A Canterbury Tale
August 4, 2006
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger updated Chaucer’s A Canterbury Tale by setting it during World War II (the film actually came out in 1944) – August 1943 to be exact, when U.S. soldiers were arriving in England in preparation for D-Day. Right from the start, Powell and Pressburger signify that this will be a contemporary adaptation by showing modern technology: a fighter jet flies through the sky followed by a convoy of tanks rumbling through the countryside, and a locomotive arrives at a station at night.
Three people meet at the train station by chance: Sergeant Bob Johnson (Sweet), a U.S. soldier, Sergeant Peter Gibbs (Price), a British soldier, and a land girl by the name of Alison Smith (Sim). They are modern pilgrims on their way to Canterbury with a brief interlude in the village of Chillingbourne. Sgt. Johnson missed his train to Canterbury while Alison has come to work on Thomas Colpeper’s (Portman) farm. They make their way through the darkened village streets to the town hall where the filmmakers use stunning expressionistic lighting, evoking film noir by playing with shadows and light to ominous effect. Gibbs goes on ahead by bus while Alison and the American stay overnight in the village.
Alison doesn’t get the job and becomes suspicious of Colpeper when she suspects that he may have been the person who threw glue in her hair the night she arrived in town. The next day, undaunted, she sets to work helping the villagers with various chores and makes herself at home. She and Sgt. Johnson get to talking and he opens up in a well-acted scene where he tells her about how his girlfriend doesn’t write him anymore. It’s a nice contrast to the early scenes where he comes off as a typically brash American who calls the stationmaster, “Pop” repeatedly. Johnson seems regretful and it gives his character added depth. She in turn tells him about her boyfriend, a pilot who was shot down and killed by the enemy. The conversation establishes a bond as they have both lost someone because of the war.
At first, Colpeper comes across as a rather pompous individual who runs the Colpeper Institute, a museum containing artifacts documenting the area’s ancient past going back 600 years. He also provides lectures on local history to the soldiers stationed in the area. Colpeper is the local magistrate and somewhat arrogant due to his local standing and initially we’re not quite sure what to make of him. Gibbs is also not what he seems as he initially comes off as an abrasive sort of fellow until we eventually learn that he gave up his dream of playing classical music to perform as a cinema organist, that is, when he’s not playing cards in the pub.
For awhile we follow Alison around as she finds her bearings and begins to work for an older woman. It’s at this point that the story takes a backseat to a series of amiable interludes in the middle of the film that are warm and inviting (in sharp contrast to the noirish night scenes) and extol the virtues of rural life and scenes that subtly suggest Ally propaganda as we see the American and British soldiers pal around with each other as if to say we’re all in this together.
However, the idyllic setting is shattered by the arrival of an armoured personnel carrier ridden by Sgt. Gibbs as Powell and Pressburger remind us of the war’s existence. A Canterbury Tale is a majestically crafted ode to England as an Eden-esque haven with a countryside village as a respite from the horrors of the war, complete with afternoons spent playing catch with an apple or the simple visual splendor of the wind blowing through a beautiful woman’s hair ever so gently. This is a comfort film of the highest order, something to curl up and watch on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
The first disc features an audio commentary by film historian Ian Christie. Before being restored in the late 1970s, A Canterbury Tale was one of their least seen movies because it was hard to find. While the film was propagandistic it is also described by Christie as “perverse” and “playful” by being indirect, just like Powell and Pressburger’s literary heroes. Christie discusses Chaucer’s Canterbury Tale and its relation to the film. He also puts the movie in a historical perspective while doing an excellent job of dissecting its style and themes in a fairly engaging and informative way.
“American Version Excerpts.” The film was initially a financial failure in the U.K. and Michael Powell re-edited it for the U.S. market, taking out 20 minutes shooting a new prologue and a scene near the end (that is included on this disc) that has most of the story of the film as a flashback told by Sgt. Johnson to his new wife, played by Kim Hunter.
The second disc starts off with a “Sheila Sim Interview” that was conducted in February 2006. She talks about how she met Powell and Pressburger and recounts several anecdotes making the movie. Sim also talks about her character and speaks admiringly of her co-stars.
“John Sweet: A Pilgrim’s Return” is a 2001 documentary about Sweet’s first visit back to Canterbury since making the film in 1943. He gives his impressions of what the town was like in 1943 and how much it has changed since. Sweet speaks candidly of his cinematic naiveté at the time in this engaging extra.
“A Canterbury Trail” is a walking tour of the film’s locations conducted by local historian Paul Tritton and Powell and Pressburger aficionado Steve Crook. Powell actually grew up in the area where the film was made, making it a particularly personal project. This extra juxtaposes clips from the film with the actual locations.
“Listening to Britain” is a seven minute video installation piece made by English artist Victor Burgin in 2001 inspired by the film and Humphrey Jennings’ World War II documentary of the same name. Both are included. Burgin’s piece consists of a montage of idyllic shots of the country evoking the film with a clip of Alison looking around in wonderment.