A CANTERBURY TALE
(director/writer: Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger; cinematographer: Erwin Hillier; editor: John Seabourne; music: Allan Gray; cast: Eric Portman (Thomas Colpepper, J.P.), Sheila Sim (Alison Smith), Dennis Price (Sgt. Peter Gibbs), John Sweet (Sgt. Bob Johnson), Charles Hawtrey (Thomas Duckett, stationmaster), Esmond Knight (Narrator/Seven-Sisters Soldier/Village Idiot), Eliot Makeham (Organist), George Merritt (Ned Horton); Runtime: 124; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger; Criterion Collection; 1944-UK)
“A simple but wonderfully bizarre way to tell Chaucer’s A Canterbury Tale in modern terms.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
The writer-director team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (“Peeping Tom”/”Red Shoes”) have come up with a simple but wonderfully bizarre way to tell Chaucer’s A Canterbury Tale in modern terms by using the English countryside of Kent to frame a story around four diverse characters during WWII. Each experiences a miracle when they reach Canterbury. This much misunderstood film became the team’s first critical and box office flop at its release. Its poetical mystical qualities scared off the public, who didn’t quite comprehend the unusual way the filmmakers showed their great love for England’s rich heritage and their mesmerizing way of expressing optimism for the future.
On a night train from London ‘Land Girl’ Alison Smith (Sheila Sim), American Sergeant Bob Johnson (John Sweet, a nonprofessional actor and actually an American sergeant who was recruited for the part while in an amateur touring production of Our Town), and a British Sergeant Peter Gibbs (Dennis Price), all get off in Chillingbourne in Kent, a small farming village that is right next to Canterbury–ten minutes away by train–that’s in the middle of a black-out. Alison worked as a clerk in a London department store, a job she hated, and has come here to take an agricultural job in the country spot she visited four years ago and hopes to forget that her fiancé pilot is missing-in-action. Johnson, from a small lumber town in Oregon, was heading to Canterbury as a tourist but got off here by mistake. His girlfriend from back home, that he’s sure he had a love connection with, has not written him in seven weeks and he’s despondent. Gibbs, an organist, is returning from leave to rejoin his outfit before they ship out to the war theater. He has become cynical about the world ever since he worked as a civilian as an organist in a cinema, after attending college to study the organ. As they walk to town from the train station, Alison gets attacked by an unseen party who pours glue on her hair. We soon learn there’s someone in this village who is known as the “glue man” and that she’s the eleventh women he attacked at night. The three are angry enough to decide to ban together and catch the culprit.
In town the magistrate (justice of the peace) Thomas Colpepper (Eric Portman) arranges for Johnson to stay for free in a guest house and chides him for just going to movies while in England and not taking in the historical sights. Their priceless conversation goes like this: Colpepper: “Pity when you get home and people ask what you’ve seen in England and you say Well I saw a movie in Salisbury. And I made a pilgrimage to Canterbury and I saw another one.” Johnson laughs and replies: “You’ve got me all wrong. I know that in Canterbury I have to look out for a cathedral.” Colpepper: “Yes, do look out for it. It’s just behind the movie theater. You can’t miss it.”
The next day the trio attend Colpepper’s lecture on the history of the Pilgrims Way and the surrounding area. After the lecture their investigation leads to him being the glue man, whose motivation is so the local gals won’t waste their time dating the soldiers and the soldiers would be more keen in learning about the history of England and what their great country stands for.
The following day all four are on the train to Canterbury, with Alison and Johnson willing to forgive but Gibbs determined to see that justice is served to the eccentric judge (who otherwise is quite charming and knowledgeable). Over the hills in Canterbury, where 600 years ago the pilgrims came, the plotless film at last gets to something that links it with Chaucer and does it in such a bold and inventive way–making it one of those films you can fall in love with and are glad there are theaters around to see such films (in this case on DVD).
REVIEWED ON 7/27/2006 GRADE: A https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/