A Canterbury Tale

UK 1944, 125 mins
Directors: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Probably Powell and Pressburger’s most personal and unusual film, A Canterbury Tale bewildered critics and audiences on its release, but has since come to be seen as one of their very best; Pressburger himself later declared it his favourite.

The film is structured as a mystery story, but its real purpose is to add a spiritual dimension to the propaganda message of earlier films like 49th Parallel (1941) and One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942). There are no Nazis in A Canterbury Tale and, although the war provides its backdrop, the focus is on identifying a distinctively moral and spiritual English identity, in direct opposition to the harsh material objectives of fascism.

The film offers a vision of an England with its spiritual roots in the countryside exemplified by the beauty of Kent – the county of Powell’s birth – an England which its increasingly urban population have neglected for too long. Evoking Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the film charts the progress of a select band of modern pilgrims. As the trio of land girl Alison (Sheila Sim), American officer Bob (John Sweet) and British officer Peter (Dennis Price) converge on Canterbury Cathedral, each receives a ‘blessing’, bringing his or her most fervent wish to life. The film’s peculiar power owes much to Eric Portman who, as the enigmatic Thomas Colpeper – local Justice of the Peace, prophet and one of Powell’s many screen alter-egos – delivers an intense and complex performance, just as he had in 49th Parallel three years earlier.

Despite the trappings of Christianity, particularly the grand finale in the cathedral, the film’s strange atmosphere seems at times closer to paganism than Anglicanism, and the most memorable character, a mysterious man who pours glue in the hair of local women who fraternise with soldiers, resembles a fairytale bogeyman. Critics were particularly uncomfortable with the morally ambiguous figure of the glue man, and many remembered this in their outrage at Powell’s ‘unsavoury’ solo work Peeping Tom (1960) 16 years later.

Eerie and resonant, A Canterbury Tale is perhaps the most complete expression of Powell’s fascination with the mystical power of landscape, which is also visible in works like The Edge of the World (1937), I Know Where I’m Going! (1945), Black Narcissus (1947) and Gone to Earth (1950).
Mark Duguid, BFI Screenonline

A contemporary review
Girls in a Kent village are frightened to go out after dark because of a mysterious ‘glue man’ who puts glue on their hair. A land girl (Sheila Sim), a British sergeant (Dennis Price), and an American sergeant (Sgt. John Sweet, U.S. Army), track down this villain.

That is the simple ‘popular’ story in this film, but it is interwoven with another – a tale of four people who come to Canterbury to receive a blessing or to do penance, even as Chaucer’s pilgrims did. It is questionable whether this marriage of novelette and philosophy succeeds, but none will deny the beauty instilled into the second story, this sometimes whimsical, vaguely mystical pastoral of Canterbury and its surrounding hills. For translating this loveliness to the screen the excellence of Erwin Hillier’s photography is an important factor. His exteriors carry authentically the atmosphere of the weald and, aided by impressive studio sets and shots of the Cathedral itself, his interiors are equally eloquent. Hillier’s material has been edited with a sure touch, although both editing and direction generally sometimes proceed to a tempo much too leisurely. There is much else of good in this film – its expressive background music, its observant characterisation of many varied types, its wide awareness of the historical background no less than the warlike background of today, the unusual naturalness evoked from practically everyone in it, even its crowds. In the leading roles, Portman does a conscientious job with a difficult role, Sweet creates charm without over-sentimentalising and Price is brisk and efficient.
Monthly Film Bulletin, June 1944

Directed by: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Production Company: Archers Film Productions
Produced by: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Production Manager: George Maynard
Assistant Director: George Busby
Written by: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Photographed by: Erwin Hillier
Edited by: John Seabourne
Production Designed by: Alfred Junge
Music Composed by: Allan Gray
Music Conducted by: Walter Goehr
Sound Recorded by: C.C. Stevens, Desmond Dew
Exteriors Recorded by: Alan Whatley
Sound System: Western Electric
Period Advisor: Herbert Norris
Thanked in credits: Dean and Chapter of Canterbury, The Very Reverend the Dean of St Albans, Mayor of Canterbury, Corporation of Canterbury, Women’s Land Army, United States Army, Citizens of Canterbury, Men and Women of Kent
Narrator: Esmond Knight
Made at: Denham Studios
Logo: D&P Studios

