A CANTERBURY TALE
commentary by Tony McRae
Fantasy alone...can establish that relation between objects which is the irrevocable source of all judgement: should fantasy be driven out, judgement too, the real act of knowledge, is exorcised."
A 14th century pilgrim releases a hawk into the sky. (1) Cut to a British spitfire in World War II. (2) Six hundred years apart. Much has changed, but the Kent countryside remains, as does Canterbury Cathedral. There are still pilgrims, still miracles and blessings to be had, even in times of war.
In 1943 much of England was on the move, either for military purposes or to aid in the war effort by working on farms and other venues beyond the large cities. This is the background of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's story of three modern day pilgrims (actually they don't consider themselves pilgrims) who have just arrived in the county of Kent. Peter, a British sergeant is reporting to his regiment; Alison, a landgirl, will be working on a farm; Bob, an American sergeant, is on a short leave headed for Canterbury--or so he thinks. In the darkness of night the train carrying both sergeants stops at the small town of Chillingbourn, some ten minutes from Canterbury. Bob gets off, thinking he's arrived at his destination. Peter tells him he's gotten off too soon. Sergeant Bob Johnson will not get to Canterbury for several days, near the end of the film.
The device Powell and Pressburger use to keep the threesome in Chillingbourn is the "glue man," someone who, under darkness, puts glue in young girls' hair. We will later find out that his motive is to keep them away from the soldiers who are stationed nearby. Alison, who's waiting on the darkened station platform for a ride into town, becomes his latest victim. The trio is bound and determined to find this madman. (3)
Their investigation will soon take on another dimension, a metaphysical search if you will, though they are not quite sure what they are looking for. Perhaps, like Chaucer's pilgrims, they hope to receive a blessing or simply to visit the famous cathedral, buy souvenirs and have a respite from the war.
The fourth major character in this story is Thomas Colpeper, the town official who seems to run everything in Chillingbourn.(4) He's from old stock and will bode no modernity, especially if it weakens the moral fiber of the region. As played by Eric Portman, he exudes traditional values, and insists that women remember their place. Spunky Alison Smith will have none of this. The skirmish is on.
In the course of their investigation, we learn several things about the threesome, all crucial to the film's ending. Let's start with Peter Gibbs, our British sergeant. He holds himself in rather low esteem, though he's obviously bright and well-bred. He's studied music, especially the organ, but his only employment before the war was playing at the local cinema. When he learns the identity of the glue man--yes, it's Thomas Colpeper--his whole being seems directed to bringing the important man down. He decides to go to Canterbury to expose him to the regional police.
Bob Johnson, a somewhat atypical American soldier in that he likes the Brits and their country, gets along quite well with the townspeople. His search for the glueman will keep his mind off the very troubling fact that he hasn't heard from his fiancée in weeks. He's convinced she's dumped him. His visit to Canterbury is an escape of sorts--he'll meet an army buddy, do some sightseeing, and then it's back to his outfit.
Unbeknownst to anyone, Alison Smith has been to Kent before the war, quite close to Chillingbourn in fact. She and her fiancé had bought a caravan and spent an idyllic vacation on the nearby hills. She tells Bob that he was shot down and is presumed dead. The caravan is now stored in a garage in Canterbury, and so she is obliged to do something about that.
So we have the three, each with a reason to get to Canterbury: Peter to report Colpeper to the police; Alison to find her caravan; Bob to sight-see and meet his army friend. All three missions will have unexpected consequences.
Every Powell-Pressburger movie, while firmly grounded in reality, is suffused with the mystical. In the case of "A Canterbury Tale" the landscape, with the Pilgrim's Road just up the hill, exudes a mystical feel which will imbue the characters with a sense of place that takes them out of their ordinary selves. In the film's opening sequence, in fact, we see Chaucer's bawdy pilgrims riding on horseback toward Canterbury.(5) (True, the pilgrims in "The Canterbury Tales" never do reach Canterbury; and for a time we wonder if Alison, Peter and Bob will ever get there themselves.)
