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A Canterbury Trailer (Unabridged): Highlights from Issue 26: The U.K. Issue

Highlights from Issue 26: The U.K. Issue

Canterbury Cathedral by the great Bohemian artist, Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-77)


Sunday, July 30, 2006

What follows is the unabridged essay on Michael Powell's 1944 film A Canterbury Tale from Issue 26: The U.K. Issue. For more information on the DVD, which was released by Criterion in July 2006, click here

A Canterbury Trailer

By Anthony Frewin

“There are more ways than one of getting close to your ancestors. Follow the Old Road and as you walk, think of them and of old England. 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 only seeing what their eyes saw. You ford the same rivers, the same birds are 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 when I 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.”

Thus Thomas Colpeper (played by Eric Portman) the nature-mystic, local magistrate, near-proto-environmentalist, guardian of Kent and its history, antiquarian and unproven “Glue Man” tells the assembled troops at the Colpeper Institute in Michael Powell’s haunting and lyrical wartime film, A Canterbury Tale (1944), one of the glories of the British cinema.

Read that opening paragraph again. This is how we do mysticism over here in the shires of Merrie England: quietly and understated. There’s no ecstatic tradition.

If I were cast away on a desert island and could take with me but one British film, A Canterbury Tale would be it. If you were to ask me why, I’d be a little flummoxed. Yes, I like this and I like that about the film, but those reasons fall short because, of course, any work of art that means something to us invokes responses on a non-verbal, emotional level. The more one tries to nail down the exact reasons the more elusive the quarry becomes, like those stars in the night sky seen through one’s peripheral vision: turn and face them head on and they’re gone.

So, here I’ll discursively canter around the film and assume that you have actually seen it (and if you haven’t, read on anyway. Nothing I or anyone else might write could be a ‘spoiler’ for such a majestic movie).

Let’s start at the very beginning. Why a Canterbury tale?

1. Canterbury is a town in the county of Kent 60 miles southeast of London (another 60 miles southeast and you’re across the English Channel and in France). In 602, St. Augustine, on his mission to convert the English to Christianity, founded Christ Church in Canterbury. Since then the town has been the “seat” of the Anglican church. In 1070 Archbishop Lanfranc began building the cathedral. Thomas à Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, argued with King Henry II over the rights and privileges of the Church. This disagreement resulted in Becket’s murder in the cathedral by four knights in 1170. Three years later Pope Alexander III canonized Thomas. The cathedral became the most popular pilgrimage site in England, and remained so until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the mid-1500s.

In the 14th century, the poet Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales, a collection of stories told by pilgrims to each other on their journey from London to St. Thomas’s shrine at Canterbury. Few works of English literature have had such a lasting influence or retained their popularity for so long.

Michael Powell was born on September 30, 1905 in Bekesbourne, a small village about three miles southeast of Canterbury, and there he grew up. He was educated at the King’s School in the precincts of the cathedral (a school founded by St. Augustine). He knew this corner of Kent intimately.

2. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a canter as a horse’s easy or moderate gallop. The term arose from the pace favored by pilgrims on their way to Canterbury.

3. Michael Powell (1905-1990) made over 80 films, many of them “quota quickies” or hurried commercial works of little or no interest (really). His finest films and those he is to be judged by are: The Edge of the World (1937), The Thief of Bagdad (1940), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Canterbury Tale (1944), I Know Where I’m Going (1945), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948), The Small Back Room (1949), Gone to Earth (1950) and Peeping Tom (1960).

Emeric Pressburger (1902-1988) was Powell’s collaborator on a number of these films. Screen credits would read: “Written, Directed and Produced by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.” (It is generally assumed that Pressburger wrote the script while Powell directed.)

There is no other British director who can boast such a fine body of work aside, perhaps, from Humphrey Jennings. Powell’s films have never been assimilated into the tradition of British cinema. Yes, of course, they’re British but they’ve always remained apart, alone. There is something about them that is too different and too disturbing. It’s an underground tradition he’s part of, not the mainstream, the fey underground tradition that would include A Midsummer’s Night Dream, William Blake, poets like John Donne and A.E. Housman, John Martin’s paintings, Gothic novels, music by Edward Elgar and Vaughan Williams, writers such as Rider Haggard and Richard Jefferies.

