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A Canterbury Tale - Criterion Collection
A Canterbury Tale - Criterion Collection
Actors: Eric Portman, Sheila Sim, Steve Crook, Julie Ede, Michael Eyers
Directors: David Thompson, Emeric Pressburger, Michael Powell
Genres: Indie & Art House, Comedy, Drama, Mystery & Suspense, Military & War
UR     2006     2hr 4min

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger?s beloved classic A Canterbury Tale is a profoundly personal journey to Powell?s bucolic birthplace of Kent, England. Set amidst the tumult of the Second World War yet with a rhythm as...  more »


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Movie Details

Actors: Eric Portman, Sheila Sim, Steve Crook, Julie Ede, Michael Eyers
Directors: David Thompson, Emeric Pressburger, Michael Powell
Creators: Emeric Pressburger, Michael Powell, Jock Laurence
Genres: Indie & Art House, Comedy, Drama, Mystery & Suspense, Military & War
Sub-Genres: Indie & Art House, Comedy, Classics, Mystery & Suspense, Military & War
Studio: Criterion
Format: DVD - Black and White,Full Screen - Subtitled
DVD Release Date: 07/25/2006
Original Release Date: 01/21/1949
Theatrical Release Date: 01/21/1949
Release Year: 2006
Run Time: 2hr 4min
Screens: Black and White,Full Screen
Number of Discs: 2
SwapaDVD Credits: 2
Total Copies: 0
Members Wishing: 6
Edition: Criterion Collection
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Languages: English
Subtitles: English

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Movie Reviews

A luminous, magical masterpiece from Michael Powell and Emer
C. O. DeRiemer | San Antonio, Texas, USA | 07/26/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)

"In 1980, Emeric Pressburger said, "A script can only create nests in which magic may settle." With A Canterbury Tale, he and his partner, Michael Powell, created one of the most magical, luminous and eccentric movies ever made. The film is far removed from the obvious patriotic product they were asked to produce and yet it is one of the most effective evocations of why Britain and America were fighting a common enemy.

The plot is so slight and off-hand it can't be taken too seriously. It's just a device to have three modern pilgrims stay awhile in the English village of Chillingbourne on Chaucer's pilgrims road to Canterbury. The three are Alison Smith (Sheila Sim), a land girl from London, come to work on a farm and who has been notified her fiance has been killed in action; British sergeant Peter Gibbs (Dennis Price), a trained organist who played organs in cinema houses and is joining his unit on the outskirts of the village; and U. S. sergeant Bob Johnson (real life Sergeant John Sweet, recruited by Powell to play this part), on leave for a few days who got off the train at the wrong station and who hasn't heard from his wife for months. Someone in the village is pouring glue on the hair of village girls who have been dating soldiers. As the three leave the train station during blackout, Alison has glue poured on her hair. The three make their way to the magistrate, Thomas Colpepper (Eric Portman), who seems cold and uninterested in Alison's plight. The three determine to find out by themselves who the mysterious "glueman" really is.

Powell and Pressburger use this slight device to evoke a deep feeling of the continuity of life, the sense that history is just as much a part of what is now as what has been. Michael Powell's lean kind of humor is used to explore the life of the village and the interaction of the American sergeant with village people. The point of the movie the government wanted was to demonstrate that Britain and the U.S. shared the same values in the fight against Germany. At the time the movie was made, England was filling up with American G.I.s as the months leading to the 1944 invasion of Normandy sped by and there was much tension. Powell and Pressburger deal with this issue in a variety of subtle ways, most affectingly when Sergeant Johnson finds himself in a conversation with an aging carpenter. They find they surprisingly have much in common. They both know wood and care for craftsmanship. The old man, suspicious at first of this American, winds up inviting him to dinner.

