A Canterbury Tale
Reviewed by Oliver William Pattenden

Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; written by Powell and Pressburger; cinematography by Erwin Hillier; edited by John Seabourne; staring Shelia Sim, Denis Price, Eric Portman and Sgt. John Sweet. DVD, B&W, 124 mins., 1944. Double-disc special edition also includes Listen to Britain, directed by Humphrey Jennings, B&W, 1941. A Criterion Collection release distributed by Image Entertainment, www.image-entertainment.com.

A Canterbury Tale (1944) was the most socially conscious of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s WWII films. The mild response to the film at the time of its release and subsequent commentary on its political ambiguities, coupled with a bizarre mystery plot, have led critics to doubt the film’s merits. Despite these drawbacks, the film is intriguing precisely because it merges elements of national mythmaking with a portrayal of British life during the war.  

The film opens with the prologue from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, but we soon are transported to 1943, thanks to creative editing, that both moves us forward in time and recontextualizes Chaucer’s theme of pilgrimage. An inventive cut switches a falcon in the fifteenth century for a Spitfire fighter plane in modern Kent. Here the migratory effects of the war have brought together three strangers, described as “modern pilgrims.” Allison (Shelia Sim), a member of the Women’s Land Army, Sgt. Bob Johnson (John Sweet), an American G.I. spending his furlough visiting Canterbury Cathedral, and Sgt. Peter Gibb, an upper-class British officer, meet by chance during a blackout on a train station platform one stop from Canterbury. As the trio walks towards town, a bizarre incident occurs in which a man pours glue into Allison’s hair and then disappears towards the town hall.

Arriving at the town hall, they learn that the “Glue Man” has assaulted several other girls, but a search of the building reveals only Thomas Colpeper, the Justice of the Peace (played superbly by Eric Portman). An eerie misogynist, and an echo of Chaucer’s dishonorable Pardoner, Colpeper at once raises our suspicions and quickly becomes the center of the pilgrims’ attention. They postpone their journey to Canterbury to solve the mystery of the “Glue Man.” As the outsiders discover clues of Colpeper’s guilt, they also learn of his staunch opinions on local culture and rural values and curious motivation for harassing women. The intimidated women remain in their homes and offer the resident soldiers no alternatives for entertainment than to listen to Colpeper pontificate on the virtues of Kent. The film’s resolution, however, does not prosecute Colpeper for his misdeeds. Rather, the film changes gears, and, in the final act, we see each of the protagonists, now in Canterbury, granted the hope and happiness that have been compromised by war in a series of ‘miracles.’ Despite predicting this event, Colpeper’s role is diminished to that of spectator.

The debate about the political ambiguities in the film essentially comes down to its treatment of Colpeper, who is viewed as a reactionary, corrupt character and at the same time an enigmatic, almost mystical figure, who leads the pilgrims to their blessings. He is both the villain of the film and the bearer of what is undeniably its central message.

The political intention of A Canterbury Tale was to encourage a reclamation of national identity to give the public further motivation to fight. The blessings present the characters with a second chance to recapture something of their prewar life that they thought had been lost and this acts as a reassurance that both the characters and the audience will return to normal living after the war. The political message of the film, however, is also infused with religious conservativism despite its Chaucer-like critique of the “Glue Man” magistrate. The Canterbury miracles celebrate a national landmark and cultural tradition that offers the protagonists hope for the future.

Perhaps the film fails to condemn Colpeper as a criminal because, despite his unusual practices, he still represents a particular type of nationalism. Cunningly, rather than ambiguously, Powell and Pressburger present a Britain in which there are multiple notions of national identity and, ergo, a variety of values for which to fight. The film does what the filmmakers intended, inspiring the public to bring together different value systems on the same side.

The film was also intended as propaganda to help the strained relationship between American G.I.’s and their British hosts.  In addition to featuring a collaboration between Britons and an American, The Archers (as Powell and Pressburger were known) intended to assuage ill feeling toward the soldiers. Sgt. Johnson proves to the English that not all Americans are inconsiderate and provides a courteous and engaged model for other G.I.’s inhabiting Britain. Despite the theme of nationalism, however, the film was too specific to its historical moment, the time before D-Day, to work as effective propaganda upon its release in August 1944. By this point the public was motivated by the success of Normandy and found the film’s sentiments obsolete. Critics chose to focus on the absurdity of the “Glue Man” plot, rather than on the political significance of the film.  With historical distance, however, we can view the film as an outstanding document of this period while Britain waited for the decisive stage in the war.

Visually, Powell constructed a stunning film, predominantly in the scenes featuring the landscape of his native Kent. Cinematographer Erwin Hillier’s noteworthy contribution provides some of the most pleasing moments in the film. His simple, rich style shines through on this exceptionally crisp transfer, particularly during the contemplative, painterly scenes in the countryside, such as the windswept encounter between Allison and Colpeper on the downs.

As with his excellent article on the film in The Cinema of Michael Powell, Ian Christie provides insight into the social context for the film on the disc’s audio commentary. Christie’s thoughtful and informed discussion of the historical circumstances and of the film’s production guides the listener towards an understanding of what The Archers were trying to achieve.

For the sake of completeness, The Criterion Collection DVD includes two bookend scenes from the American edit of the film, which reshape the film as “The Foreigner’s Tale,” through the eyes of Johnson. Recent video interviews with Shelia Sim and John Sweet offer the actors’ perspectives on the film. Sweet reflects on his position as an outsider (both as an amateur actor and as an American), and Sim addresses the production with professional insight, most interestingly in her reflections on Powell’s methods.

The most significant addition to the set is the inclusion of the 1941 documentary Listen to Britain by Humphrey Jennings, a veteran of Grierson’s documentary movement. This visually exciting and influential film about work and leisure in wartime Britain made a significant contribution to expanding the lyrical potential of the documentary film. While the inclusion of Jennings’s film may seem tangential to the work of The Archers, it does provide the viewer with a point of comparison, and there are few better wartime documentaries produced in Britain. As it happens, A Canterbury Tale does contain some notable marks of the realism associated with documentary films, including meditations on bombsites, the amateur performance of actual U.S. Sergeant John Sweet, and the perpetual presence of blimps on the English skyline.

All of these formal choices were included to make the viewer of the 1940’s aware that the film was set in the present, despite its medieval allusions and allegorical framework. The film’s most successful realistic device, however, is its rendering of wartime feelings of loss and uncertainty. The familiar sense of instability underscores the motivation for the “miracles” granted to the protagonists in the film’s conclusion. After capturing the poignancy (and stagnancy) of war in some remarkable sequences, The Archers offer an anxious Britain reassurance through the blessings of Canterbury, a symbol of Britain’s hope for salvation in the crisis of war.

Copyright © 2006 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXII, No. 1