A Canterbury Tale
Written and Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
The Archers/Independent Producers
First viewing/Netflix rental
Thomas Colpeper, JP: Well, there are more ways than one of getting close to your ancestors. Follow the old road, and as you walk, think of them and of the old England. They climbed Chillingbourne Hill, just as you. They sweated and paused for breath just as you did today. And when you see the bluebells in the spring and the wild thyme, and the broom and the heather, you’re only seeing what their eyes saw.
Powell and Pressburger made a haunting and magical film about young people starting out life in wartime from a very odd detective story involving the identity of the “Glue Man”.
The film begins with a short prelude featuring pilgrims to Canterbury in Chaucer’s time.
Three young people get off a train at Chillingbourne, a small Kentish town which is the stop before Canterbury. Two of them intended to – Sgt. Peter Gibbs (Dennis Price, Kind Hearts and Coronets), who is getting ready to be shipped overseas from the local military base, and Alison Smith (Sheila Sim), who has come as part of the Women’s Land Army to work on the farm of Thomas Colpeper (oft-time Nazi Eric Portman, The 49th Parallel). Sgt. Bob Johnson (non-actor Sgt. John Sweet) of the American Army was actually headed for Canterbury on leave but jumped the gun at the wrong stop. He is now stuck in Chillingbourne until the next morning. They are told that they must report to Colpeper, the local magistrate, before going to a local inn for the night.
In the darkness, Alison is almost immediately attacked by a man in uniform who pours glue on her hair. He is the notorious Glue Man, and has struck ten times before. When they arrive to meet Culpeper, he is affable but refuses to keep Alison to work on his farm, not considering a woman to be farm labor. Peter is off to the base but Bob stays on in a room in which Elizabeth I once slept and Alison is boarded at the same inn. Alison is hired for the farm of the manageress of the inn. Having nothing a lot better to do, Bob agrees to stay on for the day and help Alison with her investigation of the Glue Man. He proves to be a dogged detective. The investigation runs through the length of the film.
The actual theme develops from the back stories of these people and their interaction with the beautiful and ancient landscape. Alison camped in a caravan near the village with her archeologist fiancé three years earlier. He became a pilot and went missing with his airplane. Alison has an almost mystical connection to the place. Bob is a fish out of water, who is heartbroken over his failure to get any mail from his girl, but is like a sponge absorbing everything about his surroundings. Peter is a sophisticated Londoner who has little use for the countryside. He was an academically trained organist who could find work only in a cinema before the war. Thomas Culpeper is also the town magistrate and rides circuit trying cases. He is also a history buff, outdoor enthusiast, and philosopher who lectures servicemen about the area. Culpeper and Alison have a natural sympathy. It is not spoiling anything to say he is the prime suspect in the “Glue Man” case.
One day, the trajectory of all these people puts them on the train to Canterbury. Peter is on the way to turn Culpeper into the police. The three share a compartment with Culpeper. He tells them pilgrims went to Canterbury to get blessings or do penance. All our young people are profoundly changed by their brief stay in the cathedral town.
It is incredibly refreshing to see a film involving young men and women who have an agenda outside their love lives. They are all struggling in a some way to come to grips with the war and with their own coming of age.
This is like a love letter to Britain. It is exquisitely filmed. The shots of the interior of the cathedral, which were all made in the studio, are breathtaking. The countryside scenes are also achingly beautiful. With the exception of John Sweet, who can charitably be described as earnest but somehow moving, the acting is superb. Most of all I appreciated the mood of the thing. The ending sequence gave me the chills.
Sweet’s acting is one of this films few drawbacks, though I came to like him. (Burgess Meredith had been picked for the part but was injured.) Some viewers might also have a problem with the very strange resolution of the detective story. At any rate, I urge anyone who has not seen this to give it a chance.