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A CANTERBURY TALE

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Sheila Sim, John Sweet, Dennis Price, Eric Portman
Directors: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Audio: English monaural
Subtitles: English
Video: Black & white, 1.33:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: Commentary, film excerpts, Sheila Sim interview, A Pilgrim's Return, A Canterbury Trail, Listen to Britain documentaries, booklet
Length: 124 minutes
Release Date: July 25, 2006

"Though so little's changed since Chaucer's day, another kind of pilgrim walks the way."

Film ****

Rarely, a director-producer team proves to be so artistically complementary and attuned with one another that we can scarcely imagine one-half without the other.  The collaborations of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory or Joel Coen with his brother Ethan Coen are two such modern-day examples, but surely one of the greatest filmmaking partnership ever was that between Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

Of the two men, Powell generally handled the directorial duties, while Pressburger produced and scripted many of their films together.  Today, Michael Powell is considered one of England's greatest directors, comparative even to Alfred Hitchcock (and possessing a taskmaster's similarly patronizing views of actors, too).  Powell was an innovator unafraid of tackling complex themes on-screen, and he was also a visual genius, equally at home with black & white cinematography as with color, especially Technicolor.  Emeric Pressburger was Hungarian by birth but fled to England following the rise of the Nazi regime in Europe.  Working as a screenwriter, Pressburger initially met Michael Powell in the late 1930's.  The pair worked together for the first time with 1939's The Spy in Black, and their subsequent collaboration would eventually encompass nearly two dozen films.

In the early 1940's, Powell and Pressburger formed their own independent production company, The Archers.  No longer would these filmmakers have to compromise artistry integrity or quality for the limited imagination of studio bosses.  Over the ensuing decade, The Archers would produce some of the finest British films of the war years and the post-war era.  Their 1947 film Black Narcissus has often been hailed as a brilliant landmark in the usage of the Technicolor process.  The Red Shoes (1948) is counted among the most influential dance films ever made.  During the war years, one of Powell and Pressburger's early artistic triumphs was A Canterbury Tale (1944), an overlooked masterpiece only recently beginning to receive the accolades it has deserved for so long.

Loosely inspired by Geoffrey Chaucer's famed literary work, the film starts with a recitation of passages from The Canterbury Tales as pilgrims travel upon the path towards Canterbury.  This brief prologue then concludes with an audacious jump-cut - a bird of prey released into the skies by a falconer transforms in the very next shot into a warplane scouting the skies.  When the camera returns to land, we see not the falconer but a soldier, six hundred years removed from Chaucer's times to present-day England circa World War II (Stanley Kubrick must surely have taken note of this remarkable sequence for 2001: A Space Odyssey).

Following this inventive flourish, A Canterbury Tale's story proper begins.  An American soldier on furlough, Sgt. Bob Johnson (Sgt. John Sweet), mistakenly disembarks a train one exit early of his correct stop in Canterbury.  With the next train not due until the morning, Johnson has no choice but to accompany two other travelers, British Sgt. Peter Gibbs (Dennis Price) and Alison Smith (Sheila Sim), to the nearby town of Chillingbourne for the evening.  Gibbs is headed for a military base just outside of Chillingbourne, while sophisticated young Alison, fresh from London, seeks rural employment in town with the local magistrate, Thomas Colpeper (Eric Portman).

On the way into town, however, Alison is waylaid by the so-called "Glue Man," as the locals have dubbed him.  This mysterious prankster, as the travelers soon learn, strikes at night by pouring glue into the hair of unsuspecting young ladies on the road.  Alison happens to be the unfortunate eleventh victim.

As far as nefarious crimes go, being doused with glue is rather benign, but Alison is determined nonetheless to track down this "Glue Man" and to uncover the motive behind his bizarre deeds.  She enlists her two traveling companions to help, with Gibbs questioning his fellow soldiers in camp while Johnson resorts to aww-shucks G.I. charm to win over the townsfolk, who initially view the American with a cautious if whimsical eye.  The light-hearted mystery elements in A Canterbury Tale are so reminiscent of The Thin Man films that one almost anticipates seeing William Powell and Myrna Loy peering around the next street corner.

However, this tongue-in-cheek whodunit mystery is ultimately less important in terms of unmasking the prankster's true identity than it is as a context for bringing three new friends together and allowing them gradually to share their personal hopes and aspirations.  Much as the original pilgrimage to Canterbury was once a search for blessings or penance, so this modern-day trek through Chillingbourne (and eventually onward to Canterbury) is a tale of self-discovery.  During his stay in Chillingbourne and later Canterbury, Johnson begins to recognize the beauty of the English country beyond the usual superficial tourism trappings provided to American G.I.s by movie halls and women.  Alison finds in herself the strength to move beyond the melancholy and heartache of recent tragedies in her life.  And as for Gibbs, his lessons learned are best summarized by a motivational speech the magistrate Colpeper provides comparing the holiness of the pilgrims' journey to Canterbury with the soldiers' own wartime quest - securing the blessings of a future for all of England.

