To Glimpse the Happy Isles: 'A Canterbury Tale' (once more!)

Church bells and Chaucer, an odd paperback mystery steeped in the soporific summertime light of the Weald’s meadows. A wartime propaganda picture might seem an unlikely choice for some rainy-day consolation, but then Powell and Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale (1944) is a very unlikely wartime propaganda picture, even if makes fine, earnest overtures to the war effort, and courts Britain’s strong translatlantic Ally through a real life ‘acting’ US soldier. But this is the realm of the Archers who ‘started with naturalism and finished with fantasy’ – and right from the film’s glorious opening sequences where a medieval pilgrim’s falcon in flight turns into a swooping Spitfire, and the falconer into a foot-soldier, it all makes the kind of sense that’s hard to explain. 

Its rambling plot and pedestrian pace – a canter, if you like – bemused viewers then and can bemuse viewers now. But somehow A Canterbury Tale will always strike me as the most strange, mystical, and personal-feeling of all of the Archers’ films. Apart from some sublimely orchestrated cuts (and the incredible recreation of a cathedral’s interior at Denham Studios), it has less of the pair’s cinematic sleight of hand, swapped instead for something more like stellar parallax: gently pointing the audience in one direction but in fact leading them further, as if the very things that feel like accidental ‘misdirections,’ might be the Thing Itself, the bowman’s target. And over 75 years on, it might well be that timeless prescription we need, a thing of beauty and unexpected salvation in turbulent times (at the very least, another rainy-day favourite for the books).

Taking place in the present, later part of World War II, the film centres around Land Girl Alison Smith (Sheila Sim), British Sergeant Peter Gibbs (Dennis Price), and American Sergeant Bob Johnson (John Sweet), who arrive at fictional Chillingbourne, near Canterbury, and find themselves thrown together when unsuspecting Alison is accosted by an unknown assailant who pours gum in her hair then escapes into the dark of night. Though they must part ways while in town, the three friends keep in touch over their weekend stop, hoping to solve the puzzle of the ‘Glue Man,’ and maybe glad for something to take their minds off bigger things. If his identity is never confirmed, it is suggested to us almost right away that this phantom is in fact Thomas Colpeper (Eric Portman), the well-regarded town magistrate has also taken it upon himself to preserve local history and heritage (ducking stools and all).

While Peter meets up with his battalion, Alison and Bob learn as much as they can about the whole affair, which has deterred the town’s young women from fraternising with the men decamped nearby (these are instead coaxed into attending Colpeper’s edifying lantern-slide history lectures, presumably while their would-be girlfriends soak their unlucky tresses in hot water). Much like Chaucer’s motley caravan, we learn a little of their stories and what they’re looking for, as they in turn find out there’s a little more to their quest than they initially thought. A London shopgirl before the war, Alison is an ideal Girl’s Own sort of heroine, sweetly wistful yet with a ‘no fear’ forthrightness and independence that echoes her namesake the Wife of Bath as well as W E Johns’ Worralson. Though she mourns her lost-in-action fiancé, being back in the country re-animates her, happily rolling up her sleeves for work while continuing her investigations.

In the meantime Bob, feeling far away from home and wistfully wondering why he hasn’t heard back from his own girl, makes friends everywhere he wanders, securing clues from boys playing naval battle (the film’s only depiction of combat), endearing himself to all with his disarming American warmth and bemused amusement at English eccentricities. Bob’s gracious gentleness is the antithesis to the GI stereotype which otherwise inspired feelings of tension, it’s no small wonder the Archers initially thought of Burgess Meredith for the part (Sweet happened to charm nearly every reviewer on the film’s release, even if they had reservations about almost everything else). His timber/lumber heritage is very much like that of the wheelwright whose trade has been in the family for generations, and the two bond over this as well as their shared sentiments on the ills of isolationism and modern capitalism.

