A Canterbury Tale
Dir: Emeric Pressburger, Michael Powell.

Some films transcend the very medium from which they are made. These deserve to be a part of any WW2 film library, to that end I unashamedly give these more than just brief mentions.

A Canterbury tale is one of these rare creations.

RIGHT: Dennis Price, Esmond Knight, Sgt. John Sweet, Sheila Sim and Graham Moffat in A Canterbury Tale.

Powell and Pressburger at their best

A Canterbury Tale became Powell and Pressburger's first critical and box office failure. Perhaps Powell's most personal and misunderstood film, set in and around his beloved Canterbury where Pressburger, as a Hungarian with a stateless passport, was denied permission to work. At the heart of the film lies a deep love of England, its heritage and its future. The mystical quality and poetic vision of the film is only now being fully recognised, but in 1944 there were few willing to accept a fanatical poet figure expounding his philosophy on life. Casting included Esmond Knight in three roles: first as Narrator, speaking from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, and later in two small comic roles - one a British soldier comparing notes with Bob Johnson, and the other in a hilarious scene as a Village Idiot. Of the leading players, apart from Eric Portman in a role refused by Roger Livesey who evidently considered the part distasteful, the remaining three performers were all making their screen debuts: Sheila Sim inherited the role of Alison the Land Girl intended for Deborah Kerr, now under contract to MGM. Dennis Price was to become a popular ingredient in many British productions of the next 30 years, while for the story's American soldier, Powell discovered non-professional actor John Sweet, a US Army Sergeant, appearing in a touring production of Our Town. The surprise hit of the picture, John Sweet gained excellent reviews; this was to be his only screen appearance and he returned to teaching in America after the war.
Three train passengers arrive during a black-out at Chillingbourne in Kent and, as they make their way through the village, Alison Smith has something poured on to her hair by an unseen attacker. At the town hall they learn that she is the eleventh victim of the mysterious 'glueman'. Magistrate Thomas Colpepper arranges for Bob Johnson - an American soldier who had intended to get out at Canterbury - to stay at a local guest house and hopes that he will stay to see more of the country, although Bob is anxious to move on. Alison, Bob and Peter Gibbs attend Colpepper's lecture next day on the history of the Pilgrims Way and the surrounding area. Moved by the talk, Alison later revisits the scene of a pre-war caravanning holiday spent with her fiancÚ, now missing in action. There she meets Colpepper, who finds that she too has a love of the countryside, though for different reasons. Unseen, they overhear Bob and Peter discussing their lives before the war and their suspicions of the 'glueman's' identity.

On the train next morning, Colpepper admits that he is the glueman, but claims his intention was to drive girls to his lectures where they might learn the importance of their national heritage instead of going out with GI's while their sweethearts are away. Peter determines to report him on their arrival, but Colpepper insists that he will receive his own judgement. At Canterbury Bob hears that his girl has enlisted in the WACs and receives several letters telling him all is well. Alison visits the blacksmith where her caravan is stored and learns that her fiancÚ has been found alive in Gibraltar, while Peter - a classical music student who was forced to take work in peace time as a cinema organist - realises his ambition to play the organ inside Canterbury Cathedral during a service for the departing troops. All have received their blessings save Colpepper, who must serve his penance alone.

Critics however, complained of a confusing storyline and poor taste concerning the character of the 'glueman', particularly as he remains apparently unpunished at the film's close. There were even claims of immorality over Alison's admission to Colpepper that she had spent a caravanning holiday with her fiancÚ. Not released in the United States until January 1949, the picture had been cut from 124 minutes to 95 yet included additional scenes not seen in the English release. The American version lost the evocative opening shots of pilgrims heading for Canterbury and the imaginative and spectacular transformation of a swooping falcon into an aircraft on a training exercise 600 years later. Instead the film opened on the top of a skyscraper where a former GI (John Sweet) tells the story in flashback to his bride (Kim Hunter). Much of the poetic beauty of the film was lost with the removal of scenes of the countryside and the way of life in rural England. For some years this was the only available version until the 1977 restoration financed by the National Film Archive.

Powell's explanation for the film's failure modified over the years. In 1971 he claimed that 'it contained some of my favourite sequences but it was one of Emeric's most complicated ideas and I really let him down for not insisting that it was simplified... It was much too complex a story'. By 1983, Powell still maintained that 'we had misjudged this one', although favourable reviews of the restored print had given him second thoughts: 'We had been on the defensive about A Canterbury Tale for so long that even we were surprised'. The care evident in this production should have guaranteed Powell and Pressburger another huge success, but even 50 years later it remains a much misunderstood picture, although Steven Spielberg is among those who rightly considers it a 'wonderful film'; one of the most remarkable and unique in British cinema.

Review from the Chicago Reader

A Canterbury Tale
Capsule by Dave Kehr
From the Chicago Reader

Very nearly plotless, this 1944 film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger represents one of the few times the narrative cinema has approached the lyrical ideal. Crossing wartime Britain, a group of travelers - including an American GI, a young woman from London, and an English officer - linger in a small farming village, ostensibly to solve a peculiar mystery (someone is putting glue in the local girls' hair), but really because of the spell (quite literal, in P & P's mystical vision) cast upon them by the countryside. Over the hill lies Canterbury Cathedral, and as parallels begin to emerge with Chaucer's pilgrims, the characters find themselves being drawn to it, for a soft-pedaled climax that represents the fulfillment of their individual quests. Strange and wonderful.

Review by Alexander Walker of the London Evening Standard
Golden oldie returns to please

It is amusing to remember that Emeric Pressburger, one half of the Archers production team, whose other was of course Michael Powell, had been refused permission to visit the unit on location in Kent when they made A Canterbury Tale. Pressburger, you see, was Hungarian by birth; therefore, officially an enemy alien in wartime Britain and restricted in where he could travel.

That's the world that this very curious film introduces us to: a world still in pre-war, even feudal shape, with blacksmiths, wheelwrights, local squires and rolling English roads co-existing with blackouts, air raid wardens, land girls and Yanks in uniform. For different reasons (none too plausible in Pressburger's script), Sheila Sim's land girl, Dennis Price's British soldier and John Sweet's American one all get out at the same country station - Chillingbourne - and run into a character who might have belonged to a Hammer Horror: the Glueman. He doesn't suck blood, he pours glue into the hair of any local lass unpatriotic (or sexy) enough to go out with men at night, especially American men. Eric Portman plays this nutter, an English puritan gone to bad seed.

Michael Powell calls the film 'a morality play about three modern pilgrims'. The critics of the day called it something else: 'unpleasant', 'unsavoury' and - the most dismissive adjective then in current English use - 'unnecessary'. (Remember the disapproving wartime economy slogan: 'Is your journey really necessary?') It was the earliest hint of the antipathy that Powell and Pressburger could awaken in film critics who, nearly 20 years later, were to devour Peeping Tom. The notion of a misogynist (who possessed goodness knows what other English vices) who messed up girls' hair-dos was a piece of erotica not well understood, or at least admitted in 1944. 'Not till 33 years later,' Powell wrote in his autobiography, 'was A Canterbury Tale recognised as one of our most original, iconoclastic and entertaining films.' Also, he might have added, the most beautiful outdoor production of its period, with Erwin Hillier's camerawork catching the radiant look of the land in the last years before post-war despoilation. Press shown on May 9, just three days after the Normandy landings, its happily coincidental use of a martial peal of Canterbury cathedral bells taking over from the hymn 'Onward, Christian Soldiers' felt like a boon and a blessing - and still does.

Highly recommended