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The delightful British film A Canterbury Tale did not do well upon its initial release in 1944 and has been somewhat sadly neglected over the years in large part because it's so difficult to pin down. It's not really a mystery or thriller, although the plot revolves around solving a bizarre criminal act; it's not exactly a war story, although it takes place in England right before D-Day; and it's not simply a romance, although there are love stories central to the plot. It is also not easily classified as a comedy, although there is humor and a certain poignant whimsicality about it. If the previous description is not commercially viable, it should be enough to say that this very British, thoroughly captivating tale is at heart about faith, hope, miracles, the glories of English life and traditions, and (quite appropriate for its title and setting) pilgrimages. It's also well worth a viewing as the work of two of the British cinema's leading talents, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
Three train passengers - an American GI, a British soldier, and a "land girl" (part of the UK force of young women dispatched to agricultural jobs while men were off fighting the war)-find themselves in a small Kent town along the road to Canterbury when the girl becomes the eleventh victim of the strange "Glue Man," who goes about smearing glue into the hair of young English women he catches in the company of American military men. The three begin to investigate the mystery and in the process explore the local countryside, its history and tales of pilgrims. As the trio eventually converges on Canterbury Cathedral, they receive unexpected "blessings," bestowing each one's most fervent wish. The ups and downs of this multi-layered plot celebrate the heritage and future of England and its spiritual roots in the countryside, bringing a mystical quality to a story of war that, despite its setting at the famous Christian cathedral, is almost more pagan in quality, particularly in the character of the fairytale ogre, "Glue Man."
Following on the heels of three wartime hits-49th Parallel (1941), One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942), and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)-this was the first production of the writing-directing team that was not a major box office success. It also had poor reviews initially in the UK press. In contrast to the earlier war pictures, A Canterbury Tale is thematically and pictorially closer to the films in which Powell explored his fascination with the mystical power of landscape, as in "I Know Where I'm Going!" (1945) and Black Narcissus (1947), and as such it has a certain mysticism to it that audiences and critics of the time, deeply immersed in the harsh realities of the war, were not at first ready to accept. Even after the war, the picture suffered from the studio's insistence that Powell re-edit it for release in the US, cutting more than 20 minutes (including an opening that depicted Chaucer's famous pilgrims on their way to Canterbury with a seamless segue into the war years), adding narration by Raymond Massey, and shooting bookend scenes with Kim Hunter as the American soldier's postwar girlfriend, apparently to make it feel more contemporary and palatable to Stateside audiences.
Nevertheless, A Canterbury Tale has grown in respect and admiration over the years as one of the most personal and idiosyncratic releases by the famous team. Pressburger later called it his favorite of all their films. It was fully restored by the British Film Institute in the late 1970s; the new print was hailed as a masterwork of British cinema and has since been re-issued on DVD in both the UK and US. There have been festivals and exhibitions in Canterbury honoring the film and Powell (who was born and raised in the Kent countryside depicted so lovingly in the movie), during which fans tour the locations. Today, the film counts among its admirers producer-director Steven Spielberg.
Powell captured many exterior shots of his beloved Kent countryside, as well as numerous bombsites in Canterbury, which had been terribly damaged during the infamous Baedeker raids of May and June 1942. Filming could not take place in the cathedral itself because the stained glass windows had been removed and boarded up for their own protection and the organ, which figures prominently in the climax of the story, had been placed in storage. Art director Alfred Junge used clever perspective to recreate portions of the building's vast interior in the studio. The cathedral bells seen in the opening and closing shots were a miniature replica of Canterbury's tower that allowed the camera to track up to and through them. The miniatures were "rung" by actual professional bell ringers pulling strings with fingers and thumbs timed to a playback recording of the real bells.
Roger Livesey, so memorable in the lead of Colonel Blimp, turned down the role of town magistrate Colpeper; the role was taken by Eric Portman, who had appeared in both 49th Parallel and One of Our Aircraft Is Missing. The rest of the principals were less known. Sheila Sim made her film debut as the land girl, a role Powell and Pressburger had planned to give Deborah Kerr, who became unavailable after signing a contract with MGM. The part of the American GI was given to a real soldier, Sgt. John Sweet, an American stationed in England and spotted by Powell in a production of Our Town that was touring military bases. It was Sweet's only film role; he returned to teaching in the US after the war. The young British recruit was played by Dennis Price, fairly new to films at the time, who went on to a long career, and is best remembered today as the unflappable serial killer in the comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949).
Many local people, including a lot of young boys and a family of wheelwrights, were recruited as extras for the extensive outdoor scenes. The part of Thomas Duckett was played by Charles Hawtrey, a well-known comic actor and frequent performer in the long-running Carry On... movie series. Fans of the Beatles may recognize the name from the bit of funny studio chatter by John Lennon at the opening of the "Let It Be" album ("I dig a pygmy, by Charles Hawtrey..."). Lennon was most likely referencing this actor and not the Edwardian stage actor-manager Sir Charles Hawtrey, from whom the comic player took his screen name.
The world premiere of A Canterbury Tale took place in May 1944 at a theater in Canterbury. That event was later commemorated with a plaque unveiled by stars Sim and Sweet in October 2000 (Price and Portman had passed away by then). The movie was screened in the cathedral nave in September 2007 to help raise money for the building's restoration fund.
A bit of gruesome trivia about this movie: Margaret Mitchell, the author of Gone with the Wind, was on her way to see it in 1949 when she was hit by a taxi while crossing an Atlanta street. She died of her injuries a short time later.
Directors, Producers, Screenplay: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Cinematography: Erwin Hillier
Editing: John Seabourne
Production Design: Alfred Junge
Original Music: Allan Gray
Cast: Eric Portman (Colpeper), Sheila Sim (Alison Smith), Dennis Price (Peter Gibbs), Sgt. John Sweet (Bob Johnson), Esmond Knight (Narrator/Seven-Sisters Soldier/Village Idiot).
By Rob Nixon