In this sense, A Canterbury Tale is clearly a product of its time.  It is an idealized propaganda film, as much so for Britain as the Hollywood war-era musical was for America.  Part light mystery, part comedy, part romance with a rustic small town charm, A Canterbury Tale was designed to transport audiences away into a carefree world removed from the bitter reality of war.  That it has hardly dated is an indication of the film's distinctive charisma and universality.

Still, all is not entirely rosy in this tale.  Even in quaint Chillingbourne, the children play mock war games.  There is evidence in Canterbury of recent bombing blitzes.  Vigilant army vehicles remain ever on the prowl throughout the countryside.  The English soldiers themselves speak solemnly of impending orders to ship out.  A poignant recurring motif throughout the film hints at the heartbreak of lovers torn apart by the circumstances of war (after all, A Canterbury Tale was filmed in 1943 when the outcome of the global conflict was still very much in doubt).

Fittingly, the film closes in the Canterbury cathedral, the ultimate destination of all travelers on the Pilgrims' Way.  To the ceremonial sounds of the cathedral organ, British soldiers make final reparations before their departure to sites unknown.  It is a reverent conclusion, Powell and Pressburger's "crusade against materialism" and essentially a cinematic parable for the hope that drives and unites all Canterbury's pilgrims, past and present.  A Canterbury Tale is a celebration of the idyllic beauty at the heart of Olde England and perhaps an entreaty to endeavor to preserve such a legacy for future generations.

Video **

A Canterbury Tale is presented in a high-definition transfer made from an original 35mm nitrate fine-grain master.  The bit transfer rate averages between 7-8 Mbps.  The image quality offers very solid contrast levels and crisp details highlighting the film's expressionistic, noir-like interplay of light and dark sequences.  Still, there are various imperfections which belie the film's age - a few missing frames here and there, mildly grainy texture, scratches and dust marks, and particularly a bit of emulsion scuffling around the 1:49 mark.

Audio **

The film's audio is typical of early sound quality.  The timbre is narrow, and there are few instances of minimal pops or hisses.  Dialogue is otherwise clear and distinct.

Features ****

Disc One offers a commentary track by film historian Ian Christie.  The commentary touches upon Chaucer's original tales, the general nature of the bygone pilgrimages, and the influence upon A Canterbury Tale of the wartime setting in which the film was made.  Christie also describes an underlying current of suppressed sexual tension in the film, a recurring theme that would appear in many of Powell's later works, too.

A Canterbury Tale was re-edited for an American release.  The shortened (and inferior) version of the film featured an alternate prologue and ending sequences, which framed the original story within a flashback structure and slanted the story more palatably towards American tastes.  These two sequences are included on this disc.  The prologue (6 min.) has an alternate credits opening and introduces Kim Hunter as Sgt. Bob Johnson's wife.  The new ending (6 min.) re-organizes various shots and incorporates more scenes with Johnson and his wife.

Disc Two opens with a Sheila Sim interview (20 min.).  The former actress recalls her initial interview with Powell and how she had won a role in A Canterbury Tale that had been written originally for Deborah Kerr.  Sim recalls various humorous anecdotes and compares stage acting with her experiences on the Powell film.

A Pilgrim's Return (22 min.) offers an interview session with John Sweet during his return to Canterbury after a half-century.  The elderly Sweet reflects upon changes in the town, his experiences during the film's production, and his subsequent career path.

A Canterbury Trail (23 min.) follows a pair of historians as they trace the path of the Pilgrims' Road through the villages of Kent, revisiting the locations shown in A Canterbury Tale.  They are joined by numerous members of a local appreciation society as they also tour local landmarks linked to director Michael Powell's childhood in Kent.  Accompanying the proceedings are old family portraits and short tales about the England of Powell's past.  Along the way, these travelers recite passages from A Canterbury Tale and embody the true spirit of any such pilgrimage - the discovery of common bonds and the sharing of life stories and experiences.

There are a couple of Listen to Britain documentaries.  One is the original Humphrey Jennings documentary (18 min.), a travelogue expounding the sights and sounds of Great Britain as though to emphasize the need to preserve such a legacy and heritage for future generations.  Keep in mind that this celebrated documentary, which has often been compared to A Canterbury Tale in terms of spirit and optimistic tone, was made at a time when Great Britain was certainly not winning the war.  The second documentary is a Victor Burgin short film (7 min.) compressed of idyllic sequences designed to play in a continuous loop within a museum gallery setting.  Burgin also provides an essay introduction to this modern work, which incorporates scenes from A Canterbury Tale.

Three more essays are printed on the booklet included with this DVD release.  "A Canterbury Tale: Glorious isn't it?" by Graham Fuller provides a general synopsis of the film's story.  "A Tribute" by Peter von Bagh celebrates the film from a "why we fight" standpoint.  "The Making of A Canterbury Tale" by John Sweet describes the former actor's experiences on the film's production.

Summary:

A Canterbury Tale is an early classic from the exceptional filmmaking team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.  Gorgeously photographed and lovingly narrated, this film showcases the visual artistry and storytelling brilliance that are fundamental trademarks of the typical Powell-Pressburger production.  Highly recommended!

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