A Canterbury Tale

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I’m really, really sad to say it, but I do not believe A Canterbury Tale is a good film. One of the World War II propaganda films by one of my favorite directing teams, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, A Canterbury Tale not only shows its propagandist origins a bit too much for my taste, but has an incredibly bland plot in the process. It really seems to be A Matter of Life and Death-lite.

A young woman named Alison (Sheila Sim), a English soldier named Gibbs (Dennis Price), and an American Sergeant named Bob Johnson (John Sweet) all travel to the English town of Chillingbourne, near Canterbury. Alison is looking for a job, Gibbs is stationed there, and Johnson simply got off at the wrong stop. They’ve barely arrived in town before poor Alison falls prey to a sinister figure called “the Glue Man,” so named for his tendency to pour “sticky stuff” on the hair of unsuspecting young women on the streets of Chillingbourne. The three of them unite to track down the infamous “Glue Man,” believing it to be the town magistrate, Thomas Culpeper (Eric Portman), who is preoccupied by the countryside and its history.

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Like their next film, A Matter of Life and Death, A Canterbury Tale has the purpose of bringing together Americans and Englishmen. Just like in that film, I still don’t understand why anybody thought this was necessary. Was it really a concern that the US and the British wouldn’t get along after WWII? I can’t speak to that, obviously not having been around during that time, but it still seems like an odd mission statement for a war propaganda film to have. The other immediate concern is to give Englishmen an appreciation for the countryside and its history, which I guess is fine and was probably more important considering it was all getting destroyed and everything. Even though this second message perhaps makes more sense than the first, they still go about it in an incredibly obvious way (meaning really direct dialogue on the subject).

With A Matter of Life and Death, you had all of this tedious propaganda but you also had the absolutely stunning Technicolor photography, the interesting use of color, great performances by David Niven, Kim Hunter, and Archers regulars Roger Livesay and Marius Goring, and some very inventive camera tricks. Here we have…. none of those things. It’s not that the film doesn’t have good points, seeing the Canterbury Cathedral is pretty awe-inspiring (especially once you go on Wikipedia and find that it was all the work of the Archers’ regular production designer, Alfred Junge), and you do see a lot of interesting locations. The version I watched (on Amazon Prime) was not the Criterion, and I have a feeling that one could appreciate the photography a lot better in a restored version.

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The whole “Glue Man” plot is such low stakes compared to, I don’t know, World War II, that I really had very little patience with it. Obviously a guy going around pouring glue on women’s hair isn’t great, but it’s not the worst that could happen either. Plus the whole film is really British, so they’re all very low key about the whole thing. Like “oh I rather like the chap” and all that sort of thing. The larger story is that the three main characters all make it to Canterbury, just like the pilgrims of old, and find what they were looking for and through solving the “Glue Man” mystery, gain more appreciation of their environment and fellow men. This is a nice message and all, but not exactly riveting cinema.

I really had a tough time with A Canterbury Tale. I would suggest only watching this for Archers completists, and if you feel compelled to watch it make sure you don’t watch the one on Amazon. Just don’t do it. It’s not that it’ll improve the flat acting or the ridiculous plot, but based on what I’ve read it actually is a good looking film if you can actually see it. Really, A Matter of Life and Death does almost all the same things as A Canterbury Tale, and does them so much better.

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“It was a long row of back gardens, and the tall, sad houses were all the same.”

Long story short: 2/4 stars

For Further Reading:

Criterion Collection article
Guardian article

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