on 19 December 2002
This is the most effective account of what it is like to be English within the encroaching tide of American popular culture.
That it was made when it was makes it truly prophetic.
It's blissfully hard to categorise. It is sentimental, it does have comedy but there is an underlying menace - a malevolent incongruity that seems to hallmark director Powell's best work. The whole notion of a midnight prowler deliberately pasting glue into women's hair is a good example of this kind of alternate reality. There is a specific scene where a many hands are vigorously washing the hair which seems disturbingly loaded with sadism.
Yet the subject (and the reason for buying) is history - what in the middle of WWII can be realistically retained. What has to give way? So we see the cocky GI find an affinity with an English carpenter, a cynical cinema pianist collaborating with a cathedral organist and a middle aged magistrate judged and sentenced by one of his own victims.
It's beautifully photographed, particularly the scenes of rural life yet contains a strangely powerful message for this generation, faced with the cultural narrowing of globalisation of the arts.
Not a Multiplex fave...but you should see it for just this reason.
on 19 September 2002
I had the extreme luck of watching this film for the first time at a special showing in Canterbury itself. I found it compelling and wonderful. It is British in the same sense as 'Brief Encounter'. Both of them capture the nuances of midcentury England. This film focuses on the beauty of the dwindling countryside, evoking wonderfully a way of life that was disappearing even then. The director, Michael Powell, came from Canterbury, and it shows. This film is clearly a labour of love. It even understands the magic of Canterbury cathedral, with each of the main characters setting out on a pilgrimage of their own, to have a boon granted or do penance. Even though it is in black and white, it is a film filled with sunshine. I recommend it to anyone who feels nostalgia for the past, even a past they never experienced.
on 12 July 2002
This is one of my all time favourite movies, it has a wonderful nostalgic feel for England before the 2nd World War, and an eerie timeless quality as you imagine all the lives played out through the ages on the Pilgrims Way which leads into Canterbury. The theme of the Glue Man who pours glue on girls' hair is just a part of it, the real theme is peoples lives then and how they lived through the war. As I was brought up 7 miles from Canterbury it is also an interesting historical document as you get to see what it was like right after the bombing - something you cannot imagine until you see just how much of the city was left as piles of rubble. A classic bit of British life circa 1930s if you like old b&w "brief encounter" type movies you will love this one. The photography is lovely and shows English countryside in its heyday. The plot is about three young people whose lives are changed after an eventful weekend in the East Kent countryside and arrive in Canterbury on the day a local regiment embarks for the Second Front. This is intercut with the pilgrims travelling to Canterbury in the Middle Ages. Trust me, it works! This film is just a lovely modest little treasure everyone should see - I highly recommend "A Matter of Life and Death" by Michael Powell too, which stars David Niven and is, again, set in the Second World War.
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.
on 2 August 2000
There are so many beauties in this film it seems carping to mention its faults; if such they are, like the fact that one is never really in any doubt about the identity of the glue-throwing molester of young women. That part of the mystery is not so much a "whodunnit" as a "whydunnit" - the "Glueman's" motivation being to preserve a threatened way of life by discrediting the soldiers from a nearby Army camp. That way of life - with the trades, hierarchies, scenery of rural Kent - is what really pervades this film. War is not here a matter of battles, bullets and bombs, but of dislocations, of people finding themselves somewhere they have no connection with, of lost contacts, of finding unexpectedly things worth knowing. An American sergeant finds common ground with a Kent wheelwright; wood being their common language, and develops a taste for tea. A cynical British sergeant picks up the threads of his lost musical career at the organ of Canterbury Cathedral, and land girl Alison looks for nostalgia and finds a more tangible love. The Canterbury pilgrims of the 14th century open the film: the bells of the Cathedral close it: in between all are on a pilgrimage of one kind or another.
on 18 September 2000
This is one of the best films of its type - with some stunning photography and effects like the change from the pilgrim's falcon in flight to a diving Spitfire fighter plane and the same pilgrim changed from mediaeval dress to WW2 khaki. Some wonderful characters, like the station master, played by Charles Hawtry, and Sheila Sim as the Landgirl. Dennis Price is suave and convincing. The film is a wonderful evocation of life in wartime Kent and its portrayal of the way in which the characters find what they are looking for is sensitive and believable. There's a lot of gentle humour and portrayal of local people is done sensitively.
Certainly one of my top ten films of all time.
on 12 September 2005
Powell and Pressburger look at change taking pace in British society during WWII in a most wonderful manner. We have the menace of the Glue Man and the potential romance between the American G.I. and the Land Girl, the organ playing acadmeic who gets his heart's desire at Canterbury Cathedral. But it's all so beautiful. The warmth of the landscape and the traditions of the local villagers who appear to have lived there oblivious to the world around them, untouched by war. Powell and Pressburger take you by the hand and lead you along a path that shows everything they love about Britain - and it's worth the journey.
This film was released to mixed reviews, and yet it is undoubtedly a classic. Why?
