A Canterbury Tale is a key work in the careers of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, it blends the objectives of their wartime propaganda films, with the stranger mystical aspects they are often more remembered for today. It also has a whiff of the sexual pervert about it, as found later and far more explicitly in Powell’s infamous undoing, Peeping Tom (1960). The major difference from many of their other works such as The Red Shoes (1948) and Black Narcissus (1947) is its contemplative monochrome sensitivity, with none of the deranged feverishness found in their Technicolor projects, instead a more thoughtful meditative approach but in its own way just as bizarre.
Made in 1944 with the war nearing its end, its prologue is set six hundred years earlier, clearly connecting Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to the film, whilst also representing the deep historical roots at play both spiritually and geographically. We see scenes of assorted peasants making their pilgrimage across the Kent countryside. A medieval hunter releases a hawk, it soars high up into the sky, the winged silhouette flat against the clouds and then quite wonderfully, a jump cut replaces hawk with fighter plane, swooping violently down through space and time. This cut is impossible to view without thinking of that bone spinning jump to spaceship in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001:A Space Odyssey. So similar are they in expressing man’s technological leap in the blink of a sky cast eye, that clearly Kubrick must have been influenced by this.
So now we are in the present (1944 that is) and the narrative begins proper, we are introduced to the three would be pilgrims as they arrive, its night time in the small Kent village of Chillingbourne. So the three are; a British soldier (Peter) arriving for training, an American GI (Bob) who has alighted at the wrong station, and a young women (Alison) coming down from London to work as a Land Girl. As the trio head through the dark streets of the village Alison is attacked by a stranger, who quickly disappears, this turns out to be the infamous ‘Glue Man’ he is known to attack young women at night by pouring glue over them. The attack on Alison becomes a bond between the three as they become friends, deciding to track down and catch this dastardly ‘Glue Man’. The fourth character that dominates the story is Thomas Colepeper, the village magistrate, a mysterious and aloof figure that the three discover is responsible for the glue attacks. This slightly odd Famous Five style story is the central plot of the film but once solved it is immediately discarded for higher ends.
Thomas Colepeper is the most intriguing character in the film, on the surface a respectable village magistrate living quietly with his mother, he’s a dedicated amateur historian, interested in preserving the history of the area against the invading transient soldiers and land girls who, in his mind, bring both a disregard of the past and also a sexually promiscuous attitude. He is read by some viewers to be a dubious representation of homosexuality, he attacks women in order to separate the sexes, a gay man threatening hetrosexual norms. Maybe so but he really represents something deeper, more a mystic guide, a timeless spiritual protector of the land. His surname is most probably meant as a reference to Nicholas Colpeper a herbalist and astrologer from the 17th century. Rudyard Kipling also used him in his book Puck of Pook’s Hill in which various historical figures magically re-appear to tell stories from the past to children. This is almost exactly Colpepers function in A Cantebury Tale he believes that if he can keep the women at bay he can focus the minds of the soldiers and educate them on the historical importance of the English countryside they drive their tanks over, the glue man binding them with the past. This fantastical plan reaches its zenith when Colpeper arranges a lecture at the local museum for the bored soldiers. It is for me one of the most transcendent and beautiful scenes in British cinema, Colpeper’s speech shows Pressburger at his most romantic and ethereal:
“Well, there are more ways than one of getting close to your ancestors. Follow the old road, and as you walk, think of them and of the old England. They climbed Chillingbourne Hill, just as you. They sweated and paused for breath just as you did today. And when you see the bluebells in the spring and the wild thyme, and the broom and the heather, you're only seeing what their eyes saw. You ford the same rivers. The same birds are singing. When you lie flat on your back and rest, and watch the clouds sailing, as I often do, you're so close to those other people, that you can hear the thrumming of the hoofs of their horses, and the sound of the wheels on the road, and their laughter and talk, and the music of the instruments they carried. And when I turn the bend in the road, where they too saw the towers of Canterbury, I feel I've only to turn my head, to see them on the road behind me.”
The friends investigation to reveal the identity of the Glue Man leads them (and therefore us) to explore the beauty of pastoral life in the English countryside, craftsmen at work, a mass of young boys playing soldiers in the river beds, these are wonderful scenes and they build up a picture postcard view of a threatened world, one worth fighting not just the Germans to protect but also ourselves, the war is coming to an end and Britain is beginning to look inwards once more and see how much it has changed into a harder, less sentimental version of itself. In this way the film has much in common with Powell & Pressburger’s previous film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) both depict war as a touch paper for social change across the generations. In one sequence Alison decides to visit the many women that have been attacked by the Glue Man in search of clues, this becomes a role call of the professions ordinarily considered male domains taken up by women; farm labourer, postwoman, railway worker, these women are tough, confident and hardworking. Aside from weird old Colpeper flinging his sticky stuff at the girls, it’s a film with often surprisingly modern and platonic relationships between the sexes, the central characters treat each other very much as equals.
A Canterbury Tale was Powell and Pressburger’s first commercial failure and Powell had always considered it to be a creative failure, he believed that Pressburger had attempted something too complex in his script, a heady mix of themes that ultimately confuse. He only re-evaluated his opinion once the critical tide, many years later, turned in favour of the film, whilst Pressburger considered a favourite of their work together. The sheer amount of themes at work, alongside a rather simple plot and the utter beauty of the cinematography result in a film that is at once easy to enjoy and is also incredibly powerful in a rather intangible way. It takes on a different, stranger shape with every viewing, as each of its numerous ideas, a few only touched on here, take turns to come centre stage. What always lingers is it’s sheer beauty, the cinematography is stunning and captures a shimmering vision of country life, the ancient ways still intact. Powell was a man strongly connected to the countryside and a passionate chronicler of rural lives, as can also be seen in his early solo project The Edge of the World (1937).
A Canterbury Tale is a magical and elusive film, it will linger in ones mind long after the final scenes in Canterbury, where the three pilgrims are duly and suitably blessed at the end of their pilgrimage, as the cathedral rises majestically from the wreckage of the war below.