Even apart from Chaucer’s prologue and a Dryden excerpt, this film often reminds me of the poets Kent has inspired, like Edmund Blunden who could have been describing Bob and his new friends when he wrote about those ‘men of pith and thew [who] built the barn, the forge, the mill. // On the green they watched their sons / Playing till too dark to see, / As their fathers watched them once, / As my father once watched me.’ But if Blunden, Edward Thomas, Housman, or Betjeman’s Kent sometimes signals longing for lost innocence, A Canterbury Tale seems mostly content, bathing in a more liberating, eternal constancy of places that people can go from and come to again (to misquote A Shropshire Lad). This continuation of land and lore is also suggested reassuringly, if wistfully, by the serenely handsome James Sadler as both the falconer of yore and soldier of today: each a pilgrim in Esmond Knight’s narration.

As always, Powell & Pressburger are infinitely at home between ‘the law of this world and the other,’ and every element of the film seems to move with the same ease between the planes. Erwin Hillier’s cinematography takes evident pleasure in dramatic, expressionist angles, practically glowing in every exquisite degree of light and dark too, John-Alton-like, painting mythical scenes indoors and outdoors. It is also, alternately, completely at home as a pitch-perfect (if accidental) documentary, the floating, archival camera capturing local life ‘at ease’ (echoed in the syncopated cutting too; John Seabourne formerly edited Gaumont Sound News reels). Then the aural texture of the film sews together stirring music, voices, and the supernatural silences in between. Like Betjeman’s ‘North Coast Recollections,’ it’s full of ‘layers on interchanging layers of sound,’ and as we go back and forth/around and around fact and fiction, a strangely lulling magic begins to emanate from the gaps in A Canterbury Tale.

Even as Peter appears to have clinched things with a timetable discovery, the urgency to solve the mystery ebbs a little as idyllic country life makes its mark on Alison and Bob, and us too. The noirish nighttime fog and lantern shadows from the first act give way to more rich cloud-dappled light on Tudor homes. There are long patient scans of the bubbling river and rolling fields like postcards in motion, wandering through the early evening; when the Universal Carriers cross the hills rudely – anxiously? – the Arcadian landscape feels sentient almost, reflecting passing conflicts and emotions but on the whole, eternally unmoved. But it moves our characters deeply, like Alison on her walk in the woods that ‘doesn’t seem to lead anywhere’ except to a view of the distant Canterbury Cathedral. 

It’s likely the high point of the film, and a personal favourite, when the misty veil between past and present parts as seamlessly as it does in the beginning: Sim’s radiant face fills up nearly the whole frame in a long, unhurried scene, surprised but transfixed as she hears medieval murmurs and melodies of centuries past. The scene allows us to take in a full moment of enchantment, only just, before screen and sound blink back almost suddenly, returning to the natural silence of the hilly fields with Alison’s rightly-sized figure in the middle of it. The cut also brings us to the faun-like presence of Colpeper, who betrays himself –not for the first time, nor the last – as a demi-Lugh or Puckish táltos when he says he was busy ‘breathing the air, smelling the earth, watching the clouds’ until she disturbed him. Up until now, he’s maintained an awkward distance from Alison; their early encounters were antagonistic, uncomfortable, while their third appeared to move him deeply when he found she was the only other person who felt the way he did about ancient history.

Colpeper’s harder-to-understand capriciousness and not-so-modern views of justice give him a mystical unpredictability, part human flaw and part unsettling awe. But his first meaningful conversation alone with her now has a sweet approachability, a platonic intimacy about it. He is less the prejudiced Luddite and more a progressive, sympathetic friend for a change, as the pair contemplates how the war has swept the rug out from underneath them. Alison shares her secret loss with Colpeper, who in return suggests she believe in second chances, and together they begin considering life ‘after the war,’ more inclusive and hopeful for everyone, the cook, clerk, doctor, lawyer, and merchant he preaches to. Colpeper begins to reveal more generous feelings for others, pointing out to Alison, ‘You know, I think a shopgirl has a bigger chance of a miracle than a millionaire.’ If the past has a reassuring constancy, the future includes progressive promises to include women, married, unmarried, in between, the men and women who wish forge their own little ways together – ‘everybody,’ as Colpeper reminds Alison twice.

