“A CANTERBURY TALE” ( 1944 )

“A CANTERBURY TALE” ( 1944 ) – This movie is as much about feelings, emotions…longings, memories, as it is of plot points and solving a mystery. It takes its own sweet time moving the plot along. In no great hurry, it weaves and wends its way as you might, walking down a country road in summer. We see vignettes of life. The movie’s mood is set from the beginning when we see a caravan of Renaissance folk make their pilgrimage along the Canterbury Road. We see a hawk in flight and then jump cut to a modern plane leapfrogging us into the 20th century six hundred years ahead. The same actor is used looking at both those shots in both those time periods. This movie is all about connection.

CANTERBURY ( 100 )

Coincidence brings three disparate people together and right smack in the middle of the unsettling mystery of a man who pours glue into unsuspec-ting women’s hair. The three give chase in the night to the shadowy “Glue Man” ( his most recent victim being one of the them ) only to lose him inside the Magistrate’s building where they find Magistrate: Mr. Colpeper. As they go their separate ways, the movie follows each of them on their own journey. Dennis Price plays Sgt. Peter Gibbs, a bit of a humorless chap but cordial enough;CANTERBURY ( XVI ) efficient – cynical but willing to help. Sgt. John Sweet is Sgt. Bob Johnson; Powell and Pressburger use a non-actor in this movie and he does a fine job as the American G.I.. In fact he IS an American G.I.. With his broad American accent, homespun stories and sincerity, he’s a fish out of water in Jolly Olde England, but makes his way. His easy friendliness makes him bond with the locals, both man and boy alike, almost immediately. But he has a heavy heart – his girl hasn’t written him in seven weeks.

CANTERBURY ( XXII )Then there’s Sheila Sim as Alison. The story focuses on her… ( she’s the recent victim of glue in her hair. ) I understand Powell wanted his lover, Deborah Kerr, for the part, but nego-tiations ( and her going to Hollywood ) fell through. Kerr’s my girl, but I have to say Sim is absolutely wonderful in the movie. I find her compelling to watch; her open-faced natural beauty and innocent air belies her steely resolve to get to the bottom of the Glue Man’s identity. She’s simple, straight-forward. She’s got pluck and both soldiers can see that. But she, too, is nursing a broken heart. Her fiancee’s plane has gone down in enemy fire.

CANTERBURY ( XXXXVI )The three get down to the business of finding out who the Glue Man is. Alison contacts victims and Bob gets these small boys’ to help investigate. Bob is so cute with these young boys who play soldier.  This will all become very real for them soon enough. Bob respects them as “soldiers” and entreats their aid. But interspersed with their investigation, the three adults live their lives: look for work, continue military maneuvers and explore this strange country while on leave. There are many a quiet moment between characters in this movie. A glance, a smoke, a conversation. Alison and Bob commiserate over their lost loves. They’re becoming friends, and befriend others.

CANTERBURY ( XXXXVII )When Peter goes to question Colpeper for information, he winds up doing all the talking; all the revealing No no, don’t think I’ve forgotten Eric Portman. I just don’t know how to approach him. I do it warily for fear he’ll bewitch me and suck me in too. He plays Magistrate Thomas Col-peper and he is incredibly riveting to watch. There’s something mesmerizing about him. ( Ha…a softer version of Anton Wolbrook in “The Red Shoes” ). He’s insightful, can look into people. He hears the past and has a romantic way of talking about it. He’s disarming at the same time slightly officious. His formality is fetching. I want to loosen his tie and muss his hair. ( But I don’t dare. )

COLPEPER: “It’s only a day’s walk from Chillingbourne.”

PETER:    “What, fifty miles? Some walk.”

COLPEPER: “Not if you like walking. Do you like walking?

PETER:    “Not if I can help it. Why walk if there’s a train. I see
Sir, you’re interested in mountaineering.”

COLPEPER: “Yes I do a bit of it. I suppose you'd recommend me to 
wait at the bottom until somebody builds a vehicular railway.

PETER:    "I say why climb to the top at all. What's wrong with the
valley?

COLPEPER: "The answer's in yourself."

CANTERBURY ( XXXV ) CANTERBURY ( XXXVIII )

Peter reveals more about himself than he has found out about Colpeper.  Isn’t that sometime the case when we seek information? And we learn a little more about him ourselves. It seems when Alison, Bob and Peter come in contact with Colpeper, he affects a change in them. He gives a lecture in town for the soldiers about the past of Canterbury and its hold on the present. It’s magic. And maybe why they are fighting for England in this soon-to-be-war. As he speaks,  we see a connection…an attraction between Colpeper and Alison.

CANTERBURY ( XXXVI )  CANTERBURY ( IIII )Powell and Pressburger reveal the attraction in the mirrored Image at the lec-ture.  Their eyes hold each other.

Their initial meeting was antagonistic, and she is wary of him. But hearing his lecture sof-tens her a bit; a spell? We’re not quite sure who is mesmerizing whom.

On her walk down Canterbury Road Alison hears the pilgrims of long ago…perhaps influenced or enchanted by his lecture. In the field Colpeper lays in wait. He asks her to join him. I felt nervous for her being with this rather odd duck in the fields, but I needn’t. They become closer, more intimate in conversation in the tall grass. She tells him of her lost lover. He talks of listening to clouds.

       CANTERBURY ( LI )  CANTERBURY ( LIV )

“Just now I was concentrating on who was      “…when you believe strongly in something.”
coming up the hill to disturb me, breathing
the air, smelling the earth, watching the
clouds. Why don’t you sit down?”

She really gets into their conversation, even so much as to hide from her two soldier buddies as they pass by. She’s not the girl Colpeper thought she was. I think he falls for her, this trusting straight-forward, true girl.

How can I say anymore about this film without giving it away. There are so many moments that draw me in, moments that pull at me.

ALISON:   “He thought his son should marry someone better than 
a shopgirl.”

COLPEPER: “‘Good family.’ ‘Shop girl.’ Rather delapidated phra-
ses for wartime.” 

ALISON:   “Not for Jeffrey’s father. It would have taken an earth-
quake.” 

COLPEPER: “We’re having one now.”

ALISON:   “Did you believe in miracles?” 

COLPEPER: “When I was your age I didn't believe in anything.” 

ALISON:   "For shop girls?"

COLPEPER: “For anyone. You know I think a shopgirl has a bigger 
chance for a miracle than a millionaire.” 

ALISON:    “I can see you’ve never been a shopgirl.” 

COLPEPER: “Nor a millionaire.” 

  CANTERBURY ( LII ) CANTERBURY ( LIII ) CANTERBURY ( LV )

Their scene in the field was intensely intimate. Yes, in the broad daylight under the sky. The quiet reflection, the camaraderie of the three leads, the cat-and-mouse game between our comrades-in-arm and the Glue Man, each of the three finding their blessing, the quiet way Bob answers Colpeper, Colpeper himself, the march to Canterbury Cathe-dral, the all-encompassing meaning behind Alison saying: “Pity” that sums up EVERYTHING. Seeing Colpeper’s head bowed inside Canterbury Cathedral as Alison passes by him devastates me. I hadn’t seen this film before; I didn’t know where it was going but I was a willing follower, floating whereever it would take me.

CANTERBURY ( LVI ) CANTERBURY ( LVII )THEY’RE ALL ON THEIR WAY TO CANTERBURY, EACH A LITTLE WISER…WITH LESSONS LEARNED

I need a better command of language to talk about the difference between the British sen-sibility in filmmaking as opposed to our American way. There’s something polite and indi-rect and subtle and unsaid about the way Brits told their stories, back then ( “Brief En-counter” “I Know Where I’m Going.” “Black Narcissus.” ) Or was it Powell and Pressburger specifically?
CANTERBURY ( XXV )  CANTERBURY ( XXX )

When I first saw this movie, I woke up with the tv on and there it was. I watched a lot of it in this half-grogged, dream-wake-sleep state. I didn’t know what the heck I was seeing; just had an overwhelming sense of wonderment at how things were unspooling. I watched it fully awake later, and realized the wonderment and joy was not a dream.

"Those sounds come from inside, not outside..."

“Those sounds come from inside, not outside…”

“A Canterbury Tale” is so expansive, words feel too small to wrap around it.

( HOME )

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18 thoughts on ““A CANTERBURY TALE” ( 1944 )

  1. Wonderful review Theresa. You have made me want to see this film all over again. I am a fervent admirer of P&P and David Lean, especially the films he made in the 1940s. What you say here: “There’s something polite and indi-rect and subtle and unsaid about the way Brits told their stories, back then ( “Brief En-counter” “I Know Where I’m Going.” “Black Narcissus.” ) Or was it Powell and Pressburger specifically?” reflects my feeling as well. We are “connected” Tess.

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    • Yessiree Fernando…we are connected. Movies can do that, can’t they? With “A Canterbury Tale” I hadn’t known WHAT to expect; just trying to broaden my horizons…stretch a little bit. Well this movie put me out on the limb of my emotions. In fact, I tumbled OFF that limb, free-falling. But NOT hitting rock bottom, mind you. Buoyed by hope. Fancy schmancy talk to just say: “I love this movie.” Powell and Pressburger may not be everyone’s cup of tea ( I get that )…but I certainly want to see more of their work. Thank you Fernando. If something I write or speak about makes someone want to (re)visit a film, I can’t ask for anything more. Thanks again. ( Hey, I hope you liked the photos I used to support your nice review of “Portrait of Jennie.” Thanx for that too. It’s a beautiful film and I’m a Jennifer Jones and an Ethel Barrymore fan, as well. )

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      • Yes Tess, the shared movie experience is about “connecting” (at least for me). I am a true admirer of British films from the 30s, 40s and 50s. They have a unique quality that differentiates them from their American counterparts. The same can be said about Italian and French films, but it is more interesting Re. British & American, because they share the same language, but yet they are so different. Thank you very much for giving me that corner and encouraging me as well.

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      • I’m no aficionado of British films. I like the “Carry On” movies but the more sophisticated ones I have to work on a little. “The Maggie” was excellent. And now wild horses couldn’t drag me away from a screening of “The Ladykillers.” As you write: “They have a unique quality that differentiates them from their American counterparts…” though darn it if I can pinpoint what it is other than slowly letting the characters tell a story, giving us time to know them. Hollywood IS sometimes wham bam. Do you have any British films you might recommend? If so, please do.

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      • Hi Tess…All the P&P, all of David Lean’s films made in the 1940s and 1950s, the 1949 Queen of Knaves, The captain’s Paradise, Kind Hearts and Coronets, So Long at the Fair, Footsteps in the Fog; the greatly entertaining Gainsborough kitschy films from the 1940s…..that’s what is coming to my mind now.

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      • A-ha. Nice. Now I can’t say I’d dive into the deep end of the pool with Gainsborough. But I’m willing to wade into “Kind Hearts and Coronets.”

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  2. Well, Theresa, you’ve done it again. You have made me, like Fernando, eager to see this one again. You might recall that my first viewing was not as positive as his or yours. I have frequently had problems with American characters in English films even, or maybe especially, when played by an American actor. Yet here you have described what sounds very much like my kind of movie. So, thanks to you, I will be seeing it again soon leaving, I hope, my prejudices behind.

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    • Yippeee!!! Forgive me. I know we’re all different human beans with differing opinions and biases. But can I help it if I’m happy that someone likes the same things I do…OR is open to giving something another chance? Especially someone I admire and respect? For that I say a hearty: “Yippeee!!!” ( Uhhhhmmm… though admiration and respect is good, it’s not a pre-requisite. ) Bob, I don’t recall your previous thoughts on this film. ( And maybe that’s a good thing for me. ) Just know that I came upon this movie blindly, was hit by a ton of bricks and will be a champion of it, hopefully without annoying people. My initial response to John Sweet was discomfort, ( “is this guy an actor?! Ack!! ” ) but in a short time as I got used to the cadence of the film, I was absolutely sweet on him. Let me know how your viewing goes.

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  3. There are many forums that discuss this as a British Film instead of anyone else’s, and another segment that argues this is a Powell & Pressburger film. Not British, but theirs. At some point, I throw up my arms and simply hug it. It’s ours, now. This film, and I KNOW WHERE I’M GOING are two films that make me want to traverse all of these places as if I could experience what these characters experienced.

    But P&P gave that ability in this film. I find the characters wonderfully relate-able, and I think fans agree. (I don’t know what non-fans think – too slow? Too many accents? Too much effort?) I have to remain that it’s “our” film they built.

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    • Whoa! Well-said man: “It’s ours, now.” I would tend to classify “A Canterbury Tale” as a Powell and Pressburger film. They put their stamp on it and create a kind of magic with their films. I know “P & P” is not for everyone, and I’m no proselytizer. I’m just bloody glad I’ve discovered them for myself and I’ll try to share the wealth. They have a magic. I think you’ve pinpointed what non-fans think very well. I’ve not see “I Know Where I’m Going” but I have seen “Went the Day Well” and again, I was enchanted. No, it’s not a P & P film, but captured that same sort of thing around characters. Ha! WHEN in the HELL does the word “enchanted” come into play in real life. ( Wes Anderson does quirky / P & P do enchantment. ) Whew! got it all figured out.

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  4. “A Canterbury Tale” is so expansive, words feel too small to wrap around it.”

    Oh, yes. I avoided writing about A Canterbury Tale for years. I was afraid of not finding the right words, or any words at all. However, I believe Powell and Pressburger would be disappointed if we didn’t write and talk and feel A Canterbury Tale.

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    • Paddy my feeling last night with “I Know Where I’m Going” was a similar one. Again…I don’t quite have the words but it filled me up. Overwhelmed, slightly overcome with emotion. I’m in love with Roger Livesey. With or without a beard. I think he’s in “Pandora and the Flying Dutchman”?? His voice, he’s handsome and strong and can handle a lady who is strong willed. I’m a Powell and Pressburger fan!!!

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      • Oh, Roger Livesey. His voice, his entire being. Somehow, Powell and Pressburger found and used the best and right actors in their films. Don’t recall him in “Pandora…”, but as Olivier’s dad in The Entertainer – magnificent!

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      • WHAT?! He’s in “The Entertainer”? I just saw some of that a few weeks ago. Didn’t recognize Roger. Maybe would have stuck it out if I had known. Thanks for the FYI

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