A Canterbury Tale


A Canterbury Tale Review

Virtually every film that Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger made together is a cult classic to some degree (with Peeping Tom a must-see). A Canterbury Tale is one of their lost classics, a quieter, smaller movie that has more heart and less dramatics than much of their later fare.

As the title suggests, the film is a sort of update of the Chaucer book, giving us four WWII-era pilgrims taking the train along the "old road" through southern England which winds up in Canterbury. The action begins with American soldier Bob Johnson (Sergeant John Sweet, credited thusly because he was a real sergeant) getting off at the wrong station on a foggy night. Turns out Canterbury is up the road a bit, and he's stuck in Chillingbourne for the evening, along with land girl Alison (Sheila Sim), and British soldier Peter (Dennis Price). The make out for the hotel but are soon waylaid by this small town's sole criminal enterprise: The Glue Man, who puts glue in women's hair and runs away unseen.

What eventually forms -- as Bob futilely tries to get on the train for Canterbury, a mere 10 minutes away -- is an analog for Chaucer's stories, set against the backdrop of war. They're all searchers, looking for something, and the answer to all their troubles can be found in Canterbury.

Unfortunately, the film is hampered by this ridiculous "Glue Man" story, which has a glue-covered Alison and her two pals playing Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys for a full hour of the film. The resolution of this subplot (which I won't reveal here) makes a pathetic anti-war/pro-small-town stab that just doesn't match up to the rest of the film. Frankly, it doesn't make all that much sense, either.

The other problem is Sweet, who begins the film is a quaint yokel soldier but, after two hours, starts to get on your nerves. His high voice and frequent peals of "goin' to Cannerbuhrree!" make you wonder why Alison doesn't ditch him on the first night, even if he does have a way with washing glue out of ladies' hair.

But I digress: The movie is gorgeous and soulful, the product of two gentlemen already figuring out some amazing camera tricks early in their career and comfortable with telling an offbeat story in a unique way. Even when you get sick of waiting for Bob and co. to figure out who the Glue Man is, at least you can sit back and look at the lovely English countryside -- the parts of it not destroyed by the Blitz, anyway.

The film arrives on a nifty Criterion set, complete with commentary from film historian Ian Christie, excerpts from an American version of the film (an awful new prologue and ending, featuring Kim Hunter), interview with Sims, and several documentaries about Canterbury and this movie. There's even a piece of video art called Listen to Britain, inspired by the film.

A Canterbury Tale

Facts and Figures

Run time: 95 mins

In Theaters: Friday 21st January 1949

Production compaines: Independent Producers, Archers, The


Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5

IMDB: 7.6 / 10

Cast & Crew

Starring: Eric Portman as Thomas Colpeper, JP, Sheila Sim as Alison Smith, as Peter Gibbs, as Bob Johnson, Charles Hawtrey as Thomas Duckett