A Canterbury Tale (1944)

Having watched Powell and Pressburger’s Colonel Blimp and A Matter of Life and Death, I’m having a go at A Canterbury Tale (1944). So far: when you introduce an American character, a G.I., have him start every sentence with “say.” Say, that’s not a bad idea.

The American, John Sweet, wasn’t a professional actor; Powell saw him work in a production of Our Town in England (he was a G.I. over for WW II) and hired him for the movie; he never made another and now he’s a retired teacher in North Carolina. But anyway, I keep hearing John Wayne in Sweet’s voice, so I checked and the two were born within 280 miles of each other, 9 years apart, so I guess that explains the accent.

From the dialog, sounds like the movie was made before Pearl Harbor, during Lend-Lease. An interesting time in American/UK history, which we don’t often see onscreen. (Later: nope, it was made after Pearl Harbor, but to hear the actors talk about it, there were still a lot of isolationists in the U.S. after the Japanese attack. I should look it up. I’d say Pressburger got that wrong; maybe even after Pearl Harbor, the folks in England persisted for a while in thinking of the U.S. as a recalcitrant belligerent.)

The movie is a fable, a confection, a propaganda film, in part aimed at explaining to the U.S. what it was like to be at war in England (the English themselves didn’t have much use for the film at the time), a movie with four miraculous happy endings for the price of one. Everyone in it is so damned decent and honorable, with the young men preparing to ship out (the Normandy landings commenced on June 6, 1944), that I couldn’t help feeling moved, especially after being prepped by the explanation of England provided in Colonel Blimp. The heroic/sentimental English score didn’t hurt, either. There is a sequence of bombed-out buildings, followed by a quick shot of a blimp and contrails overhead, that alone is worth the price of admission for me. (Oh, and a jump cut from the 1300’s to now, in which a falcon transforms into a Spitfire.) The actors are all gone now, save for Sweet and Sheila Sim, and God bless them both. Criterion includes interviews with them, time (sixty years worth) robbing them of their youth but replacing it with the knowledge and wisdom provided by a lifetime’s experience… And speaking of sixty years, the Canterbury of the movie, one-third bombed out, is no longer to be seen, or even imagined, in the Kent of today. The bombs have been replaced by souvenir shops. Powell is a native of Kent. I’ve wondered a time or two in the film whether something autobiographical is creeping in.

It’s rare to find an actor or actress named Sim (my mother’s maiden name), at least of the English or Scottish variety, Sim also being an Asian name. Alastair Sim playing Scrooge might be the most famous… Did I mention that the movie is about a guy who sneaks out at night and, in some undescribed and undepicted way, projects a glob of glue into the hair of random young women? Sort of a weird call forward to Peeping Tom (1952).

Being a guy who just sits and watches, without thinking much about what exactly the director and cinematographer (Erwin Hillier, who did a lot of work, some of which I’ve heard of) are doing, I’m remaining mostly oblivious to Powell’s particular artistry here, wherein he experiments, taking a simple tale for his foundation and then continuing his filmaking evolution wrt the editing and camera techniques that he used to create what he later called “the composed film.” Lots of scenery and landscape shots that probably played with greater impact on the large screen; a cool blackout scene; the occasional dramatic  closeup of an actor, closeups like those no longer seen in movies, now that we’ve stretched the screen so far from portrait to landscape. Note to self: poll co-workers using iPhones and droids for their portrait-or-landscape preference. (Later: portrait predominates, but then, nobody around here is watching movies at work. Are they?)

The movie turns its back on any hope of commercial success: no stars, no romance, no serious mystery or conflict (the war remains out of sight). “Understated” is the word I’m looking for. Building to a finale in which soldiers, shipping out, sit in a church singing “Onward Christian Soldiers.” P and P have a message to share, but it’s hidden, to be winkled out by thought, I suppose. Lazy viewer that I am, I have not winkled it. The movie makes clear, repeatedly, that the message is there, just not what the message is. Turns out, though, that because the movie is the same age as me and because the disk contains interviews with two of the actors as they are now, I have learned something in spite of myself. Namely, that Life for me is not what I’m writing about, but about writing about it.

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2 Responses

  1. There is still a lot of the Canterbury (& the surrounding villages) shown in the film, that remains. But you do have to look hard for it in some places, in between the tourist shops. Although tourist shops in Canterbury are nothing new. They’ve been there since before Chaucer, since people have been visiting the Cathedral there.

    We (the Powell and Pressburger Appreciation Society) take a location walk in the area on the last Sunday in August each year. Either in Canterbury itself or in one of the villages used in the first part of the film. See http://www.powell-pressburger.org/Trips/Canterbury/index.html

    Prof. Ian Christie has done some research on the American isolationist attitudes. There were still politicians and newspapers calling for a lack of involvement in the war in Europe right up to, and probably beyond, D-Day. Luckily, most sensible people ignored them.

    This is a film that is worth watching a few times to fully appreciate its beauty and charm. You also need to slow down to its pace

    Best

    Steve

    The Powell and Pressburger Appreciation Society
    http://www.powell-pressburger.org

  2. Yet another Powell / Pressburger that I have to catch up with. I love the look and feel of their films (BLACK NARCISSUS is positively hypnotic), and I’ve heard good things about this one.

    Thanks!

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