The Archers’ A Canterbury Tale plays fast and loose with Chaucer

The Archers’ A Canterbury Tale plays fast and loose with Chaucer

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Baz Luhrmann’s flashy adaptation The Great Gatsby has us remembering other hyper-stylized takes on high-school reading-list staples.

A Canterbury Tale (1944)
Although it opens with the Middle English lines that many an unlucky teen has phonetically committed to memory—“bathed every veyne in swich licour” and so forth—The Archers’ (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) eccentric World War II fable A Canterbury Tale offers cold comfort to students cramming for midterms. After a brief Middle Aged prelude, the film transitions to the present day, replacing Geoffrey Chaucer’s pilgrims with wandering soldiers in wartime. Like Chaucer’s tales, most of Powell and Pressburger’s film is set on the road to the famed cathedral, here in a fictional town called Chillingbourne that at first offers the travelers an appropriately chilly welcome. Ruled by Eric Portman’s stern magistrate, who fondly shows off a medieval dunking chair “used to silence talkative women,” Chillingbourne has become hostile to the fairer sex, not least because of a furtive vigilante who douses unlucky women’s heads with “sticky stuff.” (In the original script, the “glue man” slashed their dresses; objections led to a less violent but infinitely creepier M.O.)

Sheila Sim, still mourning her fiancé’s loss in combat, has come to Chillingbourne to work as a “land girl,” but after becoming the glue man’s latest victim, she makes it her mission to track him down, as does a wayward American G.I. (John Sweet, a nonprofessional actor whose awkward line readings acquire charm over the movie’s length). But even when it’s solved, the mystery of the glue man’s identity is only a stop on the road in a movie that pulls away from its own plot whenever possible. By the time of its climax, the silent tower of Canterbury Cathedral has become a character itself: watching, guiding, and uniting disparate souls in a common endeavor. What exactly does this have to do with Chaucer? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

Availability: A Criterion DVD and streaming from Amazon Prime.

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