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A Canterbury Tale (The Criterion Collection)

4.5 out of 5 stars 63 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Product Description

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

Special Features

  • 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

Product Details

  • Actors: Eric Portman, Sheila Sim, Dennis Price, John Sweet, Esmond Knight
  • Directors: David Thompson, Emeric Pressburger, Michael Powell
  • Writers: Emeric Pressburger, Michael Powell
  • Producers: Emeric Pressburger, Michael Powell, Jock Laurence
  • Format: Multiple Formats, Black & White, Dolby, Full Screen, NTSC, Subtitled
  • Language: English (Dolby Digital 1.0)
  • Subtitles: English
  • Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only. Read more about DVD formats.)
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
  • Number of discs: 2
  • Rated: Unrated
  • Studio: Criterion
  • DVD Release Date: July 25, 2006
  • Run Time: 124 minutes
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (63 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #65,500 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)
  • Learn more about "A Canterbury Tale (The Criterion Collection)" on IMDb

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By C. O. DeRiemer TOP 1000 REVIEWER on July 26, 2006
Format: DVD
In 1980, Emeric Pressburger said, "A script can only create nests in which magic may settle." With A Canterbury Tale, he and his partner, Michael Powell, created one of the most magical, luminous and eccentric movies ever made. The film is far removed from the obvious patriotic product they were asked to produce and yet it is one of the most effective evocations of why Britain and America were fighting a common enemy.

The plot is so slight and off-hand it can't be taken too seriously. It's just a device to have three modern pilgrims stay awhile in the English village of Chillingbourne on Chaucer's pilgrims road to Canterbury. The three are Alison Smith (Sheila Sim), a land girl from London, come to work on a farm and who has been notified her fiance has been killed in action; British sergeant Peter Gibbs (Dennis Price), a trained organist who played organs in cinema houses and is joining his unit on the outskirts of the village; and U. S. sergeant Bob Johnson (real life Sergeant John Sweet, recruited by Powell to play this part), on leave for a few days who got off the train at the wrong station and who hasn't heard from his wife for months. Someone in the village is pouring glue on the hair of village girls who have been dating soldiers. As the three leave the train station during blackout, Alison has glue poured on her hair. The three make their way to the magistrate, Thomas Colpepper (Eric Portman), who seems cold and uninterested in Alison's plight. The three determine to find out by themselves who the mysterious "glueman" really is.

Powell and Pressburger use this slight device to evoke a deep feeling of the continuity of life, the sense that history is just as much a part of what is now as what has been.
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It doesn't have the instant charm of I KNOW WHERE I'M GOING, and Sheils Sim, the ingenue whose first film role this was, doesn't have the swanky, leading lady adorableness that Wendy Hiller radiates in IKWIG, and yet when all is said and done it may be A CANTERBURY TALE that you'll remember longer.

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.
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One of the most intellectually complex of all the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, "The Archers," A CANTERBURY TALE was intended to boost morale during the war concerning British and American relations during the preparations for the D-Day invasion of the continent. Three modern pilgrims on their way to Canterbury and its environs--a self-assured "Land Girl," a cynical cinema organist now serving in the army, and a clever and folksy American GI--attempt to solve a bizarre local mystery in the Kentish town of Chillingbourne: the identity of the enigmatic "Glue Man" who keeps pouring glue into the hair of local women after dusk. The film is much more than a mystery, and as the DVD commentary by Ian Christie and the accompanying textual materials in this lovely Criterion release make clear, it is so much more indeed it becomes almost unclassifiable. It is a comedy, particularly in the charming bits with the local children. Like all of Michael Powell's films, it is also a romance involving sexual hysteria. Above all it is a pastoral meditation on the status of England and its heritage at a truly crucial time in its history, and it asserts both the discontinuities with the agrarian past and the need to reconnect with it during a troubled time of modernity. The "aw shucks" demeanour of the Oregon GI (John Sweet) can take some getting used to, but Sheila Sim is really extraordinary as the Land Girl, and Dennis Portman is also quite fine as the local squire who becomes central to the trio's investigations. The tremendous closing sequence of the film involving the organ of the Canterbury Cathedral is one of the most striking evocations of the sublime in the history of film.
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