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A Canterbury Tale: The Criterion Collection

During wartime it takes great courage to have hope — and what makes Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's A Canterbury Tale still moving is the unfettered belief that life will go on. Made in 1943, as American troops were arriving in England to prepare for D-Day, the film tells the story of a furlough for an American soldier that turns into a minor investigation and eventually exposes the small pleasures of a country life. Perhaps the picture was too current in its making — its theatrical release in 1944 was after the Normandy invasion, and the populace had not only grown accustomed to American soldiers, but also saw the light at the end of the tunnel. Or perhaps too many bad English literature classes poisoned audiences who feared a retread of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, to which the film acknowledges in its opening, but bothers little with except in spirit. Whatever the reason, A Canterbury Tale wasn't well received, and it is still referred to (if at all) as a minor work by its makers. Adding insult to injury, it was also shorn of 30 minutes for American audiences, with a newly added opening and denouement featuring Kim Hunter, and it was that version which became most prominent until a restoration was done in 1977. But some films survive the passage of time even if they were made with modernity in mind, and the aching belief in the better things in life transcends this Powell and Pressburger film beyond its wartime origins, making it the best thing that can be found on DVD: The lost masterpiece.

Opening with a pilgrimage from Chaucer's era, A Canterbury Tale cuts to Sgt. Bob Johnson (played by real life U.S. Army Sgt. John Sweet) getting off a stop too early for Canterbury, instead arriving in the Kent village of Chillingbourne. He's joined at the station by Alison Smith (Shelia Sim), a "land girl" (women brought in to work the crops in the absence of men, who have been called to war), and British Sgt. Peter Gibbs (Dennis Price). They're told to stick together while the town is in a blackout, but Alison is assaulted when an unseen assailant dumps glue in her hair. It seems the town has had numerous incidents involving women getting glued, and Johnson is suckered in by Alison to spend more time on his furlough helping uncover the identity of the troublemaker. Their main suspect is justice of the peace Thomas Colpeper (Eric Portman), who seems to have distasteful attitudes towards women. As the three find clues, they also get a chance to absorb the idyllic countryside, and all reveal truths about themselves. Johnson has been depressed and spending most of his time at the cinema while he waits for his girlfriend to send him some mail — it's been seven weeks without word. Alison is still recovering from the loss of her fiancé, who died in action, and with whom she spent time with him in Chillingbourne helping uncover a lost pilgrim trail. Gibbs has also found himself working in the cinema as an organist, although he'd rather be playing in a church cathedral. All evidence points to Colpeper, but once they get past his rough exterior, they find a man who's much more interesting than they suspected.

*          *          *

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's working relationship is one of the richest in cinema history, and Powell (considered the director half of the two) was one of its greatest visualists. Their work here is stunning — A Canterbury Tale is a beautifully composed film with images of great but casual majesty, along with a delightful humanist screenplay. In an early sequence, Johnson is checking around with Alison for more evidence on the glue dumper and runs into some blacksmiths and carpenters. Johnson has so far come across as a parody of an American yokel (though supplements prove that the character's speaking voice is the actor's own), but here he talks with the local carpenter, and, since both have spent their lives in timber, there's a quick bond as they realize they both have similar ideas of when certain trees should be cut. Shortly thereafter, they make plans to have lunch together. It's in this that the film reveals its greatest strengths: The subtext shows how great a peaceful life can be and why we fight, while the story is filled out with children playing, lives continued, and nature's beauty, finally ending with all three of the main characters receiving small miracles that give them a greater sense of joy and peace. The film works simply as a story first and foremost, but this simple desire — to reveal how important life is, without ever seeming forced or pointed — still resonates.

The Criterion Collection offers A Canterbury Tale in a stunningly remastered presentation its original aspect ratio (1.33:1) and length (125 min.), and with the original monaural soundtrack (English subtitles are included). For a film that was edited down, the transfer is breathtaking, and Erwin Hillier's lush black-and-white photography is gorgeous, leaving no evidence of the trims. Extras on Disc One include an insightful commentary by Ian Christie and two sequences from the American release featuring Kim Hunter as Sweet's love interest (both running 6 min.). On Disc Two is a new interview with star Shelia Sim, who feigns that she remembers little about making the film 60 years ago, but nonetheless proves to be a wonderful raconteur. "John Sweet: A Pilgrim's Journey" shows star Sweet revisiting Canterbury in 2000, and he seems in good spirits recounting the making of this picture and his career since (23 min.). "A Canterbury Trail" offers historian Paul Tritton and Powell & Pressburger fan Steve Crook going to the locations of the film (24 min.). Wrapping up the second disc is "Listening to Britain," which is a gallery installation by Victor Burgin that was based around both this film and Humphrey Jenning's documentary "Listen to Britain." The installation piece runs in a loop (7 min.), while Jenning's piece is also included (18 min.). Dual-DVD keep-case.
—DSH



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