Cine Outsider header
Left bar Home button Disc reviews button Film reviews button Articles button Blogs button Interviews button Interrviews button
A Canterbury Tale
A region 2 DVD review from THE POWELL & PRESSBURGER COLLECTION by Camus
"There are a lot of funny things in the world."
Alison, the Land Girl in A Canterbury Tale


She's not kidding.

For years I have had A Canterbury Tale on VHS and I had not made time for it (Slarek will vouch for my seeming inability to have seen what should be nourishing Camus-food, classics, old or recent – if a recent classic isn't an oxymoron, Disney take note). So its inclusion in this terrific HMV Box Set was somewhat thrilling for me; an unseen P&P classic (and that can mean and promise so much).

I remembered an odd line from Powell's autobiography. It concerned the script of A Canterbury Tale and its casting. The P&P rule is usually 'Cast Livesey and slide…' Well, they sent the script to Livesey and in Powell's book, he says "Roger didn't understand the part and because he didn't understand it, he found it distasteful." Interesting and in some ways fiscally prescient. A Canterbury Tale (despite its status now and the respect it draws from certain quarters) was a pretty substantial flop on its maiden distribution voyage. People didn't get it. Other people, long after the film was made, 'got it' and subsequently revered it. I (for my terrible sins) still don't get it…

Oh, the pain just to write those words…

I'm still in a sort of stupor after seeing it and my decidedly odd emotional response has nothing to do with the film's greatness, status as a classic nor my recognition of a film making pair at the height of their powers (after all, this was made shortly after the extraordinary Life and Death of Colonel Blimp). No. It's because the movie is so un-movie-like. It's more like a leisurely visual poem which ambles along like an uncoordinated puppy. And maybe that is precisely the point. I'm so confused by its status that I freely admit to being in two minds about it, the very definition of ambivalent. For almost two hours, a little voice (trilling from an angel on one shoulder) kept on saying "Where are the Archers going with this?" and the lobster complexioned guy on my other shoulder was growling "Shut it. This is P&P… In the end it'll all be worth it." Well, it's a satisfying conclusion (it really is) with enough of an emotional punch but I sit here bemused with thoughts of the Glue Man and the three unlikely detectives who tumbled him. If you think that last sentence sounds odd, you ain't read nuthin' yet.

A synopsis is going to sound just as utterly mad but here goes (and forgive me if this sounds like the start of a very silly joke). There was an English girl, an American and an Englishman… No seriously. We have a period Chaucerian opening starting with those great lines in an English language now long gone but not forgotten.

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote

Get a Chaucer academic to read it aloud. It sounds great! You want to know what all of it means? Google it. We even have our Chaucerian characters on their pilgrimage to Canterbury to be blessed. There is a fine '600 years later' series of cuts somewhat belittled by the narrator actually saying "600 years later…" It's a little like Heyward Floyd intoning "Several million years later…" over the cut from bone to spaceship in 2001. So now in the present day (1944) set in the middle of the 2nd World War in the verdant countryside of Kent, an American sergeant gets off at Chillingbourne by mistake, one stop short of where he needs to be, Canterbury. Alison, a Land Girl (one of the women whose war effort was to work hard at farm-based manual labour all over the country), is also on her own pilgrimage to find work after losing her sweetheart to enemy action. These two team up with a British soldier and organist (I know, I know, don't ask me) who dreams of playing in a church not merely accompanying silent pictures in cinemas. He's now (as are most males his age in this turbulent time in history) an enlisted man. This odd threesome venture in the dark towards local lodgings (instructed by train guard Charles Hawtrey of the 'Carry On' fame.) and Alison is attacked, her hair smeared in glue. The Glue Man has struck! I have found myself, with A Canterbury Tale, on the wrong end of a critical stick.

Okay. So now I'm thinking there has to be a suitably surreal pay off and I remember the title card of the movie. It's not just A Canterbury Tale, it's "Eric Portman in A Canterbury Tale". So where's Eric? Flash forward a few decades or so and we find Mr. Portman in the Village as No. 2 in one of The Prisoner's finest episodes, Free For All. His clipped delivery and stiff physicality is evidence of an old school acting style but it does paint a very vivid character portrait of the local magistrate, Colpeper, head cheese of Chillingworth. The performances of the leads has to be seen from the context of the time in which it was made. The American (who was a real soldier I'm led to believe) has that loud, brash swagger about him (even when he's being humble) and his acting is overstated and would stand out like (forgive me, Raymond Chandler) a tarantula on a slice of angel cake. But then, this was the mid-forties. And in this odd, surreal, amiable amble through England's green and pleasant land, his presence was necessary and as stiff backed as his performance is, he still has a way about him which is eminently watch-able.

Our three 'detectives' set out to find the 'Glue Man'. The American stumbles upon an intelligence source (the local kids playing war games, a charming scene that has its own magic). After the inevitable 'j'accuse', we realise that… Perhaps this is where I put a spoiler alert. We realise that a profound appreciation of the special location has been eroded by the war and the ham fisted attitudes of the stationed American soldiers. In order to preserve what Colpeper places value on, he has deliberately tried to put off visitors so he could teach the soldiers what he loves about the place he has made his home. So he puts glue in visiting women's hair. OK…

I have to finally admit that I really did enjoy the movie but I kept on remarking to no one in particular (there was no one with me at the time) that I just didn't understand what the fuss was about. I could so easily sympathise with Powell's 1944 audience at the time of its initial release. No matter. P&P are still gods in my pantheon of cinema greats. And then along comes some odd Australian comedy, the writer of which (Mr. Pressburger), feels the need for a pseudonym. They're A Weird Mob may be the last movie Powell and Pressburger worked on as a partnership but it doesn't feel like an Archers movie. In fact my reaction to it is even more skewed than my reaction to A Canterbury Tale. More on that over on its own page.

sound and vision

Framed 4:3, this is a sharp black and white transfer with a modest smattering of neg damage (some transit lines but mostly sparkle). The contrast is consistently good throughout. And again (sorry to repeat myself) but the sound is mono and solid with fine Dolby Digital 2.0 clarity. The soundtrack only really grates a little when the orchestra gets very orchestral (inside the cathedral and on a walk towards the cathedral) and the mix is almost too loud for its own good. Curiously there are no subtitles which is weird (but true to form if it really is a redressed and repackaged cheapo Silver Collection version, which it is). A pity.

extra features

Hah! Extras, schmextras. It says Trailer and you click on it and it's a bloody trailer for the distribution company not of the actual feature. That's low.

A Canturbury Tale
The Powell & Pressburger Collection

UK 1944
120 mins
Michael Powell
Emeric Pressburger
Eric Portman
Sheila Sim
Dennis Price
Sergeant John Sweet
Charles Hawtrey

DVD details
region 2 .
Dolby mono 2.0
English for the hard of hearing
review posted
3 October 2005

The Powel & Pressburger Collection
A Matter of Life and Death
The Red Shoes
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
I Know Where I'm Going
A Canterbury Tale
They're a Weird Mob
49th Parallel
Battle of the River Plate
Ill Met By Moonlight

See all of Camus's reviews