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Canterbury Tale, A (1944)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment

Main image of Canterbury Tale, A (1944)
35mm, black and white, 124 mins
Written, Directed &Michael Powell &
Produced byEmeric Pressburger
Production CompanyArchers Film Productions
CinematographyErwin Hillier
MusicAllan Gray

Cast: Eric Portman (J.P. Thomas Colpeper), Sheila Sim (Alison Smith), John Sweet (Sgt Bob Johnson), Dennis Price (Sgt Peter Gibbs)

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A young land girl, arriving in Kent, is attacked by a mysterious man who pours glue in her hair. She and two soldiers determine to track down the 'glue man' and in the process begin a 'pilgrimage' which will lead each of them to self-discovery.

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Probably Powell and Pressburger's most personal and unusual film, A Canterbury Tale (1944) bewildered critics and audiences on its release, but has since come to be seen as one of their very best; Pressburger himself later declared it his favourite.

The film is structured as a mystery story, but its real purpose is to add a spiritual dimension to the propaganda message of earlier films like 49th Parallel (1941) and "...One of Our Aircraft is Missing" (1942). There are no Nazis in A Canterbury Tale and, although the war provides its backdrop, the focus is on identifying a distinctively moral and spiritual English identity, in direct opposition to the harsh material objectives of fascism.

The film offers a vision of an England with its spiritual roots in the countryside exemplified by the beauty of Kent - the county of Powell's birth - an England which its increasingly urban population have neglected for too long. Evoking Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the film charts the progress of a select band of modern pilgrims. As the trio of land girl Alison (Sheila Sim), American officer Bob (John Sweet) and British officer Peter (Dennis Price) converge on Canterbury Cathedral, each receives a 'blessing', bringing his or her most fervent wish to life. The film's peculiar power owes much to Eric Portman who, as the enigmatic Thomas Colpeper - local Justice of the Peace, prophet and one of Powell's many screen alter-egos - delivers an intense and complex performance, just as he had in 49th Parallel three years earlier.

Despite the trappings of Christianity, particularly the grand finale in the cathedral, the film's strange atmosphere seems at times closer to paganism than Anglicanism, and the most memorable character, a mysterious man who pours glue in the hair of local women who fraternise with soldiers, resembles a fairytale bogeyman. Critics were particularly uncomfortable with the morally ambiguous figure of the glue man, and many remembered this in their outrage at Powell's 'unsavoury' solo work Peeping Tom (1960) sixteen years later.

Eerie and resonant, A Canterbury Tale is perhaps the most complete expression of Powell's fascination with the mystical power of landscape, which is also visible in works like Edge of the World (1937), "I Know Where I'm Going!" (1945), Black Narcissus (1947) and Gone to Earth (1950).

Mark Duguid

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Video Clips
1. Pilgrims long ago (0:35)
2. Colpeper's lecture (2:37)
3. On the Pilgrim's Road (3:56)
4. The Canterbury train (2:13)
5. A blessing (4:26)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
'I Know Where I'm Going!' (1945)
Halfway House, The (1944)
Words for Battle (1941)
Goehr, Walter (1903-1960)
Gray, Allan (1902-1973)
Hawtrey, Charles (1914-1988)
Hillier, Erwin (1911-2005)
Junge, Alfred (1886-1964)
Knight, Esmond (1906-1987)
Portman, Eric (1903-1969)
Powell, Michael (1905-1990)
Pressburger, Emeric (1902-1988)
Price, Dennis (1915-1973)
Slater, John (1916-1975)
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