Hoffmann-esque ‘Glue Man’ aside, in many ways this is one of the most subdued – ‘adjusted’ – of the Powell-Pressburger oeuvre (no David Farrar dreaming of drink, not even David Farrar in shorts for that matter). As positively dreamy as it is from beginning to end, in many ways it is also the most realistic, human. Bob, Alison, and Peter nurse incredibly ordinary dreams and hopes: missing fiancés, silent girlfriends, lost opportunities – something for everyone. But as commonplace as these dreams are, they are the most impossible, the most desperately sought for, fervently begged for, and the treatment of these shared desires is the most positively subversive hope against hope, to consider a different – even, possible – future to follow a seemingly bleak present. The film’s dialogues critically question the relentless rush of modern industrialism, classism, sexism, and parochial insularism, old habits revisited by the ‘earthquake,’ as Alison and Colpeper describe it, the ‘gauntlet with a gift in‘t’ that hardly anyone asked for. What, they collectively ask instead, are these precious things to search for and preserve, to shape a better England or maybe a world, if it will still be around?


The fact that the film was also assembled by a largely immigrant, European group of creators, ‘palmers for to seken straunge strondes’ ‘to sing the Lord’s songs in an alien land,’ maybe (not only Jewish-Hungarian émigré Pressburger but also German-English Erwin Hillier, German production designer Alfred Junge and conductor Walter Goehr, and Polish composer Allan Gray, born Josef Zmigrod) might also explain why the Chillingbourne they portray is less a jingoistic defence of a chosen Albion and more a love letter to the universal homeland at peace – and with sincere love too, for Kent itself was Powell’s fondly-remembered childhood home. This sounds almost pacifist, though maybe it isn’t, I’m not sure. It is after all semi-propaganda rallying for Anglo-American unity and friendship in the face of darkness, and in its own way it fulfils this directive beautifully, ancient Belgian coins and all (even if it missed the timely mark on its eventual release in 1944). But its nebulousness reminds me of the other slightly ‘out-of-place’ or otherworldly films of the war years like Basil Dearden’s The Halfway House of the same year, Roy Boulting’s 1942 Thunder Rock, and retrospective wartime fantasies in John Newland’s One Step Beyond or Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks (Colpeper would hardly be out of place fighting Nazis with ghostly armies). Even Jean Renoir’s 1937 La Grande Illusion momentarily surmounts or ‘escapes’ the awfulness of (both) world wars by meditating on the nuances of humanity that mend divides, the ties that bind.

Powell & Pressburger are great escape artists when it comes to pinning down genres and styles, and maybe French poetic realism doesn’t quite fit A Canterbury Tale, but there’s certainly an expressionist leaning in there somewhere: out of the naturalistic country scenes and half-Penguin/half-Grimm mystery we find something resembling poetry, even science fiction – life after the War. If the enemy is markedly absent from the film – compared especially to their other wartime works like 49th Parallel or even A Matter of Life and Death – the War hangs over everything constantly like an anxious pall – and it literally hangs over everything too, with barrage balloons just within frame over blitzed-out Canterbury, piercing the otherwise painfully Parrish-perfect skies. On the way there by train, Colpeper entreats his three visitors who disparaged the meaningfulness of his lectures, ‘Who cares about these things in wartime? Who cares about them in peacetime?’ Here finally, the conclusion to his stirring town-hall lecture earlier, that the threat of loss makes the innocently bucolic Chillingbourne more urgently fragile, precious, and in need of protection (‘blessings for the future’), the powerful ancestral roots, ‘the house you were born in,’ that his soldiers only had to lean on, to go on.

‘Suppose there was peace again, suppose there were holidays again,’ Colpeper asks invitingly of the soldiers at his lecture. Do you remember the opening words of Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon (1938)? ‘In these days of wars and rumours of wars – haven’t you ever dreamed of a place where there was peace and security, where living was not a struggle but a lasting delight?’ Initially modestly received, the film was somewhat a departure for the director (who would later work on the American Why We Fight pictures), and the words betray more naïve, child-like hope than James Hilton’s novel, but one wonders if they transparently channelled the filmgoer’s hopes. In a 1978 tribute to Capra, John Cassavetes wonders, ‘Maybe there really wasn’t an America. Maybe it was only Frank Capra.’ Powell and Pressburger’s Kent is no Shangri-La, their combined native and foreign eyes conjuring a flawed yet consecrated place, re-imagined to transcend time. Powell’s updated Prologue dryly observes that ‘we modern pilgrims see no journey’s end,’ the treatment of the young soldiers and Land Girls is refreshingly, morally accommodating – and there’s a knowing wistful irony to the group’s wishes that Bob’s future son comes back ‘in mufti,’ but the optimism is there all the same. Could it be, like the Canterbury of Thomas à Becket, an offering of anticipation in the midst of turbulence?

