A Canterbury Tale
The Criterion Collection
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A U.S. soldier, a British sergeant and a London girl see minor miracles and catch a prude.
One of the most beloved of all British films, A Canterbury Tale marks yet another occasion to celebrate the Criterion Collection's growing DVD legacy of Powell and Pressburger classics. Originally conceived as good-natured propaganda to support the British-American alliance of World War II, the film became something truly special in the hands of the Archers (a.k.a. writer/director/producers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger). Taking its literary cues from Chaucer's titular classic, it begins with a prologue that harkens back to Chaucer's time before match-cutting to present-day August of 1943, with the night-time arrival of U.S. Army Sgt. Bob Johnson (played with folksy charm by John Sweet, an actual American GI) on the shadowy platform of Canterbury station in the magically rural county of Kent (where Powell was born and raised). He is soon joined by two fellow train passengers: Alison Smith (Sheila Sim), a brashly independent recruit in the British Woman's Land Army; and Peter Gibbs (Dennis Price), a sergeant in the royal Army, and before long they're tracking clues to find "the glue man," a mysterious figure who's been pouring "the sticky stuff" on unsuspecting women as the midnight hour approaches. Their investigation leads to Thomas Colpeper (Eric Portman), a village squire whose local slide-shows celebrate life in an idyllic rural England threatened by wartime change. As Graham Fuller writes in an observant mini-essay that accompanies this DVD, is this a whodunit? Historical documentary? War film? Rustic comedy? It's all these and so much more: As photographed in glorious black and white by Erwin Hiller (faithfully preserved by one of Criterion's finest high-definition digital transfers), A Canterbury Tale has an elusive, magical quality that encompasses its trio of Canterbury "pilgrims" and translates into a an elusive, spiritually uplifting sense of elation that has made it an all-time favorite among film lovers around the world. --Jeff Shannon
On the DVDs
In addition to one of the most crisply detailed black-and-white transfers you're ever likely to see, disc 1 of A Canterbury Tale includes a feature-length commentary by film historian Ian Christie, author of the now out-of-print Arrows of Desire (the definitive study of Powell & Pressburger films) and a foremost authority on British films in general. Disc 2 is loaded with Canterbury extras, including a pleasant reminiscence by actress Sheila Sim; a documentary about John Sweet (who is seen visiting Canterbury in 2000, for the first time since filming A Canterbury Tale in 1943); and a charming new documentary that follows contemporary Canterbury "pilgrims" as they revisit locations used in the film. There's also "Listen to Britain," a seven-minute video-installation piece inspired by A Canterbury Tale by artist Victor Burgin (and programmed to loop from start to finish and back again, as it did in museums); and the original "Listen to Britain," by Humphrey Jennings--a classic wartime documentary from the classic era of British non-fiction film that celebrates the sights, and especially the sounds, of rural England in the early 1940s. All in all, these are excellent features that place A Canterbury Tale in evocative historical context. --Jeff Shannon
- Commentary by film historian Ian Christie
- Scenes from Michael Powell's re-edited American version
- New video interview with actress Sheila Sim
- A Pilgrim's Return, a short documentary on actor John Sweet's 2001 return to Canterbury
- The new documentary A Canterbury Trail by David Thompson
- "Listen to Britain," a 2001 video-installation piece inspired by the film, by artist Victor Burgin
- Humphrey Jennings's landmark 1942 documentary Listen to Britain
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It's a charmingly resilient morale booster too, avoiding obvious propaganda to give a sense of a world with a past worth preserving and a future proudly stated in the bombed out basements of old shops proudly carrying their former owners' signs, made at a time when victory was still just a far off possibility. The England and its way of life it celebrates may no longer exist, but the film endures. Funny, smart and also surprisingly moving, from anyone else this would be their masterpiece, but from Powell and Pressburger it's just one of many jewels in their crown.
Criterion's disc boasts a fine transfer of the uncut original UK version. Among the extras are the alternate opening and closing scenes from the heavily cut US version of the film featuring Kim Hunter, although it might have been more interesting to see the full US version to see just how much the film was changed for American consumption after its disappointing UK release.
With that said: the transfer here is absolutely awful. The picture looks as if someone taped it to VHS, then digitized it using a very low compression rate. Lots of crackle on the audio track, which cuts out three times -- once as long as 25 seconds.
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.