4. BASIC CAST: Eric Portman — Thomas Colpeper, JP; Sheila Sim — Alison Smith; Dennis Price — Peter Gibbs; Sergeant John Sweet — Bob Johnson; Esmond Knight — Narrator/Soldier/Village Idiot.

BASIC CREW: Cinematographer Erwin Hillier; Editor John Seabourne; Production DesignAlfred Junge; Original Music Allan Gray.


5. What is the “story” of A Canterbury Tale? It’s slight and perplexing. A Land Girl, an American sergeant and a British sergeant arrive at night by train in a small Kent village just outside Canterbury. They become friends and seek to discover the identity of the mysterious Glue Man who pours glue on the hair of young women. A couple of days later these three modern “pilgrims” arrive in Canterbury where each receives a “blessing.”

But there’s a fourth character, too: Thomas Colpeper, who is suspected of being the Glue Man. He travels with them into Canterbury and says, “One goes on a pilgrimage for one of two reasons. To receive a blessing or to do penance.” It’s unclear what he will be getting.

6. The film opens with a close-up of the ringing bells in Canterbury cathedral, followed by a page of the General Prologue from The Canterbury Tales done up like a period manuscript from which Esmond Knight reads in a rich, mellifluous voice. This carries over a map of England showing the route of the pilgrims along the Pilgrims’ Way and then shots of pilgrims on horseback as they were in Chaucer’s day.

There now comes one of the most inventive and startling edits in British film industry. The problem confronting Powell was how to make a transition from Chaucer’s 14th century pilgrims to the present day, a period of some 500 years, and the way he does it shows him to be without peer. A falconer releases his bird into the sky. He looks up as the falcon rises in the sky. The bird gets smaller and smaller. Then it starts descending, but now it’s not a falcon, it’s a continued from page 67 fighter plane, a Spitfire. We now cut to a soldier looking up wearing a tin hat with his bayoneted rifle. He’s looking up at the same angle as the falconer and, indeed, it is the same face. So, aside from anything else, Powell establishes the continuity of England, one of the underlying themes of the film.

7. My late boss, Stanley Kubrick, was frequently accused of ‘stealing’ this cut from Michael Powell in his film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). You will remember that at the end of the Dawn of Man sequence, Moonwatcher, the ape, hurls a bone in the air. The camera follows it up and it then metamorphoses into a satellite orbiting the Earth and we are now in the year 2001. Stanley knew most of Powell’s works but he had never seen A Canterbury Tale. He had arrived at the same solution independently.

8. I’d seen A Canterbury Tale half a dozen times before this dialogue registered. The scene takes place to the fore of the Christ Church Gate that leads into the cathedral precincts. Bob Johnson has met up with fellow American soldier, Mickey Roczinsky.

ROCZINSKY: Let’s have some tea first, huh?

JOHNSON: That stuff?

ROCZINSKY: Sure, it’s a habit, like marijuana.

JOHNSON: I’ll take marijuana.



9. There’s a wry, dry humor in the film. Consider this example. Alison is walking through a bombed out Canterbury, ruins everywhere. She’s lost and stops a woman passer-by for directions:


PASSER-BY: It is an awful mess, I don’t blame you for not knowing where you are. But you get a very good view of the Cathedral now.

A very good view of the cathedral now! Yes, every cloud has a silver lining.

And here’s Colpeper talking with Bob Johnson:

COLPEPER: Pity. When you get home and people ask what you've seen in England and you say "Well I saw a movie in Salisbury. And I made a pilgrimage to Canterbury and I saw another one."

JOHNSON (laughing): You've got me all wrong. I know that in Canterbury I have to look out for a cathedral.

COLPEPER: Yes, do look out for it. It's just behind the movie theatre. You can't miss it.

