Saturday, 20 July 2013

Inception… A Canterbury Tale (1944)

For some, the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger can generate a very personal response and A Canterbury Tale is probably the epitome of this intimate connectivity. There’s a sense of febrile vulnerability in many of their films with characters on the edge of self-awareness and self-control; these open emotional  states pulling you in whether it’s an old man realising his time has passed or a nun holding herself in as a colleague lets herself go...

These passions are always played out in very formalised situations, the army, holy orders, the ballet… and the juxtaposition of professional discipline with repressed emotion nudges against the truth in all of us. This is every bit as disconcerting as the most overtly confrontational modern dramas and you can’t just watch and walk when it comes to their best work… you’re haunted by it.

In A Canterbury Tale seemingly very little happens but, for a group of people about to fight for their lives, there are subtle emotional shifts that will give them every reason for wanting to survive. The counter-intuitive, almost playful, propaganda of Powell and Pressburger drives the narrative as they set out to examine what it is we are fighting for in the summer stillness prior to invasion of Europe.

As the British and their American allies amassed together for the first time, Michael Powell chose his home county of Kent as the perfect location to help in their confirmation of purpose. He wanted to reconnect the British with their history and values whilst also showing that Americans could do the same: a shared history, philosophical heritage and, as it turns out, craftsmanship.

To do this the Directors, Writers and Producers, sailed closer to the wind as they stretched their brief to the limit, always believing that unresolved and unspecific messages would draw their audience into making their own conclusions… an early version of Inception: using a dream to inspire an idea which drives action. In doing so they left a lasting impression which resonates still as national (and personal) identity waxes and wanes… one of the most beautiful black and white films ever made.

Birds of prey
Powell begins with Chaucer and a parade of medieval pilgrims making their way along the ancient road to Canterbury. A falconer watches his Kestrel soar and the image is replaced by a Spitfire ripping through the clouds, watched from below by the same face, 600 years on, and dressed as a soldier: the place is more important than the time. And, so is the person…

Everything goes dark as a train leaves a small village station. “Next stop Canterbury” shouts acting station master Thomas Duckett (Charles Hawtrey), confusing one American GI, Sgt Bob Johnson (Sgt. John Sweet, US Army) who jumps off too late to realise his mistake. He banters with Duckett in the dark and meets Peter Gibbs (Dennis Price) and a young land girl Alison Smith (Sheila Sim).

Price, Sim and Sweet
As they head off to inform the local authorities of their arrival Alison is assaulted by a man who pours glue on her hair and makes his escape. This is surely one of the strangest plot devices in history but more in tune with the strange charm of the film than the original idea of cutting the women’s clothes… The Glue Man is a nuisance but he has his purpose and, in the context of the story, draws these three together in the kind of instant friendship you only get in the upheaval of wartime pragmatism.

At the Town Hall -  a studio recreation/re-imagining of Fordwich Town Hall – they have an interview with the local magistrate, Thomas Colpeper (Eric Portman) who is first encountered sitting behind his huge desk as the camera move upstairs up the medieval stairs.

Colpeper has an authority and intensity which tests the new arrival’s mettle, Bob responds with honesty and good humour to jibes about the cinematic past-times of his fellow GI’s but he knows about the Cathedral…

You can almost smell the sawdust...
It’s not hard to imagine the impact of the GI “invasion” on wartime Britain and the tension was such that one of the propagandist aims was to show how Americans were more than just wise-cracking, girl-hungry show-offs. Apparently Burgess Meredith was hired to knock some of the rough-edges off Bob’s dialogue but in the amateur John Sweet, Powell found a man of sensitive intellect who was naturally humble and respectful.

One of the extras on the Criterion Edition features an interview with Sweet in 2001…he is everything you’d expect and more: one really thought-through old man who spent most of his working life as a teacher. You can  be sure he made a very good one too.

Alison meets the locals
Sheila Sim was a thoroughly well-trained stage actress and this was also her first film, an experience made just that bit more testing as she was playing a role originally intended for Deborah Kerr with whom Powell was romantically entwined.

She does exceptionally well (Powell, perhaps conflicted by the absence of Kerr, said that it took him years to appreciate just how good Sim was) especially up against the magnificent, cerebral intensity of the experienced Eric Portman. This first meeting between Alison and Colpeper reveals his distaste for women but it also shows Alison’s strength of character and there’s immediately more to their relationship than meets the eye.

Bob's big room
Peter heads to camp and Alison and Bob are put up in the local pub, a giant facsimile of an Elizabethan ale house in which Bob’s room is the size of a small sports hall. They are in the very idea of England and it’s appropriate that the GI has the most of it…

The three begin to investigate the Glue Man and, Bob delays his departure to find out more.

Alison gains employment as a Land Girl and travels on a pony and cart with Bob to a wheelwright… this scene has an almost documentary feel featuring a genuine Kentish wood yard and locals as extras. Alison again stands up for herself as Bob bonds with the locals on the subject of timber. Turns out his family’s methods of lumber management aren’t so different from those used by the limeys.

"What wouldn't I give..."
Alison and Bob travel on past a beautiful Georgian house, “What wouldn't I give to grow old in a place like that?” Alison sighs, shortly before spotting Culpeper scything away in his long grass… Shaken, she moves on but here is their connection again.

The emotional back stories are revealed as Alison and Bob continue their travel along a ridge over-looking the rolling hills. Bob hasn’t heard from his sweetheart in many weeks – “letter starvation” – yet Alison’s sweetheart has been lost in action. With this man she had taken an idyllic caravan holiday in the area before the war, something we’d take for granted now but an unmarried couple on this kind of trek was very “modern” for the times: Alison is a go-ahead girl… women were ready for the changes the War was to allow.

