A CANTERBURY TALE is a film by the legendary English writer/director team of Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger (The Red Shoes) made in 1944. Until fairly recently I hadn't seen a Powell & Pressburger film (with the exception of Powell's solo effort "Peeping Tom") and this is only my second (after my English friend Weaverman graciously sent me this and "The Red Shoes" . . . and others I still have to watch. . .thank you, Weaverman). Much like "The Red Shoes" -- in fact, even more so -- the only thing I can say about "A CANTERBURY TALE" is that it is indescribable. It's excellent, yes. Very probably a masterpiece as well. But I can't for the life of me tell you what kind of film it is.
Obviously the title comes from the Geoffrey Chaucer book of six centuries ago. You might be forgiven for thinking that's what the film is about; especially since the film starts with the medieval pilgrim's of Chaucer's tale setting out on the road to Canterbury. However, things aren't what they seem as a man releases a falcon into the sky which suddenly changes into an airplane. With that beautiful, effortless cut we have bridged the river of time from the Middle Ages to World War II-era England. That plane is a fighter plane and England is at war. I deliberately used the metaphor of a river for time since that's one of the things the movie seems to be telling us: time flows ever onward and connects us with the past (and the future). Something else that rather chugs along is the train; and it is a train which deposits three strangers on a platform at night: "land girl" Alison Smith (Sheila Sim), British soldier Peter Gibbs (Dennis Price) and American soldier Bob Johnson (Sgt. John Sweet). The train platform (and many other scenes in the film) is practically in total darkness due to wartime blackouts. This filming in mostly blackness with tiny spots of illumination is fearless, in my opinion, of the directors and superb cinematographer William Hilliers. Well, as our newly-met trio begins to walk off in search of lodgings, an unseen assailant known locally as "The Glue Man" attacks Alison by pouring glue on her hair. That's right, you heard me. Many local women have been attacked at night by "The Glue Man" and Alison (accompanied by the two soldiers) vow to find out who this freakish assailant is and why he's doing (or is that "glueing") this to women. This is certainly a bizarre plot point to hang a movie on; and in fact it's not even the point of the movie -- although it takes us till the final reel before we realize that fully. "The Glue Man" is, in fact, what Hitchcock called a "macguffin" which sets the events of the movie in motion but really doesn't matter for what the film is trying to say.
"A Canterbury Tale" unfolds as leisurely as a sunny English afternoon in the country . . . and that's the whole point. The "Old" England is very much center stage as we see fields and farms, horse-drawn wagons and wheelrights and many shots of the endless English sky. While the film does in fact seem leisurely, it never flags. The film itself is travelling a road just as much as Chaucer's pilgrims did; both pilgrims and film are moving steadily but surely toward a deliberate destination. But I don't mean to suggest that this leisurely pace means the film is slow-moving; on the contrary, it's positively gripping in spots and totally engrossing for the viewer. This leads me back to why the film is engrossing and what exactly it's about. Well, even though the mystery of the "glue man" is important and fascinating, the film isn't a mystery. It's certainly not a romance; while any other movie would've had Alison (whose true love was killed in the war) and Bob (whose girlfriend back in America has stopped writing and ignored his letters) hook up, there's none of that here. The film's certainly not an action/adventure story and, while it takes place during the height of World War II, I wouldn't call it a "war film" either. Although it is. But not really. The war is indeed ever present (especially in one scene where an idyllic wide shot of an English field features actual zeppelins and anti-aircraft balloon thingies overhead -- the film WAS made during the war, after all).
Actually, while "A Canterbury Tale" is not a mystery film or a romance or a war film, it IS at the same time. I can't really describe it other than to say it is extremely well-made and perhaps it is and it isn't these things owes something to the fact that it isn't cliched or predictable. One more thing the film is and isn't is patriotic. Not in the flag-waving, chest-beating unpleasant way MOST patriotic films are but in a gentle, common-sense, clear-eyed way that simply "IS" without having to shout about it. The celebration of the English countryside shown in the film is in itself enough of a reason for the English to defend the land from all comers. "A Canterbury Tale" is also an extremely spiritual film but not in a "religious" way -- if that makes any sense. Above all, I'd have to say the film is very VERY human. None of the characters is saccharine or simplistic but economically multi-dimensional with very little effort on the part of the script. The lines spoken by the characters are so well-chosen that the viewer has a very good grasp on each character almost immediately. Talk about economical, precise writing!
The film itself is really greater than the sum of it's parts (although those parts are superb without exception) which is probably why it's so difficult to say why exactly the film is so good. The writing and direction by Powell & Pressburger are matchless, Hillier's B&W cinematography is magnificent (we're talking "Citizen Kane" territory here: from the near-blackout conditions of some scenes where figures are shown in silhouette to the wonderful, airy, sunlit outdoor shots of Kent and Canterbury), the art direction by Alfred Junge is unbelieveable (apparently the interior of Canterbury cathedral was a SET! I still don't believe it!) and the acting is without exception wonderful and moving. Sheila Sim as Alison Smith is the personification of the British spirit during the blitz: she is never maudlin or soppy despite losing her love but has a strength and determination to carry on no matter what -- while still remaining human and warm and inwardly vulnerable. Ms. Sim would later go on to become Lady Attenborough in real life. Dennis Price makes his feature film debut as Peter Gibbs and is quite fine in the role. Real-life U.S. soldier Sgt. John Sweet makes his one and only film appearance as Bob Johnson; Sweet was not a professional actor but is actually quite effective in the role -- his sincerity carries the part. Sweet's voice is also practically identical to Red Skelton's -- only pitched a little higher. Top early-40's box office draw Eric Portman is suitably complex and mysterious as Thomas Colpeper. It was also nice to see some other well-known British character actors (at an incredibly young age) such as Charles Hawtrey (of, among other things, "Carry On Screaming") and Freda Jackson (memorable in Hammer's "Brides of Dracula"). The whole film really is excellent and the ending is magnificent: surprising, uplifting and wholly satisfying. Just like Chaucer's pilgrims, our four main protagonists converge on Canterbury cathedral in four different but interconnecting paths. "A Canterbury Tale" gets high marks. . .if only I could better explain why.