A Canterbury Tale (1944, Powell & Pressburger)

The kind of movie that I appreciate more after watching it than during. Having read nothing about it beforehand, I spent much of the runtime wondering why P&P made a wartime movie about three strangers casually hanging out in a small country town near Canterbury, trying to solve the mystery of a man who throws glue in girls’ hair. Not that I minded, since it moves along at a fair pace and is lovely to look at, but as it was ending I finally realized it’s another kind of propaganda movie, better and more subtle than 49th Parallel, perhaps with a similar emotional development to The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (though it’s been a while since I’ve seen that one).

Of course, “more subtle than 49th Parallel” doesn’t mean it was a subtle movie, and I have a caveat about the pacing, too: John Sweet as Bob Johnson (not a film actor, but an actual U.S. army sergeant) delivers his lines with such cowboy cadence, I felt like I could’ve watched a whole other movie during the gaps between words.

On Bob’s way to Canterbury, a proper city with cathedrals and stuff, he gets waylaid in a small town, and a fellow traveler, here to relive a vacation she spent with her presumed-dead soldier fiancee, gets attacked by the glue man. To solve the mystery, the girl (Sheila Sim of Pandora and the Flying Dutchman) asks past glue victims in town for clues, Bob recruits the two warring armies of children (the film’s highlight, like a friendly Rome Open City) and their new British friend Peter (Dennis Price, who would return in Oh… Rosalinda!!) gets to know local historian Thomas Colpeper (Eric Portman of 49th Parallel and One of Our Aircraft is Missing). Colpeper turns out to be the glue man – of course, being the first-billed actor and the main personality about town – but the ‘why’ is more interesting than the ‘who.’ He’s trying to scare local girls from dating visiting soldiers while their own men are off at war. Colpeper has an all-around weird way of seeing things, maybe just too British for my understanding, but he’s not a bad fellow.

L-R: Bob, Sheila and Dennis

In the end our pilgrims make it to Canterbury and each receives a blessing: Bob finds out that his girl hasn’t been responding to his letters because she moved to Sydney, not because she’s leaving him. Dennis, a theater organist before the war, gets to play the Canterbury Cathedral organ. And Sheila finds out her man is still alive. I don’t know how to do the movie justice with my little plot descriptions – it was all very moving. Also notable for being the film that killed Margaret Mitchell. On her way to see it, she got run down by a drunk at Peachtree and 13th, a few miles from here.

P. Von Bagh:

A Canterbury Tale is about clues, not as in a detective story (although the search for the mysterious “glue man” almost qualifies it as one), but clues leading to what is most essential or, perhaps, the real “why we fight” of life: culture, landscape, history, the senses. These things are woven into a slight double narrative, simultaneously very rich and very absurd …

Why do we fight? This wartime question was given an impeccable, contemporary answer by the Frank Capra team, in the United States, and by the documentarian-poet Humphrey Jennings, in England. The Archers, though, were stretching the boundaries, as if reaching for another reality. The film seems to be strictly about the everyday, while at the same time dealing with things almost never touched upon in cinema. The immaterial made concrete by the camera work of Erwin Hillier. A wholly fantastic mise-en-scène by Powell, intriguing because he does exactly the same and more with “realist” and “documentary” material as with studio magic, and with a unique activation of human senses, made sacred through the purest means of cinema. And all this based on the strangest of scenarios, developed by the greatest writer of cinema (at least since F. W. Murnau’s Carl Mayer): Emeric Pressburger.

Eric Portman’s Colpeper can be ranked with another great Powell and Pressburger character, Anton Walbrook’s harsh/gentle impresario Boris Lermontov, in The Red Shoes (1948). Colpeper might expound his philosophy in a ruthless way, but he is certain that he is acting for the cause of Culture (as Lermontov does for the cause of Art), without compromise. For characters with such a twisted perception of the world, their fight can only be strange.

Shots below are from the prologue, which cuts forward hundreds of years, from a pilgrim watching his hunting falcon to a modern soldier watching a spitfire fighter, a possible influence on 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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