Production Company: Independent Producers
2nd Assistant Directors: John Arnold, George K. Aldersley
3rd Assistant Director: Parry Jones
Continuity: Patricia Arnold
Camera Operator: Cecil Cooney
2nd Camera Operators: George Stretton, Desmond Dickinson
Focus Puller: Eric Besche
Clapper Loaders: Derek Browne, S. Shrimpton, Jim Body, J. Demaine
Stills: Ian Gibson-Smith
Special Portraits: Fred Daniels
Back Projection: Charles Staffell
Models: W. Percy Day
Assistant Editor: David Powell
2nd Assistant Editors: Roger Cherrill, Jim Pople
Draughtsmen: Elliot Scott, William Kellner, Harry Hurdell, Herbert Westbrook
Make-up: George Blackler
Sound Camera Operator (Interiors): Winston Ryder
Sound Camera Operator (Exteriors): Sidney Hayers
Exteriors Boom Operator: George Paternoster
Interiors Boom Operator: Gordon K. McCallum

Eric Portman (Thomas Colpeper, J.P.)
Sheila Sim (Alison Smith)
Dennis Price (Sergeant Peter Gibbs)
Sergeant John Sweet (U.S. Army) (Sergeant Bob Johnson)
Esmond Knight (Seven-Sisters soldier/village idiot)
Charles Hawtrey (Thomas Duckett)
Hay Petrie (Woodcock)
George Merritt (Ned Horton)
Edward Rigby (Jim Horton)
Freda Jackson (Prudence Honeywood)
Betty Jardine (Fee Baker)
Eliot Makeham (organist)
Harvey Golden (Sergeant Roczinsky)
Leonard Smith (Leslie)
James Tamsitt (Terry Holmes)
David Todd (David)
Beresford Egan (PC Overden)
Antony Holles (Sergeant Bassett)
Maude Lambert (Miss Grainger)
Wally Bosco (ARP warden)
Charles Paton (Ernie Brooks)
Jane Millican (Susanna Foster)
John Slater (Sergeant Len)
Michael Golden (Sergeant Smale)
Graham Moffatt (Sergeant ‘Stuffy’)
Esma Cannon (Agnes)
Mary Line (Leslie’s mother)
Winifred Swaffer (Mrs Horton)
Michael Howard (Archie)
Judith Furse (Dorothy Bird)
Barbara Waring (Polly Finn)
Jean Shepeard (Gwladys Swinton)
Margaret Scudamore (Mrs Colpeper)
Joss Ambler (police inspector)
Jessie James (waitress)
Kathleen Lucas (passer-by)
H.F. Maltby (Mr Portal)
Eric Maturin (Geoffrey’s father)
Parry Jones Jnr (Arthur)

Harriet Petworth (prioress)
Glyn Rowlands (doctor of physics, pilgrim)

UK 1944
125 mins

35mm – A BFI National Archive print (Sat 11 Nov) and Digital (all other screenings)

