This annotation previously appeared in Senses of Cinema, no. 36, Jul–Sept 2005.
A Canterbury Tale (1944 UK 124 mins)
Source: NFVLS Prod Co: The Archers Prod, Dir, Scr: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger Phot: Edwin Hillier Ed: John Seabourne Prod Des: Alfred Junge Mus: Allan Gray
Cast: Eric Portman, Sheila Sim, Sgt. John Sweet, Dennis Price, Esmond Knight, Charles Hawtrey, Hay Petrie, George Merrit
There is a moment of linkage (a jump cut) at the beginning of A Canterbury Tale where the falcon loosed by a medieval Knight on a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral soars in the sky, then becomes another kind of soaring bird, a metal one, a World War II fighter. This elegant montage binds together two times, linked by the same sky above the same land, and brings out a sense of continuity that is dominant throughout the film. There is a sense of time not as a series of ruptures (as war is a rupture or earthquake, as Thomas Colpeper [Eric Portman] calls it) but as something that flows continuously. Time flows through the land like a river, be it the Stour or the Mississippi, a river feeding the land but always moving through it, a pilgrim on route to the sea.
Everyone in this film is a pilgrim, by their own will and by the influence of the road on which they walk, linked by the tread of all the feet that have gone before. There is a sense that time is not broken, cannot be broken. The Pilgrim’s Road just needs to be uncovered, and it’s there again. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are the stories told by pilgrims during their journey. Though it was written in the 14th century, the single letter “A” that starts A Canterbury Tale links this film with the earlier text effortlessly. The road was always there and its magic still works. We see it when Alison (Sheila Sim) hears the music of the medieval pilgrims, but we see it too, stronger though less obvious, as it works its will on the British soldier, Peter (Dennis Price). It is he who drives tanks across the landscape to Alison’s fury, he who didn’t even know the countryside existed. Peter says he has “the best job” being a cinema organist when his heart really wants more. The Pilgrim’s Road takes him to where he recognises and welcomes his heart’s true desire, and spreads out to fill himself, his own self huge at last, as the music he plays fills the huge cathedral which lies at the road’s end.
The centuries of feet on the bend of the road make it clear that time and place are linked. This is a film about England. Made during the war, it contains a certain amount of propaganda. There is a sense of a common enemy and present danger – the American sergeant working with the English and the film’s celebration of an ancient culture worthy of protection are part of this. But the film transcends propaganda and becomes something greater. When Bob Johnson (Sgt. John Sweet) bonds with Jim Horton (Edward Rigby) the wheelwright over the nature of timber, one can see how this shows that we (the allies) are united in spite of our differences. But what it really shows is something less jingoistic and more mysterious – the nature of wood, and man’s relationship to it, with the rhythm and time that nature dictates (cut oak in the winter and season the wood one year for every inch), linking not just Oregon to Kent, but now to then. It is only through his experiences in Chillingborne that Bob, so deeply rooted to the land of his home, can feel “fine”, that he can understand the link between Canterbury Cathedral and the first church built in Johnson County. The link between times is also a link through space. It is across a bridge made of the boards sawn from the trees that line the Pilgrim’s Way that a kestrel can becomes a Spitfire.
These things are mysterious. This is a film full of mystery. The mystery that the three amateur detectives try to unravel is that of the glue man, a figure who pours glue into the hair of girls who are out at night with soldiers. The three “miracles” that transform the lives of the detectives are also mysteries, and at the centre of the film is the great mystery of Thomas Colpeper, the guardian of Kent and its traditions. He is a pilgrim too, but a very different kind of one, and the daylight incarnation of the glue man.
The glue man dominates the film as he dominates the village. It was Emeric Pressburger who came up with the idea of the pouring of glue into girls’ hair, and it is a magnificent and mysterious conceit, both harmless (the glue comes out) and profoundly invasive, humorous in its oddity and very ambiguous. There is perverse sexuality in the act, as though the glue man were all but ejaculating into the girls’ hair, an act full of both misogyny and desire. The final mystery is the glue man’s identity. It seems clear from early in the film that the glue man is Colpeper. The evidence points to him, the three detectives are certain. And yet an ambiguity remains. Even in the confrontation on the train to Canterbury there is a sense that the glue man is a separate entity. While he doesn’t deny what he did, even Colpeper refers to him in the third person. It is hard to shake the feeling that the real glue man is not present in that train carriage.
This kind of mystery is something Colpeper carries with him. The first time we see him, working in the courtroom of the village hall he has already, in the first few minutes of the film become partly mythic. By the end of the film Colpeper is almost wholly mythic, more angel than human. From the beginning, even when he is dislikeable, there is something of the angel about him. He seems to glow; he shines white in his light-coloured suit next to the darkly clad soldiers. His sudden disappearance from the garage after Alison has received the news that her lover is alive seems to evaporate his corporeal form. Things are over for Colpeper – at last. He says that the pilgrims to Canterbury were seeking blessings and doing penance. The three detectives receive their blessings. Colpeper does not. He does not get his heart’s desire in quite the manner the other’s do.