But the movie is far more about values. That Colpepper is the glueman is obvious early in the movie (this is no spoiler), yet why does he do it? He's no captive of the past. He speaks, however, for the continuance of values and history, that they are a part of us. Values and history give us strength and give worth to our lives and our work today. He tries to explain this one afternoon to Alison. "There is more than one way of getting close to your ancestors," he tells her. "Follow the Old Road and as you do, think of them; they climbed Chillingbourne Hill just as you did. They sweated and paused for breath just as you did today. And when you see the bluebells in the spring and the wild thyme, and the broom and the heather, you're seeing what their eyes saw. You ford the same rivers, the same birds singing. And when you lie flat on your back and rest, and watch the clouds sailing as I often do, you're so close to those other people, that you can hear the thrumming of the hoofs of their horses, and the sound of the wheels on the road, and their laughter, and talk, and the music of the instruments they carried. And they turned the bend in the road, where they too saw the towers of Canterbury. I feel I have only to turn my head to see them on the road behind me."

In their own way, just as with Chaucer's pilgrims seeking blessings and miracles, Alison, Bob and Peter are pilgrims, too. On their way to Canterbury at last, Peter plans to give the evidence they discovered about the glueman to the police. Alison will find the caravan she and her fiance had stayed in. Bob will meet a friend and see the cathedral. They will find unexpected blessings which are as emotional for us as they are to the three. Even Colpepper finds a blessing. The movie's commentator, British film historian Ian Christie, says, "The characters are searching, but they don't know for what. The landscapes they move through are rich in associations but they are often ignorant of these, and so their progress is full of uncertainty, which we are encouraged to share." Powell and Pressburger managed to create, from what was asked to be a simple propaganda movie, a film which has turned out to be an eccentric masterpiece. If in doubt, just watch the opening when Chaucer's pilgrims are on their way to Canterbury and a hunting hawk is released. It soars into the sky, up and up, turning and twisting, and before we can register it, the dot that was a hawk has become a Spitfire, circling and twisting down towards us, and we're in wartime Britain in 1943.

I've watched this movie several times on VHS tape and the Region 2 DVD. I'd always considered it one of Powell and Pressburger's near-great films. After watching twice Criterion's immaculate DVD presentation, which for the first time brings out the subtleties of the night sequences and makes evident how luminous and warm the black and white photography was, I've changed my mind. I unreservedly rank A Canterbury Tale with the other great and marvelous, quirky and completely original Powell and Pressburger films:

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) is a one-of-a-kind look at a life and how it changed but also held true to "Englishness." Unusual and innovative, with great performances by Roger Livesey and Anton Walbrook. Amazing that it was commissioned as a propaganda piece during WWII and wound up with Churchill having a fit over it. Available from Criterion.
A Canterbury Tale (1944)
I Know Where I'm Going (1945) is one of the most romantic films ever made, and without an iota of sentimentality. Wendy Hiller and Roger Livesey. Available from Criterion.
A Matter of Life and Death (1946) is a strange and deeply affecting reflection on love and life and death. David Niven, Kim Hunter and Roger Livesey.
Black Narcissus (1947) is an intense and gorgeous film about repressed feelings, frustration and the exotic. Deborah Kerr and David Farrar. Available from Criterion.
The Red Shoes (1948) is a lush, beautiful, mesmerizing and melodramatic story of torn feelings and obsession. The ballet of the Red Shoes is almost 60 years old and has yet to be bettered as an extended dance sequence in a movie. Anton Walbrook and Moira Shearer. Available from Criterion.

By 1943, with The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Michael Powell, doing the directing, and Emeric Pressburger, doing the writing, had become The Archers, agreeing to take joint and equal credit for the writing, directing and producing of their movies. What movies they were. I can't think of any individual or pair of movie makers who were responsible for so many creative, idiosyncratic, different and just plain great films as these two.

The Criterion presentation is immaculate. The two-disc DVD set includes an excellent commentary by Ian Christie and a number of extras. Some of these include a new video interview with Sheila Sim, a documentary about John Sweet and a documentary visiting the film locations. Included is a booklet with important film essays."
A gem of a movie
C. M. Walklin | Kent, UK | 02/11/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)

"A strange, numinous little gem of a movie, shot in and around a luftwaffe-devastated Canterbury in the run-up to D Day, 1945. Renowned director Michael Powell returns to his beloved home City to update the Canterbury Tales - 3 modern-day "pilgrims" - a Land Girl, US GI & British soldier, brought together by their hunt for the mysterious "glue man" who pours glue on local girls who date soldiers - all receive their "blessings", as indeed does the glue man. The fantastic cloudscapes & vast skies of East Kent are stunning backdrops to crucial scenes & the amazing & typical Powell/Pressburger/Renoir use of light throughout adds to the air of magical realism. A must-buy!!!"
The sense of the past
Jay Dickson | Portland, OR | 08/08/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)

