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A Canterbury Tale (1944)

Not Rated | | Comedy, Drama, Mystery | 21 January 1949 (USA)
Three modern day pilgrims investigate a bizarre crime in a small town on the way to Canterbury.




Cast overview, first billed only:
Eric Portman ... Thomas Colpeper, JP
Sheila Sim ... Alison Smith
Dennis Price ... Peter Gibbs
John Sweet ... Bob Johnson (as Sergt. John Sweet U.S. Army)
Esmond Knight ... Narrator (non-US versions) / Seven-Sisters Soldier / Village Idiot
Charles Hawtrey ... Thomas Duckett
Hay Petrie ... Woodcock
George Merritt ... Ned Horton
Edward Rigby ... Jim Horton
Freda Jackson ... Prudence Honeywood
Betty Jardine Betty Jardine ... Fee Baker
Eliot Makeham ... Organist
Harvey Golden Harvey Golden ... Sergt. Roczinsky
Leonard Smith Leonard Smith ... Leslie
James Tamsitt James Tamsitt ... Terry
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A 'Land Girl', an American GI, and a British soldier find themselves together in a small Kent town on the road to Canterbury. The town is being plagued by a mysterious "glue-man", who pours glue on the hair of girls dating soldiers after dark. The three attempt to track him down, and begin to have suspicions of the local magistrate, an eccentric figure with a strange, mystical vision of the history of England in general and Canterbury in particular. Written by David Levene <D.S.Levene@durham.ac.uk>

Plot Summary | Plot Synopsis


From the Powell-Pressburger team that gave you "Red Shoes" and "Stairway to Heaven" See more »


Comedy | Drama | Mystery | War


Not Rated | See all certifications »

Parents Guide:

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Did You Know?


When Peter enters the cathedral he looks up towards the roof. That is the only shot that was taken inside the real cathedral. Despite not getting permission to film in there, the production sneaked that one shot with a hand-held camera. See more »


Thomas Colpeper, JP: Pity.
Bob Johnson: Pity?
Thomas Colpeper, JP: Pity when you get home and people ask what you've seen in England and you say "Well I saw a movie in Salisbury. And I made a pilgrimage to Canterbury and I saw another one."
Bob Johnson: [laughs] You've got me all wrong. I know that in Canterbury I have to look out for a cathedral.
Thomas Colpeper, JP: Yes do look out for it. It's just behind the movie theatre. You can't miss it.
See more »

Alternate Versions

The original UK version runs 124 minutes. For the USA release, the film was re-edited to 95-minutes and new footage starring Kim Hunter inserted:
  • A scene between Bob (John Sweet) and his new bride Kim Hunter on the Rockefeller Center introduces the story which he then tells in flashback.
  • The idyllic scenes with the boys' river battle and much of the hunt for the glue-man is cut with addition scenes or commentary by Bob added to cover the gaps.
  • There is an additional epilogue with Bob and his girl at the tea-rooms in Canterbury.
See more »


Featured in The South Bank Show: Michael Powell (1986) See more »


Hear my prayer, O Lord
Written by Henry Purcell
Music heard as Gibbs pauses on entering the cathedral
See more »

User Reviews

Charm (Scarecrow Staked Here: spoilers herein)
5 September 2006 | by PiafreduxSee all my reviews

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 fighting.

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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Release Date:

21 January 1949 (USA) See more »

Also Known As:

A Canterbury Tale See more »


Box Office


$650,000 (estimated)
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Company Credits

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Technical Specs


Sound Mix:

Mono (Western Electric Recording) (uncredited)

Aspect Ratio:

1.37 : 1
See full technical specs »

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