Colpeper will not be able to slow the progress that will destroy his beautiful Kent. People, both during the war and after, will not come willingly to his lectures, and will always prefer the warmth of a living body to tales of the dead. What Colpeper wants isn’t possible. He wants the whole world to be like him, to want what he wants. He also wants to make them, even if they don’t want to. He doesn’t want to listen to what anyone else might want and say. It makes sense that he should make an early comment that is brutal in its nature – when referring to the old ducking stool he describes it as “very sensibly used for silencing talkative women”. The only voices Colpeper want to hear are male ones. Really, the only voice he wants heard is his own. He’ll glue shut all other mouths. This is why he doesn’t get what he wants, because it isn’t possible and because it is wrong. It’s right to desire that your dead lover comes back to you, and that your girlfriend writes to you, and that you get to be all that you can be. These are answerable prayers. To stop time isn’t.
Colpeper is a pilgrim doing penance for a wish that betrays the things he so loves, the land, the sky and the past. He wants to dam the river of time because he is fearful – of change, of women, of otherness. But a dam creates a flood, and the only person he drowns is himself. His journey is towards a brave and bold defeat, and the understanding of a truth that is painful. We first see Colpeper alone in the courtroom. The next time we see him he is in his garden, looking, as Alison puts it, “right” and holding a scythe, an image of the old ways of doing things, and also an image of death, the death of his own plans. By the end he is an angel, and his graduation to this status lies in how he deals with his own actions. When he hears Peter and Bob talking about him while he lies in the long grass, Colpeper’s response is that of a coward, or a hurt child – he gets up and runs away. But the next day he is no child. It is a strong and brave adult who enters the carriage to face the charges against him. He defends himself, but accepts judgement. He has already told Alison that he misjudged her. When she asks if he had thought of inviting the girls to his lecture his answer, “No”, carries with it an understanding that this, perhaps, was the real crime. Colpeper’s courage and dignity in the train carriage, allied with the growing sense of magic – the extraordinary image of his face glowing in the dark of the tunnel and the electric moment when Peter’s prediction that he will wear a halo comes true (a halo Colpeper himself wears during the slide show) – are signs that he has done his penance, and well.
Because of this, perhaps, Colpeper does get a miracle, if not exactly as he might have wished. Bob and Peter learn about the power and beauty of the countryside and its history. The thing he wants, to pass on his knowledge and passion, has been done. Peter defends the river Stour and the blackberries of England. Bob has learnt to look at the land about him rather than hide from it and watch movies. In Alison, Colpeper has seen that he is not as alone as he thought, not the only defender of the countryside and its past.
Beyond this blessing, Colpeper is not punished for his sins in the guise of the glue man. There is no romance in this film, though people speak often and well of love. There is one relationship in the film though that has a palpable tension, that between Colpeper and Peter. Of the four main characters, these are the two who do not have lovers. When they talk in Colpeper’s study on Sunday morning they spar, playing on their oppositions. Colpeper’s remark that there are two kinds of men, one who learns Bach and Beethoven but plays rubbish, and one who learns to walk step-by-step in order to climb Mount Everest, is a deliberate needling of Peter, and it works. But really these “two men” are different sides of the same coin. One senses Peter’s anger before this moment in the film. He is impatient and intolerant, but his insistence on denouncing Colpeper to the police, when it is clear that both Alison and Bob would be happy to let things drop, must come from more than his own dissatisfaction. Colpeper understands the link between himself and Peter clearly in the train: “Perhaps you are an instrument”, he says. When Peter finds himself at the organ, and has expanded to fill himself and there is no room for anger, he no longer needs to take revenge. Colpeper is free – to return to the village he loves, to the people who elected him, and whom he serves. His penance has been done – he has been forgiven and there is no more need of glue.
This journey from being stuck (and stickiness) to freedom is echoed in the way the film is shot. Frequently the camera moves forward from doorways or arches, out of darkness and into light. The first view of Colpeper in the courtroom is one such example, and these moments stand out because the rest of the film is shot so gently. At two hours, this film takes its time. The pace of the narrative seems to echo the rhythm of country life, its shape the twists and turns of country lanes. Moments that seem irrelevant, Peter and Bob playing catch in the street, for example, are among the most magical. Individuals and incidents that play no part at all in the plot are given time and space: the fight between the children, the relationship between Bob and Horton. These are the things that are being defended, and attacked. Prudence Honeywell, the farmer, is also given time. When she says to Alison “I’m still a maid”, the phrase is remarkable, because we understand her whole life, her love of the country, her disappointment, her honesty. The word itself, maid, meaning both unmarried woman and virgin, harks back to Chaucer, reminding us of the constant link between then and now.
The film begins with the prologue of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, read by the actor Esmond Knight, who also plays the pipe-smoking soldier, a comedic role, and the village idiot, a much stranger character. The village idiot is found on the road where Alison was attacked by the glue man. He speaks with an odd stutter that makes people laugh. In the dark we can’t quite see him. Then the soldiers go back to the camp and Alison and Bob return to the Hand of Glory, and we see the village idiot in deep focus further on up the road, standing strangely like a scarecrow, his arms moving in an odd gesture that echoes the hands of a clock. We never see him again. This mystery is never explained. But the mystery, the image of it, of time made human, remains, a distillation of the film – the past, the future, the road, the land, the strangeness, and the beauty.