Anyway, the romantic wonders of the Weald and the hypnotic powers of Tom Colpeper may have drawn us in, but not so British Sergeant Peter Gibbs, who thus far doesn’t get nearly as much screen-time or impact compared to the endearing Alison and Bob. Peter (played perfectly by a young, invalided-out Price) is every bit the sensible and sophisticated young boy-scout officer, a former cinema organist who prefers the London air but eagerly jumps into the role of detective. A somewhat cynical realist, Peter hasn’t any of the apparent romantic yearnings, connections to the country, or generational occupation his friends have, but he nurses a gentle hurt behind this brittle shell: his lost calling as a church organist. Bob is a careful peacemaker, empathetically forgiving of Colpeper on the train, while Alison displays a sweet magnanimity in understanding his shortcomings (her gentle rebuke of his failing to invite women to his lectures is a terrifically charged, kindly ‘pity’), but Peter holds out as a Doubting Thomas, uncomfortable with rationalising the Glue Man’s bizarre actions, sustaining a tonic discord in what is otherwise a distractedly harmonious picture. When Peter visits Colpeper’s estate earlier, he is politely accusatory, softened by the man’s friendliness but unmoved by his overtures: he’s not remotely interested in slowing down to enjoy the hidden gifts of the countryside, content to be the urbane bachelor mildly discontented with modern life in the city, and he approaches his new life with the same light pragmatism.

But even though he heads straight for the police station in Canterbury while Alison and Bob want to see the Cathedral, it is through Peter’s eyes that we get to see it first. While Alison and Bob receive their own near-impossible blessings in town, Peter is redirected in his search for the Superintendent, becoming an angel un(self)awares after his own blessings and Colpeper’s penance – Peter’s accidental halo on the train, for one sitting ‘in darkness and in the shadow of death,’ is a dazzling bit of Archer art. Alison is certainly the great catalyst of change in the film; her story has the greatest (feminist and woman-focused) driving power, carrying a culminating emotional weight for herself and everyone else. And her moment on the hill is the romantic height of this too, but suddenly we find ourselves directed to a new, unexpectedly moving ‘moment’ with Peter.

The surefooted soldier becomes a boyish pilgrim, reverently softened once inside the church. And when the organist lets slip a sheet of music, Peter is given the chance to become the man who, as Colpeper gently suggested to him, ‘learns to walk step by step so that one day he might climb Mount Everest.’ His touching exchange with the organist provides comfort and encouragement for the soon-to-depart soldier. There’s a prematurely mournful, fragile aspect to Peter’s blessing as he is soon to leave for the front, a fact everyone accepts with a mildly shell-shocked, stiff upper lip positivity, but even the outwardly cynical modern man is given the thing he cherished and hurt for the most. And in fact, it is his blessing that brings everyone together too, for the special service, tied in to the closing scenes of Chillingbourne ‘after the war,’ each anticipated moment more moving and illuminating than the last, each one a frail but firm hope. So maybe medieval pilgrimages and wild blackberries, do not a war picture make, and certainly it’s not what one expects or looks for in a war picture, but maybe occasionally exactly what we need in wartime, peacetime, and in-between-time. How does one reconcile magic with real life (when else, one wonders, would it mean so much)? What else, for some of us, is cinema for?

 (I'd submitted this earlier to a magazine I admire and wanted to contribute to, though on retrospect it's too roundabout altogether so that's alright, but I'm glad I wrote it because it was time to anyway (only the millionth/fourth time I write again about ACT haha), plus I got to do some nice illustrations to go with it :')) Xo