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|
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|
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...|
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|
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|
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 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...|
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|
|Alison begins to see|
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..."|
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|
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|
|The only shot of the cathedral interior: they weren't allowed to film...|
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…