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Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.

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Submitted by Nicky Smith

Golden oldie returns to please

A Canterbury Tale
Sheila Sim, Dennis Price, John Sweet, Eric Portman,. Dir: Emeric Pressburger, Michael Powell.

By: Alexander Walker
London Evening Standard. 23 Feb 2000

It is amusing to remember that Emeric Pressburger, one half of the Archers production team, whose other was of course Michael Powell, had been refused permission to visit the unit on location in Kent when they made A Canterbury Tale. Pressburger, you see, was Hungarian by birth; therefore, officially an enemy alien in wartime Britain and restricted in where he could travel. [Which is why I love the photo at left (click for larger version) "P&P at Canterbury (or are they?)" No they're not. They're at the replica they built of the Catheral (or various parts of it) at Denham.]

Fate throws them together
Dennis Price, Sheila Sim and John Sweet:
fate throws them together

That's the world that this very curious film introduces us to: a world still in pre-war, even feudal shape, with blacksmiths, wheelwrights, local squires and rolling English roads co-existing with blackouts, air raid wardens, land girls and Yanks in uniform. For different reasons (none too plausible in Pressburger's script), Sheila Sim's land girl, Dennis Price's British soldier and John Sweet's American one all get out at the same country station [It's VERY plausible & clear from the script - Has he actually watched the film? Sheila Sim was to be working for Colpepper, Dennis Price was to be stationed at the nearby Army camp and John Sweet misheard the announcement.] - Chillingbourne - and run into a character who might have belonged to a Hammer Horror: the Glueman. He doesn't suck blood, he pours glue into the hair of any local lass unpatriotic (or sexy) enough to go out with men at night, especially American men. Eric Portman plays this nutter, an English puritan gone to bad seed.

Michael Powell calls the film 'a morality play about three modern pilgrims'. The critics of the day called it something else: 'unpleasant', 'unsavoury' and - the most dismissive adjective then in current English use - 'unnecessary'. (Remember the disapproving wartime economy slogan: 'Is your journey really necessary?') It was the earliest hint of the antipathy that Powell and Pressburger could awaken in film critics who, nearly 20 years later, were to devour Peeping Tom. [It wasn't the earliest. Remember what the Sydneyan Society had said about all the films from Blimp onwards (and maybe before)] The notion of a misogynist (who possessed goodness knows what other English vices) who messed up girls' hair-dos was a piece of erotica not well understood, or at least admitted in 1944. 'Not till 33 years later,' Powell wrote in his autobiography, 'was A Canterbury Tale recognised as one of our most original, iconoclastic and entertaining films.' Also, he might have added, the most beautiful outdoor production of its period, with Erwin Hillier's camerawork catching the radiant look of the land in the last years before post-war despoilation. Press shown on May 9, just three days after the Normandy landings [The D-Day landings were on June 6th, 1944 Alexander], its happily coincidental use of a martial peal of Canterbury cathedral bells taking over from the hymn 'Onward, Christian Soldiers' felt like a boon and a blessing - and still does.

NFT, South Bank, SE1 (020-7928 3232), Wed 1, Thurs 2 and Sat 4 March

© Associated Newspapers Ltd., 23 February 2000

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