The explanation is rather simple. This film, in an evocative and romantic way, displays the England that people were fighting for. People did not fully understand this at the time. They felt they were fighting 'against' Nazi domination, not actually 'for' anything. They had seen the onset of war as a suspension of most pleasurable acivities and restrictions on what they could buy, where they could work and where they could travel. The country had suffered severely from Luftwaffe bombing and then the Vs 1&2. The last casualty-causing V2 landed in England barely 30 days before Hitler shot himself, and this was at a time when the ground fighting was in Germany itself.
But what were they fighting for? Initially it was to liberate Poland from German occupation. Only belatedly did people realise that this was a fight between Democracy and Totalitarianism, a fight that did not fully come to an end until the Berlin Wall collapsed.
This film in its easy manner showed to a wartime crowd what Peace and Freedom meant. The Glue Man is a sideshow against the main characters pilgrimage to find their fulfilment, their bit of peace in war-torn England.
The central message? When Shelia Sims walls down the bomb-damaged streets of Canterbury, a victim of the Baedekker raids and sees the people carrying on, proud, unafraid the message is clear. We are the English, We are Bloody but Unbowed, This is Our Land, We will Survive. It was a subtle, spiritual, emotional message that the contemporary cinema audience simply could not understand in the world of sudden death, blackouts and shortages. But it is a message that resonates with us and helps us understand their bravery and tolerance when it seemed that civilisation was on the brink.
See the film and then visit Canterbury yourself.
on 2 January 2010
Imagine a 15 year old boy in the late 1980's, rainy afternoon, touch of the flu, laying on the sofa, helpless to whatever was on TV and then some strange film that starts with archery ('The Archers' opening credit) and then medieval pilgrims comes on, followed by Spitfires,was the flu getting to me? No. I was being caught by the bug of A Canterbury Tale. It was evocative to me of an England that I hope, but probably realised never existed, yet even so, with a suspension of disbelief - you are sucked in to the life of this charming community with it's 'glueman', American soldier and yokels. This film probably subconconsciously made me choose Canterbury for my teacher training, which resulted in one of the best years of my life. It is a lovely little film, if you accept it as that then you will not be disappointed, It stuck in my memory that rainy flu ridden afternoon, I couldn't remember what it was called until I heard someone #in a pub five years later# talking about the plot of this film they had seen on TV one rainy afternoon themselves, and I asked them what it was called. Since then whenever it has been on, I have sought it out, until I bought the DVD and now at least once a year on a miserable weekend rainy afternoon, I allow myself to be transported to a world that showed camaraderie, courage and above all great charm. Why can't films like this be made today?
on 8 April 2007
'A Canterbury Tale' - set during the war-torn days of the 40s in Kent where the paths of three young people, alighting from a train during the black-out, fortuitously converge in the ancient medieval hamlet of Chillingbourne: pretty Alison, of an appealing freshness and admirable fortitude who is taking up work as a land-girl whilst bearing the inward sadness of a fiance gone missing in action, Bob, the affable American G.I morose because he hasn't heard from his girl in a while, and the British officer Peter who nurses a mild and cynical melancholy about his failed musical ambitions as an organist and the weird tale of how they all get caught up in the deeds of the 'Glue Man' who pours the 'sticky stuff' over girls hair as they go out to meet courting soldiers in the dark streets and lanes - it sounds like a rather slight premise for a plot but, dear viewer, allow this film to draw you into one of the most exquisite and moving experiences that film has ever captured, an ambience of mysterious beauty which will live with you, so profound is it's spell, so rich its positive vision of human values and the mystical bond between the ages past and present: for the three young people caught up in war and their private sorrows are guided to the ancient magic of the 'Pilgrims Road' by the strange and amibivalent Mr Colpeper the local squire who is fervent in his desire to pass on the local lore and who initiates them into the mysteries of medieval England which lie beneath their very feet. Alison, Bob and Peter solve the mystery of the 'Glue-Man' who haunts the nocturnal streets of Chillingbourne but more importantly they become modern-day pilgrims and finally wend their way, like Chaucer's merry company in the Middle Ages, to a bomb-ravaged Canterbury where each solves a much greater mystery and finds release, unexpectedly becoming the recipient of an epiphanic blessing which renews their spiritual and human hopes amid the soaring cathedral columns and which likewise bestows a pure benediction upon the happy viewer of this miracle of a film. A rare expression of the most blessed mystical essence of England, the presence of the ancestors and the interpenetration of the past and the present , the necessity of hope amid the sorrow of ordinary lives, of faith in the possibility of miracles and the transfiguration of the heart, 'A Canterbury Tale' is a really beautiful film, pervaded with an infectious cheerfulness, humour and touching moments of great emotional depth but which never cloys or tips over into over-sentimentality - truly an amazing,salvific and unforgettable piece of art of a rare human and spiritual pitch. They just don't make films like this any more. The score is wonderfully evocative too.