Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

A Canterbury Tale

Michael Powell really blossomed as a filmmaker during World War II, when he aided the British war effort by producing pro-UK propaganda, designed for export to the U.S., to help make the Yanks understand the Europe they were fighting to preserve. But while his movies' goals were simple, Powell and his writing/producing partner Emeric Pressburger took the assignments as an opportunity to experiment, to work up densely allusive narratives, and to present them somewhat abstractly, with an emphasis on the rhythmic editing and swooping camera moves that Powell later dubbed "the composed film."


A year after Powell and Pressburger made their first masterpiece, 1943's world-war-spanning, England-defining The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp, the filmmakers made A Canterbury Tale, a whimsical Chaucer update set in the British countryside in the thick of wartime. Real-life American sergeant John Sweet plays a soldier waylaid in the village of Chillingbourne after he accidentally gets off a train one stop before Canterbury. Rather than rushing on, Sweet hangs around to help British sergeant Dennis Price and lovelorn traveler Sheila Sim solve the mystery of who's been terrorizing local girls by daubing glue in their hair. The silly detective plot provides an excuse for Powell and Pressburger to string together long walks through the countryside, shots of children playing war games, and detailed conversations about the timber business.

A Canterbury Tale is a strange little movie, overlong and even shrill at times, but with a point to make that belies its slightness. By the time the pilgrims make it to Canterbury, the film has become about the grace bestowed by an ancient land, rich with history and nobility. Or, more accurately, it's become about striking tracking shots of boats cruising down a river, daringly low-light shots of a blackout, an elegant jump-cut from a falcon to a fighter plane, multiple handheld shots of rural faces in close-up, and stark footage of bombed-out buildings, flanked by one of the world's most famous cathedrals. Because in a Michael Powell film, bravura sequences matter as much as the theme they express.

Key features: A commentary by scholar Ian Christie, excerpts from the lame framing device inserted for the U.S. version of the movie, and a second disc of enthusiastic featurettes about the cast and the locations.