and Directed by Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger