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The major disadvantage when recommending this film to someone is that
it's practically impossible to describe! It's easy enough to say what
it *isn't*: it's not a detective story and it's certainly not a
thriller, despite the fact that it nominally revolves around an
unsolved crime. It's not a war-story, despite the fact that it is set
immediately before D-Day and the main characters are intimately
involved in the war effort. It's not a romance, despite the fact that
two of the characters have an unhappy love-story. And it's not the
Chaucerian epic one might be led to expect by the title and the opening
scene - although by the end, the pilgrimage allusions turn out to be
rather more strangely apt then they at first appear.
The only word I can find to give a flavour of this story is that it is above all English - as English as Ealing comedy (without the comedy), as Miss Marple (without the murder), as Elizabeth Goudge (without the magic)... and yet again I find myself defining it by what it *isn't*! It's English in a way that is quietly, deeply antithetical to the frenetic posturing of 'Cool Britannia'. It is as English as the haze over the long grass beneath the trees of a summer meadow; as polished brass and a whiff of steam as the express pulls up at a country halt; as church bells drifting in snatches on a lazy breeze, and the taste of blackberries in the sun.
It's almost impossible now to comprehend that the 1940s countryside in which this film is set was *really there*; that it was not the Second World War but its crippling aftermath that industrialised farms, banished the horse-drawn vehicles from the wheelwright's, and exchanged towering hay-wains for silage towers. Britain was determined never to starve again - and so the world that had once differed so little from that of Chaucer's time was swept away beyond recall. When it was made, this film was no more a rustic period piece than 'Passport to Pimlico', a few years later, was an urban social documentary. Subsequent events have preserved both in mute evidence of contemporary communities that are almost unbelievable today.
It is perhaps fair, therefore, to assume that the type of viewer who will watch 'Battlefield Earth' is unlikely to find this film anything other than silly, parochial and ultimately dull! Very little actually happens. The story is on occasion both humorous and poignant, but what we at first assume to be the central plot turns out not to be the point at all. The triple denouement is set up so gently and skilfully that we, too, are taken by miraculous surprise, with the true shape of the film only evident in retrospect.
It is, ultimately, a story about faith, and miracles, and pilgrimages, even in the then-modern world of shopgirls, lumbermen and cinema organists - and if that idea in itself sounds enough to put you off, as I confess it would have done for me before I watched it myself, then I will gladly add that it is a film about beauty, and hope, and unexpected friendship and laughter; and technically very accomplished to boot. The use of black and white is glorious, ranging from the glimmer in the obscurest of shadows to sun-drenched hillside, and the totally unselfconscious reference to Chaucer in the opening sequence is in these days worth the price of admission alone.
If you like gentle films - sweet-natured films - films with a deep affection for their subject - films that make you laugh and cry, but always smile - then I urge you not on any account to miss this one. If, for the moment, you require thrills, spills, forbidden passions and last-minute rescues, then pass it by and let it go on its tranquil way. When you are old and grey and full of sleep, this unassuming classic will still be there, waiting...
After a dozen viewings or so I still rate this as one of my Top 20
favourites, the passing of time doesn't seem to lessen its brilliance,
if anything it improves with age. The Carlton budget DVD out at the
moment makes the black and white photography gleam even more now, so I
wonder why the BBC have always shown such an inferior copy.
ACT is a pleasant inconsequential masterpiece, with no heavy points to labour, no axes to grind and for wartime not too many flags to wave. But it leaves you wishing that Olde England could've been better preserved from the elected savages in charge of us since, and that perhaps it wasn't so surprising that people were ready to defend such a country and its lifestyles to the death. The only thing Chaucer inspired in me in all of his tales was the desire to reach the end of the journey.
The story? Mysterious fetishist keeps pouring glue onto unsuspecting girls heads at night - 3 intrepid souls determine to find and unmask the weirdo, but vacillate when their moment comes. The four main characters weave in and out of the tale, moving it forward gently to the rather grand climax. But what about the Glueman himself - did he go back home to his reprehensible pastime or did he meet a sticky end? Did Bob get his marijuana? Did they manage to get the moths out of Allison's caravan? Did Peter ever stop playing on his organ?
Refreshing: 1/ A platonic relationship between three handsome men and one beautiful woman. 2/ The most violent scene is where the troops burst out clapping the Sgt. who repaired the slide projector. 3/ A basic plot premise so flimsy and yet so captivating.
A most profitable way of spending two hours.
This is a multilayered, erudite, passionate exploration of England's
national character. The route Powell and Pressburger take for this rather
difficult task is to follow John Bunyan's 'Pilgrim's Progress'. During the
second war a group of disparate people are thrown together one night at a
deserted railway platform in Kent. Using a plot device of a mysterious,
though harmless, assailant who preys upon women, P & P examines English
country life, the Englishman's love for nature, the idisyncracies, the
distrust of foreigners, the 'pubbing', the resilience, the faith in
institutions (the church, the gentry), etc.
The scope of the movie is amazing, and in 2 hours it covers enormous ground. The entire thing is so skillfully and assuredly done that in spite of the absence of any stars and (almost) of a story, and the fact that John Bull is never my companion of choice in any desert island, I was riveted to this movie. Besides the acting, this effect was achieved also by Alfred Junge's brilliant art direction (I couldn't believe the Canterbury church was just a set) and William Hillier's black and white photography. Two scenes stand out - a bird 'turning into' an airplane signifying time going on ahead by a few centuries, and an armoured car breaking through bushes and undergrowth (a very 'Predator'-ish shot).
This is a must see.
My first amazed viewing of this spiritually uplifting film was on a wet
Sunday afternoon about fifteen years ago. I was thoroughly depressed for
various reasons, but by the end of this movie, the entire world had subtly
transformed itself. The delivery of the "message" of this film may seem,
modern audiences, naively done, but its power to move surely remains as
robustly valid today as it must have been to audiences in war-torn Britain.
(I have not seen the American version.)This is a feel-good film of the very
The photography is geared towards presenting the glory of the English countryside, and beautifully conveys an England which was fast disappearing by the time war broke out. Watch especially for the shots of Alison on the downs just after looking towards Canterbury. Gorgeous!
You will either love or hate this film, but you MUST see it if you have not already done so. I've just bought it on DVD, and am ditching various copies taped from TV over the years.
PS: If anyone with any influence at Carlton reads this, please urgently consider transcribing "I Know Where I'm Going" - another fine Powell/Pressburger movie - onto DVD.
Here's another rich and wonderful piece of movie-making from the
Powell/Pressburger team--as well as a lovely little time capsule of
WWII Britain: the land girls, small town England, and what real
patriotism is all about (unlike the sleazy variety much of America and
some of Britain are currently experiencing). Made in 1944, while the
war still raged, A CANTERBURY TALE is a discovery as good as anything
I've seen from this amazing film-making team. Beginning with a lovely
link to Chaucer's tales, it uses a marvelous quick cut between like
objects that may remind you of something Stanley Kubrick is now
heralded for doing (nearly a quarter-century later!), it then moves
ahead to tell the story of four people whose paths cross to a purpose.
Full of quiet surprise and a lead character (Colpeper) who is enormously problematic, the film makes you look, listen, think and feel intently. (For me, cinema can't provide much more.) As the movie seems to meander along, it is actually picking up an enormous head of steam which will--at the end--let loose a blast of patriotism, pride, beauty, sound, architecture and spirituality. Regarding the latter, I do not refer to the fact that the finale is set in a cathedral--as beautiful and symbolic as this one may be. This film rises above any stricture of creed because of the honest humanism of its creators.
This is a "war film," as it appears from the view of civilians who remain at home. Among other things, it shows that, while a civilian population in wartime must give up a great deal, the rewards can be commensurate. (Concerning Iraq, this is something Americans at home have not yet begun to learn or do.) This astonishing film stands, after more than sixty years, as one of those rewards.
Whatever the subject of their films one always knows that the results will be special when Powell and Pressburger are involved. Set in war time England the story follows 4 characters (2 soldiers, a woman and a local magistrate) as they eventually make a modern day pilgrimage to Canterbury. Each has their own personal problem and worry mostly brought on by the war. Their stories intertwine with each other as they become acquainted on their journey. The end results are quite special. The end results were probably dictated by the need for an uplifting movie during the War but the results are neither maudlin or contrived and hold up very well after 50 years. One is tempted to single out individual cast members but this is really an ensemble effort and all, from major to minor roles, are quite simply superb. A real gem.
A wonderful film, as you might expect, from the cinema's greatest directorial duo. It's unique in mood and pace amongst the many Archers films that I've seen. The others move at a brisk pace, going from one plot element to the next. No harm in that, of course. It works very well for films like One of Our Aircraft Is Missing, I Know Where I'm Going!, A Matter of Life and Death and the others. A Canterbury Tale, on the other hand, stops and smells the roses as it leisurely - and semi-plotlessly - strolls through the English countryside on the trail to Canterbury Cathedral. Three young people, an American G.I. named Bob Johnson (Seargant John Sweet), a British soldier, Peter Gibbs (Dennis Price), and a young woman from London, Alison Smith (Sheila Sim), moving to the countryside for work. The all arrive in the small town of Kent on the same train, and they walk together trying to find the hotel. An assailant pops out of nowhere in the impenetrable dark and throws glue all over Alison's hair. Over the next few days they look for "the Glueman." The film doesn't always work, especially concerning the Glueman subplot, which almost seems like it is the plot for most of the movie. The investigation and solution are the weakest scenes in the film. But there are dozens of gorgeous sequences within the film. I especially love the sequence with the children playing war. The film gets especially good during its extended finale, where the three (actually four) main characters go to Canterbury, and their pilgrimages pay off. The three leads are excellent. The fourth main character, the magistrate of Kent, Thomas Colpeper (Eric Portman), is the weakest and I'd just rather forget his role in the film myself. Perhaps he will work better in subsequent viewings. The best aspect of the film is its top shelf cinematography, maybe the best black and white that I've seen from the Archers. A lot of the scenes take place, ingeniously, in total darkness. These work so much better than imaginable! 9/10.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This magical wartime fable creates a fairytale as an antidote for war. Plot and narrative drive is foregone- the quest for the 'glueman' is simply a device to bring the characters together- and instead is created an ode to the spritual in man, as necessary in wartime as at any other time. Three young and diverse persons arrive by train in Kent when, about to go their separate midnight ways, the female in their company has glue poured in her hair by an unseen assailant. For the rest of the film they pool resources to discover the wrongdoer while finding themselves sucked in by the countryside of England and the lure of Canterbury. The film is flawed, but only with the flaws of one you love- the casting, notably the American soldier, is frequently untrained, and the dialogue doesn't always hit the poetic heights of the visuals, but these are asides and nothing more than asides, because away from being the greatest essay in visual poetry Britain has ever produced, the film whispers also profound things about modern day life, about our links with the past, about the essential oneness of all life. In the Canterbury showdown all wishes come true and all hearts are filled, and that's as it should be for a film which is at heart a children's story for grown-ups, but there was never a necessity for the film's ends to be tied; it's a beautiful dream rather than a drama. One has to remind oneself at the end that no, actually this isn't how people always are, that life isn't always like this, and that is a measure of the film's success.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
England, 1944: After 5 long years of blitz, black-out, rationing and
requisitioning, the World War hit hard on the Home Front. 'A Canterbury
Tale' is a British wartime film appealing directly to the newly-arrived
American allies to regard the sight of an English Cathedral spire, an
old pilgrim road or clear skies over chalky uplands as worth fighting
to preserve. A victory for our enemies, it seems to say, would mean an
end to this spiritual continuity, and the heavy burden of defending it
had fallen to us and our Comrades. Thus the film can be taken on one
level as a straight-forward flag-waver.
But it is clearly more than this. The opening of the film, quoting loosely from Geoffrey Chaucer, depicts a medieval pilgrimage, the old Canterbury Pilgrims journeying to receive blessings or do penance. Fast-forward to wartime, and a different kind of pilgrim walks the way. Our boys are massing in the South to embark on the great mechanized Crusade that will determine the future of England and all that it stands for. Their task is an onerous one. But what's this? Girls out with soldiers in rural Kent get glue poured in their hair at night. What can it mean?
Powell and Pressburger take their time in spinning their story, but it's time we don't mind spending in Chillingbourne, wending our way with Alison and the farm cart, blackberrying on the Weald with Peter and Bob, chewing the fat with the locals, getting to know our pilgrims' histories and ultimately solving the Glue Man crimes. There are many meandering diversions along this particular road, and some bits of business are downright peculiar (the silhouetted village idiot scene and the young boys' play-fight spring to mind). But by degrees, the film's narrative themes begin to coalesce, and slowly we are taken somewhere very special indeed.
It's true, Thomas Colpeper - gentleman farmer and magistrate - is something of an oddity, but no small town is complete without its eccentric. There's a magnetic and sympathetic quality about him, too, as we see when Alison bitterly comments on her prospective In-Laws' refusal to accept she's good enough for their son: 'It would take an earthquake' she says, to which Colpeper calmly replies, 'We're having one.' As played by Eric Portman, he is at once coolly beguiling and strangely malevolent. His unmasking by our protagonists as the 'Glue Man' comes as no real surprise, but seemingly his motivation is only about assuring our connection with the land and its history, despite being himself irredeemably misogynistic to our modern eyes.
The final act, as the foursome complete their pilgrimages to Canterbury on the iron road, is a revelation; As they, and we, are propelled closer to the imposing Cathedral, the characters' stories are completed: Colpeper is set to do penance by turning himself in to the Police, Peter is told he was the instrument for this but instead gets a blessing of his own, Bob finally receives his girl's letters, (posted from Australia, "She's joined the WACs!"), and Alison is similarly blessed. Her scene in Mr Portal's Garage is especially moving, as the burden she carries is the hardest - the presumed death of her airman fiancé. Her barely-audible 'Why?' whispered in disbelief when told Master Geoffrey's father has waited with news for her for two weeks delivers a moving emotional payoff. Sheila Sim - now Lady Attenborough - gives a memorably natural performance throughout.
The film's luminous black and white photography is strong as is the location work in and around the recently-bombed Canterbury, and the use of music throughout adds a spiritual element to the visuals. My Favourite scene? The steam-hauled commuter train bearing our pilgrims from Chillingbourne pulls into Canterbury station, and Peter stands in the compartment to adjust his uniform collar. Apparently he's been the unwitting but skeptical instrument of Colpeper's penance, and his line 'I'll believe that when I see a halo around my head,' comes as the carriage window behind him is suddenly bathed in blinding morning sunlight. Brilliant.
Although I've heard that Michael Powell chose, over a skirt-slashing
Colpeper, to instead have him be The Glueman, his choice is, I think,
serendipitous. The Glueman is not just the (superficially, as most
post-modern critics mistake about him and about so many other
characters in earlier films - about which more later) repressed sexual
pervert Glueman, but he's also the Clueman. Yes, he's vaguely sinister,
but he provides the glue that diverts the film's younger,
war-preoccupied characters from their immediate concerns, and he
suggests the clues that connect them to the heritage (some of us Yanks
know the words of 'Land Of Hope And Glory' because England/Britain is
undeniably, in many respects, our Mother Country) that has shaped them
and made them who they are - and to the Civilization for which they're
Too many of today's critics obsess about the "Lesbian" farm woman whose character, in the 1940's, would have been ordinary and been regarded as being ordinary: a woman raised under the sterner discipline and mores of her day, with no-nonsense, no-b.s. values of virtue, obligation and hard work - and of getting to the point. It's postmodernists' affectation to automatically suspect doughty, matter-of-fact women characters - any eccentric women characters whom their postmodernist Miss Jean Brodie nonsense has bent them to suspect of fitting their screwy postmodernist (i.e., most often Marxisant, but often also Romantic) worldview - in earlier films of being "Lesbians." This woman is, consummately, a farmer who has to consider pragmatically what all farmers have always had to consider: how to smartly, efficiently work their land to its top yield against time and weather, pests and parasites, poachers and market conditions; there's nothing "Lesbian" about any of her singleminded agrarian pragmatism, or about her unremarkable - for her day - country ladies' sartorial choice, or even about her puffing a cigarette.