Despite his misogyny and hauteur--and their suspicions early on that he is the glue man--Thomas Colpeper becomes an instrument in the awakening of the three voyageurs to the "otherness" they seem reluctant to acknowledge. The filmmakers give him an almost otherworldly aura, as when he is giving his slide show to the soldiers about the place they now inhabit. His exhortation (6) that they walk the Pilgrims' Road is met with either boredom or skepticism, except by Alison (7) who takes his advice most seriously.
Alison seems to have the most affinity for her surroundings, due no doubt to her idyllic time with her young man. But there's more to it than that. Spurred perhaps by her thoughts of that wonderful time together, she sets out on her own to climb the hill. At the top she spies the cathedral off in the distance. The moment is one of the most memorable in the movie. She hears the sounds of pilgrims, the same pilgrims we've heard and seen at the very beginning of the film.(8) Allan Gray's evocative music gives credence to Alison's conviction. Might this sacred place be taking hold of her, transporting her to another realm, another time? A moment later she encounters Colpeper who's been laying in the high grass.(9) She tells him of her experience, the sounds she's heard. He's not surprised. This is the very soul of the place he's been protecting from those insensitive people who think that the past is gone and not worth thinking about. He seems pleased by Alison's sensitivity, but he's also rather sheepish, almost vulnerable. There's no doubt that he wishes to make amends for his earlier attitude toward her. We have the sense that these two are communicating on an almost mystical level.
Sitting next to Colpeper in the grass she says, "If there's such a thing as a soul, he must be here somewhere. He loved this hill so much." "I love it too," Colpeper says quickly--I would say almost jealously. A bit later he says, "Miracles still happen, you know."
The film's last sequence, the train ride to Canterbury and the subsequent events in the cathedral city, unfold like a sort of fairly tale. In the train car the trio is joined by Thomas Colpeper who sits on the bench of magistrates in Canterbury.(10) Peter tells him of his intention to report him to the police. Colpeper does not object, but tries to explain his motives. Alison and Bob are willing to forget the whole thing but not Peter. When Colpeper mentions the pilgrims, Peter asks rather sarcastically what possible blessing he, Culpeper, could possibly get.
"A pilgrimage could be either to receive a blessing or to do penance," Colpeper says.
"I don't need either," retorts Peter.
"Perhaps you are an instrument."
"Do I get a flaming sword."
"Nothing will surprise me."
"I'll believe that when I see a halo round my head." (11)
Immediately a halo appears. This may seem hokey but it is appropriate since Peter may very well be that instrument of a blessing rather than one who condemns.
England's cities had undergone heavy bombing from Nazi planes in the year before "A Canterbury Tale" began filming in 1943. Canterbury itself had taken heavy damage, but the cathedral had been spared. (12)
As we might expect, there are blessings to be had here. Not only for Alison, Bob and Peter, but also for Thomas Colpeper. The war caused great upheavals, separations, and death. But there is grace to be found, values that arise to the surface at the most unlikely times. Inside the cathedral, a piece of music falls at Peter's feet,(13) and this allows him to climb to the organist's perch rather than to go the police station; Bob's army buddy becomes a heavenly messenger with an unexpected gift;(14) Alison's caravan, the symbol of her lost love, becomes an instrument of redemption. Powell and Pressburger can't resist underling the spiritual or miraculous with a breathtaking pan from Alison's joyful face to the cathedral in the background:
As for the redoubtable Thomas Colpeper, his blessing is his transformation from a misguided god to a human being, thanks in no small part to Alison who has gotten under his skin, or should I say into his heart. His last view of her occurs as she is escorted into the cathedral by her fiancé's father.(15)
The last fifteen minutes of "A Canterbury Tale" comprise one of the greatest closing sequences in all of cinema.
Along with veteran actor Eric Portman were three newcomers, Dennis Price who would go on to star in "Kind Hearts and Coronets"; the wondrous Sheila Sim who did a few other films, then retired and married Richard Attenbourgh; and John Sweet who returned to teaching after the war. It's difficult to imagine any other actors in those roles.
The beautifully restored DVD of "A Canterbury Tale" is available in a two-disc set by The Criterion Collection.
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