A Canterbury Tale: Criterion Collection Review

A cut between a medieval hawk and a WWII Spitfire right at the start of A Canterbury Tale, immediately signals the essential English qualities of this early film from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, a film once almost lost to obscurity, but rediscovered in the 1970s. In a leap of 600 years the jump cut links the historic mystical quality of a part of England that in olden time would draw pilgrims from all over the country with a new kind of pilgrimage that draws people to there on account of the war.

Three of these new pilgrims displaced by the war find themselves meeting at the train station of Chillingbourne, a sleepy little village in East Kent. Alison Smith (Sheila Sim) has moved out to be a land girl on the estate of the local magistrate Mr Colpeper (Eric Portman), helping the war effort by doing vital work in the country. Bob Johnson (John Sweet) is a US sergeant, on his way to London via Canterbury to meet an army colleague, but he has alighted at the wrong station. Peter Gibbs (Dennis Price) is a British soldier, also a sergeant, down to join-up with the large number of troops amassing there for a secret military manoeuvre. Despite having the company of two soldiers, Alison is however assaulted by a strange character who takes advantage of the blackout to smear glue into her hair, before making an escape in the direction of the town hall. On their brief stay in the village, they are determined to uncover the identity of the notorious Glue Man, who has attacked many other young girls in the area, and also understand the mystery behind his strange behaviour.

Each of the three characters are troubled by events from their past, without being completely aware of how much it has affected them. Alison has been to that part of the country before and is aware of its famous heritage as a route of pilgrimage for hundreds of years. She once spent a summer there in a caravan with her fiancé, a geologist who has since died in the war. Her journey back there will take her back to Canterbury, where the caravan has been held in storage at a garage. The US soldier Bob hasn’t received any mail from his girlfriend since he has been posted abroad and fears the worst. Delayed by his error with the train stations, he arranges to meet his colleague in Canterbury instead of travelling all the way to London. Peter, the British soldier worked as a civilian as an organist in a cinema, never achieving his ambition to be a church organist. He makes the journey to Canterbury with the rest of his company who are about to be shipped off to join the war. The trip to Canterbury bestows a blessing on each of these modern-day pilgrims.

A Canterbury Tale is essentially a wartime propaganda film, but through the artistry of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger it achieves far much more that that. Certainly, the film celebrates the war effort by the women of the country, Alison’s investigations into the Glue Man’s activities bringing her into contact with other strong independent women, doing heavy work on the farms, delivering the mail, and operating the railway junctions. Alison herself is described by Bob as “needing about as much help as a Flying Fortress”. The film also brings together people from the country and the town, troops from America and the UK, and shows them all finding a means of working together, being involved in something productive, attending lectures and gaining a knowledge of the history of the countryside, respecting its heritage and thereby understanding what it is they are fighting for. Incredibly (and controversially) in a quintessentially English manner, it’s through the trivial little affair of the Glue Man mystery and a village populated by lovable eccentrics, rather than through any wartime action heroics, that Powell and Pressburger invest the film with this serious purpose and ideal.

This light-hearted and curiously paced manner in which the three characters make their practically accidental and haphazard “pilgrimage” to Canterbury belies the force with which the filmmakers achieve the blessings that are bestowed upon them. Through mystical plays of light, an accompaniment of Allan Gray’s celestial music supplemented by Bach’s ‘Toccata and Fugue’, a hymn and a rousing procession of soldiers through the streets of Canterbury, Powell and Pressburger help each of the characters achieve an earthly epiphany, much in the manner that they would later bestow upon their characters in A Matter of Life and Death, I Know Where I’m Going! and Black Narcissus. Beyond the obvious earthly boons they receive at the end of the film, what they have really gained through their encounter with the Glue Man is the partaking in the shared spiritual experience of the heavenly beauty of Michael Powell’s beloved Kent countryside.

A Canterbury Tale

is released as a 2-disc set in the United States as part of the Criterion Collection. The DVD is in NTSC format and is encoded for Region 1. The set contains the usual beautifully illustrated booklet, with several good essays on the film, and a reminiscence of the making of the film by John Sweet.