'A Canterbury Tale' isn't among the best of Powell & Pressburger's efforts; but it doesn't fall far short of their best. In a spot or two the plot plods, but then plodding was the pace of the Kentish countryside, so I think that it's only to our early third millennium sensibilities that it seems to plod. Seldom has black & white cinematography managed, as it manages here, to communicate through chiaroscuro the pilgrims' unease, and through the blessed splendor of sunlit, cloud-garlanded vistas of the Weald of Kent their respite.
As the Glueman strives to communicate the pace, sensibilities, and sensations of Chaucer's pilgrim's time, so too must we latter-day viewers accommodate our viewing of this film to the pace, sensibilities, and sensations of its period and setting: once we've done that - which demands of us no extraordinary effort - the legendary, enduring Powell & Pressburger magic works its spell.
From the outset I found Sergeant Sweet's unaffected acting well-suited to the storytelling. The Yanks whom Wartime Britons recall were probably more like Mike Roczinsky, yet among those "overpaid, overfed, oversexed, and over here" American "invaders," among all those "brown jobs," were young men quite like Sweet's Bob Johnson. Dennis Price's manner is a bit too aristocratic for his portrayal of a sergeant, but on the whole Price's thespian gifts help him to carry off his role very well. Sheila Sim gives a perfectly iconic portrayal of a young woman of her time: bereaved but not crushed; proud yet considerate; tender yet not mawkish; vulnerable yet capable. Eric Portman's Glueman is appropriately mysterious and mildly menacing and yet, in the ending we discover that he's all along been a benign agent of illumination, the neutral but never indifferent catalyst, the benevolent spur to the young people's sleuthing to know their present through their coming to touch their collective past; the Glueman is, if you think about his role in the narrative, rather God-like - or, if your prefer, rather Nature-like.
What's lovely about the dénouement here is that it enchants without indulging in sodden kitschiness, and indeed that it enchants in spite of of its scant kitschy elements. In the end the Glueman vanishes from the pilgrim's and our ken because he's accomplished his task of cluing and gluing the pilgrims to their past, to the mystical dimension of Being in their Own Time as that Being can only have come about by dint of their having touched their Past in their Present, which is the predicate of their harboring good hope for their Future. This message, to people whom wartime exigencies shifted brusquely about en masse as people had hitherto never shifted about, may have rung in 'A Canterbury Tale's' contemporary audiences a chord of sentimental longing and welcome reassurance.
This is a thoroughly English film best appreciated when one knows that Powell grew up in rural Kent and that he loved his home county's loveliness as only a native can and does love eternally his childhood home - and the verities it imparts early to him. In our present age of rapidly successive, plug-in and plug-out residential and professional transience - the first age of nigh-universal human rootlessness - 'A Canterbury Tale's' blessing is its acquainting us with our 1940's forebears' more permanent, more grounded sense of themselves and their place in the world and in time, a sense which they felt the war had put under threat and had hurled them and their world, willy-nilly, into unsettling uncertainty. It seems unlikely that we - our species - shall ever again know the quiet certainties, tranquility, and satisfaction of lifelong residence in, or near, our birthplaces. Until our time urgency meant for people something quite different from what urgency means for us. If people before our hyper-active, attention-deficited, more artificial time were not more "authentic," then they were certainly far less remote than we've become from Nature's cycles and temper.
'A Canterbury Tale's' charm is quiet, subtle, and in the end it's sensual, mystical, illuminating, and eternally dear. Pity that few have nowadays the time or the temper for such charm.
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