A Canterbury Tale (1944)

“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. You ford the same rivers. The same birds are singing. When you lie flat on your back and rest, and watch the clouds sailing, as I often do, you’re so close to those other people, that you can hear the thrumming of the hoofs of their horses, and the sound of the wheels on the road, and their laughter and talk, and the music of the instruments they carried. And when I turn the bend in the road, where they too saw the towers of Canterbury, I feel I’ve only to turn my head, to see them on the road behind me.”

‘A Canterbury Tale’, directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in 1944, is a British movie following three young people in Kent during the war. Sheila Sim plays Alison Smith, a Land Girl who meets two soldiers: an American, Bob Johnson, played by John Sweet, and an English Sergeant called Peter Gibbs, played by Dennis Price. They stay in a small town near Canterbury and become involved in a local mystery. A man has been attacking women at night by pouring glue into their hair. Together they solve the puzzle and travel on to the city. It’s a focussed movie with a deceptively small scale story. The film is packed with metaphor and indirect propaganda. The three characters working together, the American, the British and the woman on the Home Front are clearly representative of the alliance of armies and the importance of civilians in the war, but it is the movie’s focus on landscape, rural customs, history and mythology that makes this film so distinctive. It feels very much like a ‘state of the nation’ narrative, using the Kent countryside and inhabitants to remind the viewer what the country is their fighting for. Framing this is the idea of pilgrimage and Christian spiritualism drawn from Chaucer that further develops this combination of synchronic and diachronic psychogeography. Coupled with ‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’ and ‘A Matter of Life and Death’, this movie is at the centre of a rounded and multi-dimensional cinematic reaction to the Second World War. Each time I approach a new Powell and Pressburger film I feel like it is my favourite, but I think taking these three as a trilogy means I don’t have to choose anymore.

Would I recommend it? Yes – I’d watch all three films in an epic British triple-bill.


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