A Canterbury Tale, as one might expect from Criterion, has been lovingly restored for its DVD transfer. Handsomely photographed by Erwin Hillier in black and white with Powell’s customary use of darkness, shadow, backlit silhouettes and chiaroscuro shots, whites are luminous and blacks deep and detailed. The image overall looks remarkably clear, sharp and detailed, with little in the way of marks or scratches. There are one or two extant tramline scratches, and only one little frame skip in the whole film. The restoration however can’t do much about the occasional flicker in brightness that give the impression of mild unsteadiness, but the larger part of the film is quite stable. There is scarcely any visible grain, and often remarkable detail, even in small objects in wide shots. Criterion however continue their baffling practice of window boxing their transfers with a small black border all around for the sake of anyone who doesn’t have a properly calibrated TV to eliminate overscan. For anyone else, it’s pointless. You can petition Criterion to stop this ill-considered practice of shrinking the image, which no other DVD production company operate, at this link - Petition.

The audio track, presented in Dolby Digital 1.0 mono through the centre channel, has undoubtedly also been restored and, although it shows its age in a slight roughness and remnant of background noise, it’s clear and audible with no distortion.

Optional English hard of hearing subtitles are provided in a white font. They might also prove useful to American viewers who could struggle with some of the dialect and accents in the film. There are no subtitle on the extra features.

The commentary track by British film historian Ian Christie, is outstanding. It’s meticulously researched, prepared and informative about the historical details of the period, placing the film within the context of Powell and Pressburger other works (which isn’t done anywhere else on the extra features) and providing background information on the cast and crew. It’s also delivered in a modest and unpretentious manner that is eminently listenable.

American Version Excerpts
After its relative failure in the UK, the film was reedited for American release, losing some twenty minutes, but gaining a new Prologue (6:11) and reworked Ending Sequence (6:13), presenting the film as a flashback and introducing Kim Hunter into the film. Neither of these benefits the film in any way, but it is fabulous that Criterion have included them here for completeness.

Sheila Sim Interview (20:06)
Now Lady Attenborough, the actress recalls in a new 2005 interview how she was cast for the film and recounts her memories of working with Michael Powell on the set, as well as her impressions of what the film achieved.

John Sweet: A Pilgrim’s Return (22:30)
Filmed in 2001, Sweet is interviewed in the coffee-shop location at the end of the film. Now seemingly a Starbucks, it says rather a lot about how the times have changed, something Sweet is able to recognise coming back and seeing the film in its full form for the first time in many years. He also talks about his how the film affected his own personal outlook on life.

A Canterbury Trail (23:42)
This is a documentary film of one of the walking tours of A Canterbury Tale locations for devotees of the film and those nostalgic for the lost England it depicts. There are a few too many amateur reconstructions of scenes from the film, but you get a good idea from this of what the film means to people.

Listening To Britain
This contains a video installation piece by Victor Burgin - Listen To Britain (7:00), inspired by A Canterbury Tale and a 1942 documentary by Humphrey Jennings of the same name. Burgin’s feature is 7 minutes long, but runs in a loop as it was intended for art gallery exhibition. It’s your typical art installation nonsense. The Jennings documentary Listen To Britain (18:14) however is also included and is much more evocative of the qualities evoked by the film and the wartime period.

Comparison with French Edition
A 2-disc French edition of A Canterbury Tale is also available. A comparison between it and the Criterion can be found here.

Filmed as a wartime propaganda film, A Canterbury Tale is nonetheless suffused with the love of the director Michael Powell for the beloved countryside Kent locations that he grew up in as a child. It’s partly the nostalgic elements of the film, of a lost old England of country blacksmiths and gentlemen farmers, and the community spirit of everyone pulling together that give Pressburger and Powell’s film a great deal of its charm. The Archer’s evocation of the place and the people is certainly idealised and overly reverential, not to mention a little too reactionary for my liking, but it is the manner in which they convey those qualities that makes the film so remarkable. The quintessential Englishness of the locations are found in the unusual pacing and the sheer eccentricity of the bizarre mystery at the heart of the film itself, as well as in the remarkable ending which comes quite out of nowhere and lifts the film onto a higher artistic plane. Criterion’s edition of the film is marvellous – a fine quality transfer with some fine extra features and hindsight interviews which put it all into strong historical perspective.

8 out of 10
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