"One of the most intellectually complex of all the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, "The Archers," A CANTERBURY TALE was intended to boost morale during the war concerning British and American relations during the preparations for the D-Day invasion of the continent. Three modern pilgrims on their way to Canterbury and its environs--a self-assured "Land Girl," a cynical cinema organist now serving in the army, and a clever and folksy American GI--attempt to solve a bizarre local mystery in the Kentish town of Chillingbourne: the identity of the enigmatic "Glue Man" who keeps pouring glue into the hair of local women after dusk. The film is much more than a mystery, and as the DVD commentary by Ian Christie and the accompanying textual materials in this lovely Criterion release make clear, it is so much more indeed it becomes almost unclassifiable. It is a comedy, particularly in the charming bits with the local children. Like all of Michael Powell's films, it is also a romance involving sexual hysteria. Above all it is a pastoral meditation on the status of England and its heritage at a truly crucial time in its history, and it asserts both the discontinuities with the agrarian past and the need to reconnect with it during a troubled time of modernity. The "aw shucks" demeanour of the Oregon GI (John Sweet) can take some getting used to, but Sheila Sim is really extraordinary as the Land Girl, and Dennis Portman is also quite fine as the local squire who becomes central to the trio's investigations. The tremendous closing sequence of the film involving the organ of the Canterbury Cathedral is one of the most striking evocations of the sublime in the history of film."
"Do You Believe In The Soul?"
Kevin Killian | San Francisco, CA United States | 08/15/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)

"It doesn't have the instant charm of I KNOW WHERE I'M GOING, and Sheils Sim, the ingenue whose first film role this was, doesn't have the swanky, leading lady adorableness that Wendy Hiller radiates in IKWIG, and yet when all is said and done it may be A CANTERBURY TALE that you'll remember longer.

If you are new to Michael Powell's work you might want to watch THE RED SHOES or PEEPING TOM right away, maybe BLACK NARCISSUS. His other movies take a little getting used to, as most of them are genuinely odd. And perhaps nothing is as odd as the storyline of A CANTERBURY TALE, in which eleven young women have been molested at night by a fleeting stranger in Home Guard uniform pouring glue in their hair during the blackout. Okay, that's weird, but what's even stranger is that right away we find out who the culprit is, and the suspense is going to be, will the three pilgrims let him off the hook or not?

On the commentary track, Sheila Sim, now 80 something and still very sharp and lovely, recalls an earlier version of the script in which the "Glueman" didn't use glue at all, but rather ran around ripping girls' skirts with a pair of scissors, and in her recollection this aspect was changed because of its sexual connotations. Interesting that Powell thought of the glue-on-hair scheme since he was the film world's greatest hair fetishist, just as Cecil B. DeMille had a thing for feet. Sim relates that it wasn't until she read Powell's memoirs A LIFE IN MOVIES did she realize he was bitterly disappointed that Deborah Kerr had ankled the part, and that she (Sim) was not even a close second. But I think by the end of the film her performance is so beautiful it makes you happy Kerr stayed home and did something else instead. All of them are good, but of course the jewel in the crown is the performance of John Sweet as the American sergeant Bob Johnson, with his little slits for eyes and his mountain of fried hair and his incomparable aura of sincerity, as though America was both the youngest and the oldest nation in the world. There's nobody like him in the movies, not even Henry Fonda in YOUNG MR LINCOLN or James Stewart in DESTRY RIDES AGAIN or Burl Ives in FROSTY THE SNOWMAN is anywhere near as folksy as the amazing Mr. Sweet.

Eric Portman could be a killer, he's so cold and grim. When he and Sheila Sim share a "secret understanding," the movie seems to be all about carnal love and the way it flip flops into the spiritual. Their scene, hiding in the heather on top of a hill, is the centerpiece of a modern morality tale. The film opens windows in the soul. It has a little knock in it, like a motor car. A CANTERBURY TALE has been beautifully restored; you can see every drop of glue in Sheils Sim's side-parted hair. Haven't seen them all, but I'd say this might be the best DVD of summer 2006."