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Canterbury Tale, A (1944)


Warning: screenonline full synopses contain 'spoilers' which give away key plot points. Don't read on if you don't want to know the ending!

At Chillingbourne railway station in Kent, three passengers arrive during the blackout - American soldier Sgt. Bob Johnson (who was headed for Canterbury but got out one stop early by mistake), British Sergeant Peter Gibbs, and London girl Alison Smith. Making their way in the darkness to the town, Alison has something poured on to her hair by an unseen attacker.

Bob and Pete pursue the attacker to the town hall, where they learn that Alison has fallen prey to a mysterious 'glue man' who has already attacked another ten local women. The building is searched, but the glue man is nowhere to be found. Alison presents herself to the local magistrate Thomas Colpeper as a land girl assigned from London, but Colpeper dismisses her.

Finding herself at the same hotel as Bob, Alison persuades him to stay with her the next day, so that they can head off to Canterbury together. The next day Alison finds herself employment in a local farm. Meeting Bob, she persuades him to help her in her quest to discover the identity of the glue man. He tells her that his girlfriend back at home has stopped writing to him, while she tells him that her fiancé is missing in action.

Alison begins talking to the glue man's previous victims. Later that day, she runs into Peter, on exercises with his troop. Peter tells Alison what he has learned about the glue man's victims, each of whom had been out on dates with soldiers before the attacks took place. He also tells her about a lecture that evening by Colpeper, who is a key suspect in their investigation.

Alison, Bob and Peter attend Colpeper's lecture, in which he talks of the history of Kent and the Pilgrims' Way and sets out his spiritual vision of England's countryside. Alison is moved by the talk, and afterwards the three discuss their findings and further evidence which points to Colpeper as the glue man.

The three continue their investigations the next day, with Bob enlisting the help of some local children, while Alison continues her questioning of the glue man's previous victims and Peter goes to visit Colpeper in his home in the guise of someone interested in local history. Forced to concede that he has very little interest in the country, Peter does admit that he once had ambitions to be a church organist.

Later, Alison walks the Pilgrims' Way, revisiting the scene of an idyllic caravanning holiday spent with her fiance before the war. Up on the Bend, she hears the music and voices of the Canterbury pilgrims, 600 years earlier. Her reverie is interrupted by Colpeper, who is sitting nearby. The two begin to talk, and find they share an attachment to the countryside. Colpeper apologises for his earlier misjudgement of Alison. Hidden by the long grass, they are not seen by Bob and and Peter climbing the hill. The two soldiers, who are more pragmatic in their attitudes to nature, reveal that they have now proven beyond doubt that Colpeper is the glue man.

The next morning, Alison, Bob and Peter take the train to Canterbury, and are joined in their carriage by Colpepper. The magistrate confesses that he is the glueman, explaining that his purpose was both to prevent local women from dallying with soldiers while their sweethearts were away and to reawaken a sense of England's rural heritage among its troops in the absence of distractions from local women. He describes himself as a missionary, and expresses his belief that each will receive a 'blessing'. While not approving of his methods, Bob and Alison are sympathetic to his objectives, but Peter, who is altogether more sceptical, insists that he must be reported to the police.

Arriving in Canterbury, the four part company, but each, in his or her own way, receives the blessing that Colpeper had predicted. Peter, whose battalion is to go on active service, attempts to contact the Police Superintendent, and is referred to the cathedral, where he asks the organist where to find him. When the organist drops a paper, Peter follows him, and becomes fascinated with the organ. Peter introduces himself as a cinema organist and the organist offers him a chance to play. Meanwhile, Alison goes to visit her fiancé Geoffrey's caravan, which lies in storage at a blacksmith's. She is overcome with grief when she discovers the caravan moth-eaten, with its tires requisitioned. However, the blacksmith arrives, and gives her a message from Geoffrey's father, who has been trying to contact her with news - that Geoffrey has been found, alive, in Gibraltar. Bob goes to meet his friend, and learns that his girlfriend has not abandoned him, but that her letters were delayed when she joined the Women's Army Corps. Alison and Geoffrey's father, as well as Colpeper, Bob and his friend, attend a huge service in the cathedral for the departing troops, at which Peter plays the organ.