10. There are many moments of poetic pathos in the film. One of my favorites is the dialogue between the cigarette or cheroot-smoking Prudence Honeywood (played by the redoubtable Freda Jackson), a farm manager, and Alison soon after she has arrived at the farm where she will be working.


PRUDENCE: That’s your room over there. The end one. You won’t get much of a view I’m afraid.

ALISON: You should have seen the view from my room in London.

PRUDENCE: Was it a long street with every house a different sort of sadness in it?

ALISON: It was a long row of back gardens, and the tall, sad houses were all the same.

PRUDENCE: Ghastly in winter.

ALISON: Airless in summer. You seem to know them.

PRUDENCE: The only man who ever asked me to marry him wanted me to live in a house like that. I’m still a maid.

Still a maid, still a virgin (“I don’t like Prudence — name or quality,” she says), whereas we know that Alison is not, having spent two weeks with her boyfriend in a caravan near Canterbury a year or two earlier. Nobody else in the British film industry at that time accepted extramarital sex so matter-of-factly. And, indeed, it would be many years before they did.

11. Various government departments kept a close and vigilant eye on British film production during the war years. Cinema was a highly important propaganda tool, so it is all the more surprising that Powell could make a film at this time that does not mention Nazis or Germans, and only refers to the war itself obliquely. To state what we were fighting against was so blindingly obvious as to be banal. But the question that Powell posed and answered in A Canterbury Tale was this: what sort of England were we fighting for?

12. A Canterbury Tale abounds with mysteries, not least of which is the identity of the Glue Man. Is it Thomas Colpeper? It may indeed be, we do not know. The various clues to Colpeper being the offender are, I think, red herrings, traps to ensnare the unwary. When Colpeper is confronted on the train to Canterbury by our modern pilgrims he neither denies nor confesses to being the Glue Man and, indeed, refers to him in the third person. It is almost impossible to escape the feeling that the real Glue Man is not in the train carriage. So, where is he? Is he Puck? Is Colpeper Puck, and there’s certainly something puckish about him…or what about the Village Idiot who arrives and departs so inexplicably? Who is he? What’s he been up to?

13. Despite Canterbury and its cathedral being so central to the film, despite the talk of pilgrimages and miracles, despite the film’s grand finale in the cathedral, the whole atmosphere of the film is closer to paganism and nature mysticism than the Christian church. There’s a secret tradition going on here and one that can survive even within the cathedral (along with the gargoyles!). If the Nazis and the Germans aren’t mentioned, neither are Jesus and God, anywhere!

14. Let’s return to the marijuana scene outside Christ Church Gate. What would the present day pilgrim find upon arriving at this very spot? Our pilgrim would now be standing in front of…yes, you guessed it…Starbucks! A blessing or a penance? When I first got to know Canterbury in the late ’60s you could still do your normal week’s shopping on High Street. There were butchers, bakers, candlestick makers. Whereas now it is pedestrianized, given over to souvenir shops, gee-gaw boutiques and fast food outlets.

I asked the editors of Stop Smiling not to include any stills from the film to accompany this essay. Stills add little and, anyway, there is the film itself. That’s where they should remain. Canterbury is a central figure in the film, so let’s illustrate that instead, by two other artists.

I’ll leave the last paragraph with Michael Powell himself. This is from his autobiography, A Life in Movies (1986), written when he was 81. Here he is talking of A Canterbury Tale:

“I had never made a film in the orchards and chestnut woods of East Kent, where I was born, and I couldn’t resist it…. Wasn’t every lane around Canterbury and every stone in Canterbury itself familiar to me? An artist often hesitates to use material that is too familiar to him, too near home, but now I had this feeling no longer. I was looking forward to the great swags of the laden hop-vines, to the dusty lanes with the dogrose in the hedges, to the sharp Kentish voices.”

But not Starbucks.

Anthony Frewin was an assistant to Stanley Kubrick for over 25 years. He recently wrote the screenplay for the John Malkovich film Colour Me Kubrick


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