Alison meets Peter and his charges on their Bren Gun Carriers: startling speed in the quiet lanes and a reminder of the metallic efficiency of the waiting war… They are beginning to suspect Colpeper and agree to attend his lecture on local antiquity at the “Colpeper Institute”.

This scene is a very powerful one and reveals much of Colpeper’s philosophy and his need to try and educate the daydreaming Men of Albion. He wants to invoke the past as if it still with us… the thematic core of the film with Ian Christie noting elements of Chesterton, TS Elliot and Kipling in his rhetoric.

Killing me softly...
Colpeper is shown silhouetted as a band of light spreads across his intense gaze whilst at the same time the camera focuses on Alison rapt full face and deeply thoughtful as she slowly closes her eyes in concentration… Is their connection spiritual, philosophical or maybe even more?

She offers Colpeper’s Institute the ancient coins she and her lover had discovered on their last trip: a recognition that this history needs to be in the right hands and also that she has found a kindred spirit.
Yet, the three maintain their interest in un-masking the adhesive assailant and as Bob enlists the help of some local junior war-gamers, Peter goes to his key confrontation with Colpeper.

Peter engages with Colpeper
Dennis Price plays with his trademark mix of politely, diffident arrogance but his Peter meets his match with the driven and principled Colpeper who challenges his firm assumption that he is content: a well-paid cinema organist who might still want to play the cathedrals as he was once taught.

Alison begins to see
Alison goes for a magical walk on the Pilgrim’s Way in one of the film’s most beautifully shot sequences.  Director of Cinematography Erwin Hillier apparently had running battles with Powell about waiting for the best quality clouds and here his perseverance pays off as Sim walks through the woods and finally encounters her epiphany.

Just as she sees the distant cathedral, she hears the voices of pilgrims past and turns around to hear Colpeper as he lies on his back contemplating the clouds.

They are never more connected than at this moment as she tells him of her experience… He understands her mental sensitivities and that she is as attuned to place and purpose as he is. The camera shifts to a studio shot as they lie close to each other, so closely that Alison appears to be almost leaning on the older man.

They hide – unspoken complicity – as Peter and Bob stroll past but the reverie is broken as Colpeper hears the soldiers talk of their suspicions even though both admit to liking him.

As all parties travel to Canterbury Colpeper carefully debates the Glue Man’s case lined up against his three would-be accusers in a train carriage. This very English exchange masks everything in civility but Colpeper’s crime is taken very seriously by Peter in particular and, despite his positioning of the actions as a necessary evil, you sense Colpeper knows he has gone too far.

Canterbury bomb damage: "a better view of the Cathedral..."
No spoilers as you’ve either seen the film or will just have to see it to get the full meaning. Needless to say, a lot of things do happen in Canterbury to these modern pilgrims – unlike Chaucer’s originals who never quite got there in his story.

A Canterbury Tale is another deceptively complex film from Powell and Pressburger and rewards repeat viewing. This reflects the fact that they don’t throw the obvious propagandist shapes and leave the viewer hunting for the smuggled meaning…

Dennis Price reads the sheet music
The cast are wonderful and great credit has to go to John Sweet as the non-pro and to Powell who spotted something he was able to work with: natural integrity.

Dennis Price plays upper middle class semi-failure with good grace, the type of character that was to become his trademark but here on screen for the first time! This provides just the right mix with Sweet’s soldier-tourist who is finding his way in this strange environment in more ways than one.

Sgt. John Sweet, US Army
But I think Sheila Sim and Eric Portman are the film’s heart with their uncanny romance and barely-hidden inner conflicts - although I’ll give no credence to any suggestions of Portman’s personal life having any bearing on this: he was just a fantastic actor. Sheila Sim, in her 2006 interview, slightly underplays her achievement but she must have learned very quickly to make such an unqualified success of her transition from stage to screen.

The only shot of the cathedral interior: they weren't allowed to film...
Around these performers everything else is perfectly wrought.  The set design from former UFA stalwart Alfred Junge is expressionist and yet seamlessly attuned to the exterior work and Hillier must take a large part of the plaudits for that.

The action is also expertly underpinned by Allan Gray’s quirky and haunting score - it’s Powell and Pressburger music, it has to be…uplifting and unsettling when it wants to be.

Ultimately, Michael Powell chose and made use of superb locations - conveying so much of his message through the place as much as the time. Even in black and white the breeze-bent leaves of the mass of trees are stunning and, as you bask in the monochrome warmth of a hazy sunny day - the kind of day when you lose sense of time and dream a little easier - the Archers have done their job and made us think.

I watched the Criterion edition which has a restored print and an excellent commentary from Archers specialist, Ian Christie. There’s a wealth of extras including interviews with John Sweet and Sheila Sim from 2006. There’s also Humphrey Jennings' seminal and subtle Listen to Britain propagandist documentary from 1941- a great influence on Powell who so deftly inter-weaved his magic with his realism.

It's available direct from the Criterion site.

Post script: Sheila Sim, now into her nineties, did indeed grow old in a place like Colpeper’s Georgian House, sharing this with husband Lord Richard Attenborough before their recent move to Denville Hall.

And, when I walk along the Roman road through Hoddesdonpark Wood or glimpse the cornfields from the paths at the edge of Highfield Woods in Hertfordshire, I know a little of what Alison and Colpeper knew…

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