The Collection: A Canterbury Tale

#341 – A Canterbury Tale (1944)
– Dir. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

I don’t know jack about Chaucer and I don’t need to in order to enjoy this odd and beautiful film, written, directed and produced by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (AKA The Archers). It is part war film, part mystery, part propaganda and expressionistic in a romantic sort of way.

The film begins with a medieval prologue, an ode to Chaucer and his original tale of pilgrims traveling to Canterbury. We spend only a brief amount of time with merry men on the English countryside before a smash cut that would make Kubrick proud transforms the men into WWII soldiers and the peaceful birds into deadly bombers. And I understand that this is a story about how the past haunts the present.

The proper story begins after Sgt. Bob Johnson (John Sweet), “Land Girl” Alison (Sheila Sim), and Sgt. Gibbs (Dennis Price) find themselves in a small English town late one night, days before the Allied invasion. Sgt. Johnson is an American G.I. on furlough, trying to see the famous Canterbury Cathedral before he must report for duty. Alison is on her way to a job for the Women’s Land Army and Sgt. Gibbs is a British soldier stationed just outside of town. The three of them become fast friends and amateur sleuths when a mystery man pours glue in Alison’s hair. It turns out this “glue-man” has struck many times before and since neither one has anything better to do before their war begins, and out of sheer curiosity, they set about solving this crime.

It’s an odd crime and an odd way to tell this story, but I found it quite enthralling. Never mind the fact that the mystery is purposefully not mysterious, the joy of it is in the details. The pace is leisurely and allows you to immerse yourself in the small town way of life and particulars of the day-to-day. There’s also a running commentary about the little differences between the English and Americans (a quarter is a shilling, a Drug store is a grocer, etc.), used to great comic effect but also to further the theme (and encourage real Americans to get behind the war).

It all leads to a final confrontation that doesn’t really play out how you’d expect. The “glue-man’s” motives are either nuts or totally logical, but what’s really to be done? The real climax occurs when our three heroes finally arrive at Canterbury cathedral and each unexpectedly finds what they’ve been looking for (whether they knew it or not), granting some solace before the forthcoming horrors. It’s fascinating to watch a film about perspective with 60+ years worth myself. If the small town life was quaint back then (especially during a World War), it feels damn near ancient now. It may seem bittersweet, but it felt uplifting.

Grade: A-

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One response to “The Collection: A Canterbury Tale

  1. It seems such a truly quirky film now – and it really is all about the details as you say. I first saw it and really couldn’t get why it rated so highly, but years later it all seems to make sense – if you focus elsewhere than the narrative. Criterion seem to have selected a truly awful cover for their edition, what were they thinking?

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