The Canterbury Tales was the first major piece of literature to come from England. Indeed, it was a novel that proved that works of art could be made in English. So flash forward 900 years. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger have just come off of their The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. They were eager to move on to another project, and Powell thought of an idea. One of the most famous works of the English language, transposed to the modern day.
They chose to tell the story in a city near Canterbury, and have the film climax in Canterbury itself. Due to damage from the war, they had to rebuild part of the church in a set to shoot the last scenes. On release, it was a large enough success, and today it belongs to the prestigious Criterion Collection. The film itself has a 7.6 on IMDb, and on Rotten Tomatoes, it has no score, but all of the reviews given are highly positive. Having been sandwiched between two of Powell and Pressburger's most popular films, The Life and Death Of Colonel Blimp, and "I Know Where I'm Going!", the film isn't Powell and Pressburger's most famous outing, but it is by no means their worst.
A young girl, who works for the agricultural committee, a young American soldier who got off at the wrong stop, and a British man who is spending a couple days on leave before going abroad with his troops. Together, they all get off of a train at a station in Kent, just before Canterbury. They are tired, and head to town, to find a place to stay, when a man in uniform comes out of the shadows and pours glue in the girls hair.
They chase the "glue man" to town hall, where he seems to have disappeared. There, they meet the mysterious magistrate, a man who is the governing body of the town. Unable to find the glue man, they head their separate ways, however they will come together again in search of the glue man. all the while, they become enamored with local history, and the plot indeed, begins to thicken.
The mystery element in the plot is very much a red herring. Neither Powell and Pressburger seem very interested in it. However, the goal that they truly held, was to show everyone how beautiful Canterbury is. I will not deny that the city and the surrounding countryside are not beautiful, Kent certainly looks like a very beautiful lace. However, the film plays pretty much like a travelogue, climaxing in a portrait of Canterbury, and how it is a miraculous city.
It seems as if I didn't like this film. I didn't. The characters were stereotypical, a scene was completely laughable (more on that later on), and the plot itself was not that interesting. Yet it could have been awesome. At the beginning of the film, there is a shot of a medieval caravan and a man throwing a falcon in the air and watching it, while a lute plays in the background. Then the falcon turns into an airplane, and the man turns into a modern day soldier. This is an great shot, and I was hoping that the whole film would be as interesting, but I was sorely disappointed.
It may not have been the actors, but their characters perhaps. For example, the American sergeant is such a typical depiction of the kind of "aw-shucks" American stereotype. It doesn't help the actor playing him is doing it in such an unbelievable way. By this I mean that, the character is so unconvincing. All he cares about is going to Canterbury for his mother, and he is waiting for some letters from his girl. He never blows his top, he is just such a typical stereotype, as a lot of the characters in 49th Parallel are.
Also rather uninteresting is the lead female, who is the glue man's 11th victim. She is immediately enamored with her surroundings, and becomes very interested in the history of the area. Her fiancee is missing in action, and she has no one, but her work as a farm hand. She too has a kind of unbelievable innocence to her, as if she is not part of a real world. And it works more to the film's detriment than to it's benefit. The third man making up the mysterious party, Peter Gibbs, a British soldier. He is the most realistic of all the characters but he has this kind of stereotypical "Britishness" to him, that makes him too seem like a stereotype.
And the fourth major player is the Magistrate. I have no problem with the actor playing the character, Eric Portman, but his rendition of the character is really annoying. I guess he is the villain, but he tries to provoke pity, and it comes off half baked. He reads his lines in such an obvious monotone, that it makes the already bad mystery take the turn for the worst. I'm going to talk about the end now, so **SPOILER ALERT** The magistrate really wanted people to know about local history, but no one was interested. When an army base opened nearby, he thought the soldiers would come to his lectures, but they were too busy with girls. So He dressed up as an army man, and poured glue on girl's heads, so that the soldiers would have nothing to do, and come to his lectures instead. That has to be one of the silliest reasons to commit a crime I've ever heard. Then they go to Canterbury, and a miracle happens to each. A miracle. Really? **END SPOILER ALERT**
Part of the blame for the frankly ridiculous has to go to the script. It seems as if it was written on the fly. The first twenty minutes are interesting, but then the film really goes down. It just isn't that interesting. This is not truly a propaganda film, like 49th Parallel or In Which We Serve, but it feels as if it is written that way. But the whole message of the film is...go to Canterbury? According to this film, if you make the pilgrimage, than a miracle will happen. Once again, really?
The cinematography is very nice and pretty. There are plenty of shots of light shining down on the characters and on Canterbury of course. It's all very well done, and aesthetically beautiful, but it really can't save the film from mediocrity. The score itself is also rather humourous. At points it will soar in intensity, as when they get to Canterbury, but for the most part is is rather unremarkable. The sets, and locations are rather beautiful, and you can tell that care was put into them. The church sets are very nice and pretty, and I am sure that Canterbury Cathedral is very pretty in life.
I am struck by something that the American soldier said. He talks about how much he loves movies, but then the Magistrate says that once you've seen something in a movie, it isn't as impressive in real life. What I found interesting about this is that, Powell and Pressburger are doing exactly what the Magistrate seems to loathe, so are they telling us that if we go to Canterbury it won't be as impressive in real life as we have seen the film. Are they telling us to not see the film? I'm confused.
And now to Powell and Pressburger's direction. It is really quite average. I can see why they would want to do this film. It's very nice visually, and it wraps up many of their themes and ideas from the time into one film. However, that one film isn't very impressive. It had great potential, of course, but no direction could have made the story better, unless you completely changed it around. Many have liked this film, I am not one of that crowd. I enjoyed, and I respect it's tone, but the film runs out of steam quickly on. Ah well, at least it isn't the worst Powell and Pressburger. At least, I think it isn't.
A Canterbury Tale,
Starring: Eric Portman, Shelia Sim and John Sweet
Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
1. A Matter of Life and Death
2. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
3. The Small Back Room
4. The Red Shoes
5. The Tales of Hoffman
6. The Spy in Black
7. A Canterbury Tale
8. The Battle of the River Plate
9. I Know Where I'm Going