The screening on Wed 25 Oct will be introduced by academic Thirza Wakefield

Rynox + Hotel Splendide
Mon 16 Oct 18:10; Fri 10 Nov 18:10
A Matter of Life and Death
Mon 16 Oct 20:45 (+ intro by Thelma Schoonmaker and Kevin Macdonald); Sun 29 Oct 12:10; Sat 4 Nov 15:00; Tue 7 Nov 18:10 (+ intro by academic Lucy Bolton); Sun 19 Nov 18:30
Farewell (Abschied)
Tue 17 Oct 18:40 (+ intro by filmmaker Kevin Macdonald); Wed 1 Nov 20:40
His Lordship
Tue 17 Oct 20:50; Sat 4 Nov 12:20
The Fire Raisers
Wed 18 Oct 18:40; Sat 11 Nov 12:30
Black Narcissus
Wed 18 Oct 20:50; Sun 22 Oct 18:30; Wed 8 Nov 18:15; Sun 12 Nov 18:50; Thu 16 Nov 20:50; Sat 18 Nov 20:50; Mon 20 Nov 20:45 (+ intro by author Mahesh Rao)
The Edge of the World + Return to the Edge of the World
Fri 20 Oct 18:20; Wed 8 Nov 20:30; Wed 15 Nov 20:50
The Thief of Bagdad: An Arabian Fantasy in Technicolor (aka The Thief of Bagdad)
Fri 20 Oct 20:30; Tue 24 Oct 14:40; Sat 28 Oct 15:00; Sun 26 Nov 12:00
The Spy in Black + Smith
Sat 21 Oct 15:30; Sun 29 Oct 15:30 (+ intro by Bryony Dixon, BFI National Archive Curator)
The Boy Who Turned Yellow + Heavenly Puss
Sun 22 Oct 12:00
49th Parallel
Sun 22 Oct 12:20; Mon 6 Nov 20:30
One of Our Aircraft Is Missing!
Sun 22 Oct 15:10; Tue 31 Oct 20:40 (+ intro by film historian Ian Christie)
Mon 23 Oct 17:50 (+ intro by Miranda Gower-Qian, BFI Inclusion Lead); Mon 30 Oct 20:30
Red Ensign + The Night of the Party
Tue 24 Oct 20:30; Sun 5 Nov 14:40
A Canterbury Tale
Wed 25 Oct 20:20 (+ intro by academic Thirza Wakefield); Sat 11 Nov 14:50; Fri 24 Nov 20:35
Library Talk: The interior life of an archive: an evening with the Michael Powell Collection
Mon 27 Nov 18:00
The Elusive Pimpernel
Sat 28 Oct 12:20; Mon 13 Nov 18:00 (+ intro by Bryony Dixon, BFI National Archive Curator)
Gone to Earth
Sat 28 Oct 18:20; Wed 22 Nov 20:45; Sat 25 Nov 17:50
Silent Cinema: The Magician + The Riviera Revels + intro by Bryony Dixon, BFI National Archive Curator
Sun 29 Oct 15:00
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
Sun 29 Oct 17:20 (+ intro by Kevin and Andrew Macdonald); Sun 5 Nov 17:45; Thu 23 Nov 17:45; Sun 26 Nov 14:00 (+ pre-recorded intro by Stephen Fry)
Paths to Partnership: Powell + Pressburger before The Archers
Tue 31 Oct 18:30
Projecting the Archive: The Queen’s Guards + intro by Josephine Botting, BFI National Archive Curator
Thu 2 Nov 18:20
Twice upon a Time
Mon 6 Nov 18:10 + extended intro by James Bell, BFI National Archive Senior Curator
Talk: Philosophical Screens: A Matter of Life and Death
Tue 7 Nov 20:20
Talk: Centre Stage: The Leading Women of Powell + Pressburger
Thu 16 Nov 18:20
Ill Met by Moonlight
Fri 17 Nov 20:40; Sat 25 Nov 12:40
The Battle of the River Plate
Sat 18 Nov 18:20; Mon 27 Nov 20:30
Behold a Pale Horse
Sun 19 Nov 11:50 Wed 22 Nov 17:50
The Wild Heart
Sun 19 Nov 15:10
Miracle in Soho
Mon 20 Nov 18:10; Sun 26 Nov 18:30

Course: The Magic of Powell + Pressburger
Wed 25 Oct to Wed 22 Nov 18:30

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Programme notes and credits compiled by Sight and Sound and the BFI Documentation Unit
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