A Canterbury Tale

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A CANTERBURY TALE —-what are friends for? Many things, one being they turn you on to pieces of life’s puzzle you haven’t found on your own. Along with music, food, books, and cool places to visit, this can include treasures in the trove of motion pictures you missed, weren’t aware of or just skipped while otherwise diligently filling out your seen-done list. Dear friends of mine dropped this 1944 British classic on me recently (it was in the ‘maybe someday’ file).  Pretend I’m your friend (why not? the clock’s ticking) and therefore let me urge it on you: see it and quite likely will wish to pass the gift along. Do one’s part.

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England, summer of ’43. Three separate travelers meet by chance (fate) when a schedule mixup has them deposited in “Chillingbourne“. Fresh-scrubbed English “Land Girl” ‘Alison Smith’ (Sylvia Sim), outgoing, gangly and curious American soldier ‘Sgt. Bob Johnson’ (John Sweet) and somewhat more cynical British trooper ‘Sgt. Peter Gibbs’ (Dennis Price) bond with one another and the countryside locals. This happens after a bizarre mystery attack on Alison has the trio investigate the assault—someone dumped glue in her hair! Suspicion points to the hamlet’s urbane and removed magistrate, ‘Thomas Colpeper’ (Eric Portman). Solving the icky crime is but one of numerous discoveries they make over the course of their stay, and hardly the most important.

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Patriots as well as film-makers,”the Archers”, the writing & directing team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, made a half dozen films during WW2. They were designed not just for art and craft stylizing but for expressing support of England and the general war effort. Civilized stories for Civilization in peril.

After a marvelous, lilting opening set in medieval times, the stage-setting leaps centuries, via a truly classic jump cut as a falcon in flight becomes a roaring Spitfire. Then, a ‘war film’ like no other weaves a lyrical spell, ultimately rousing without a shot being fired. The question of the day—“Why We Fight”— is answered by grace notes of intimate, eccentric, everyday humanity.

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Written over a 13-year period more than six centuries ago, the 24 stories that compose Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” have pilgrims tell tales as they travel from London to visit the shrine to Thomas Becket in Kent.  The pilgrim trio of Alison, Bob and Pete are looking for answers, which they get through association with Colpeper and a gaggle of locals, mercifully not cuted-up for phony sentiment or flat-iron whimsy. The cast duly charms.

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21-year-old Sheila Sim debuts, and is for sure a sweetie, though her greatest role came a year later when she married another newcomer, Richard Attenborough: they were together for 69 years. Dennis Price, 28, also had his first film job here. The faintly ominous Eric Portman, 42, was the seasoned professional in the group; he’d been in cinema for a decade. The real find—and I’m not saying this because I’m an American—was non-actor John Sweet, 27, who was a US soldier in England to get ready to fight, not act, when he was picked by Powell. His honest naturalness is delightful—and the real man was a helluva guy, too. A movie career didn’t pan out: he became a teacher and lived to be 95. He was quoted “”The few months I spent making the film were the most profound and influential of my life”. Awkward but willing, John Sweet represented G.I.s and that era’s down-home American decency at its best.

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Beautifully photographed in black & white by the great Erwin Hillier (I Know Where I’m Going) in a mix of British realism with German expressionism. Making selective use of light, shadows, shade, clouds and the age-old peaceful ambiance of the region, it’s a movie steeped in nature, myth and history; a re-affirmation of the English character and customs.  It offers a gracious welcoming of the can-do optimism of the Americans epitomized by Sgt. Johnson, flooding into the country in preparation for D-Day.  Powell & Pressburger’s genius lies in the way they marry sweeping themes of tradition, purpose and spiritual hunger with grounded humor, recognizable hurt and blessed healing. The confluence of singular contact with communal continuity is revealed as something to cherish.

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In his memoirs, Michael Powell wrote “A Canterbury Tale had grown organically in our minds, but it was not understood, or even enjoyed, until some 30-odd years later.” It was derided by Britain’s critics of the day and audiences didn’t muster. Five full years later it turned up in the States, miserably re-edited, with a tacked on role for Kim Hunter and narration by Raymond Massey. Failing again, the misunderstood, mangled tone poem faded into the ether. Rediscovered, revived, and restored, it’s now recognized as a triumph.

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Wrapped in a fine-hued score from Allan Gray which incorporates a number of pieces from other composers, it takes its pilgrims on their path for 124 strange &funny, surprising & heartwarming, ultimately glorious minutes.  Literate and folksy, as loving and tender as any film about England ever made, yet it’s appeal is universal. Born from the darkest of times, A Canterbury Tale glows bright in the memory.  V for Victory, indeed. With Esmond Knight, Freda Jackson, Hay Petrie.

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Well, 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 the old England. They climbed Chillingbourne Hill, just as you. 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. 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 turn the bend in the road, where they too saw the towers of Canterbury, I feel I’ve only to turn my head, to see them on the road behind me.”

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