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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Original at Glasgow University
Another Canterbury Tale
By Benedict Smith
It's been twenty years since the Archer's A Canterbury Tale was restored. [This was written in 1997] In that time the film has undergone a critical re-evaluation reversing the damage done to its reputation by its original critical and public failure. Ian Christie described the moment the 1977 audience saw it for the first time. 'Imagine then, the amazement of a new generation when the film was restored by the National Film Archive in 1977, to see how audaciously it had begun. A band of medieval pilgrims are making their way through the forest when suddenly - foreshadowing Kubrick's Space Odyssey - the bird above their heads suddenly becomes a spitfire!' A magical moment indeed, but not one denied to any audience who may have seen the re-cut during the thirty years it replaced the original. It quickly became clear that once the Archers' original version was restored no one wanted to pay much attention to the altered one. Now that the original film has secured its place in the Powell and Pressburger pantheon it might be time to take another look at the re-cut.
The film industry's flirtation with directors' cuts, which began with the special edition of Blade Runner, appears to have been halted by the extended version of the ridiculous Lawnmower Man. Instead of neatly trimming around the edges Brett Leonard's lumbering film cut the movement's head off. The obsession with 'never seen before footage' is over for the moment. But were director's cuts just a phenomenon of the first half of the 1990's? A brief money driven dalliance with the idea that a future Orson Welles would get to keep a copy of his Magnificent Ambersons? Not necessarily. It seems the procedure has at least one antecedent. It must be borne in mind that 'director's cuts' as we know them are not actually the original versions of films left over from a period prior to studio interference. Blade Runner the Director's Cut is not the version of the film Ridley Scott first handed in 1982. In point of fact it's his re-working which incorporates some of his original ideas, abandons others and adds new ones, like the footage of the unicorn from Legend. The premiere director's cut isn't so much an example of restoration as it is of revision. And so to A Canterbury Tale.
The film was first released in 1944 and came after an unbroken string of successes for the Archers which began with Powell and Pressburger's first collaboration The Spy in Black and included 49th Parallel and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Michael Powell had high hopes for A Canterbury Tale with which the Archers sought to explain 'why we fight'. He was hit hard when it flopped with both the critics and public. Among his many interviews there are scores of admissions of failure and he placed the blame squarely on his shoulders. "I said to myself 'I think I can get away with it.' But I couldn't." "I was working, creating a story in the country I was born in, the 'garden of England' . . . All this I knew from childhood, yet somehow I failed to get it on screen." Most revealingly he said "The whole idea was to examine the values for which we were fighting and to do it partly through the eyes of a young American who was training in England. That's where we went wrong, because by the time the film came out, all the Americans were off fighting".
Perhaps because it was their first failure Powell was determined to set the record straight. If his timing was off on this occasion then he was out to make sure it wouldn't be again. This was why before he even began shooting the Archer's A Matter of Life and Death at the end of the war, he set to work revising the "failure" hoping to make it into a success for it's second time out. The popular belief is that Powell reluctantly re-edited A Canterbury Tale but a viewing of this second, shorter movie reveals it to be not half-heartedly edited down but exuberantly re-invented.
At the end of the war Kim Hunter had come across the Atlantic to star in A Matter of Life and Death with David Niven. Powell, never one to miss an opportunity, formulated a plan to include his new leading actress in the old film. Hunter has explained that since Michael Powell could not obtain a Technicolor camera "for a couple of months he drew me into an updated version of A Canterbury Tale. It had already been released in the original version in England -- but he thought he could make it into a post- war film for release in the US. So Emeric wrote a couple of scenes, and Michael directed me and John Sweet [the American Sergeant Powell had playing one of the leads] who was still in England at the time, in them -- a beginning scene to introduce his experience while in England, and the final scene to wrap it up." More than simply bookending the film with new scenes Powell overhauled its structure, which he saw as "frail and unconvincing", jettisoning half an hour's worth of material in the process.
A wartime propaganda film trying to explain the reasons about why the war was being fought was never going to turn into a post-war movie reminiscing about the good times very easily. Moreover A Canterbury Tale was a decidedly odd film in the first place. It tells the story of a landgirl, an American sergeant and a British officer thrown together in a small village in Kent which is near to the old pilgrim's road to Canterbury. Alison, the landgirl, is attacked by a man throwing glue as she walks with the soldiers. Setting out to trace the attacker the three find themselves embroiled in a mystery. The search for the identity of the glueman is only a diversion however, and it soon becomes plain that the film-makers wished to deal with an altogether different kind of mystery in the film. Within five minutes the culprit's identity is uncovered as being the local magistrate Thomas Colpepper and the rest of the film is given over to finding evidence to prove this. During the course of their investigation Alison Bob and Peter discern why such an apparently decent man, who they are all inexplicably drawn to, would spend his nights assaulting girls. After Colpepper reveals his reasons the three friends discover with his help that they are in fact pilgrims to Canterbury themselves.
In the overhaul Powell turned his attention to changing the tone of the film, replacing earnestness with humour. The opening credits no longer rolled over the tolling bells of the cathedral but instead the film began with an animated sequence narrated by Raymond Massey. This cartoon sees the entire American army narrowed down to a single couple, Hunter and Sweet, with a series of bizarre but very funny rules of exclusion. We join the couple as they bicker about where to go on holiday, Hunter opting for revisiting her wartime posting and Sweet arguing for his. "Wouldn't you like to be a pilgrim? Remember that book I gave you? Couldn't you here the chiming of the bells?" Instead of the audacious transformation of the hawk into a spitfire being played out over the head of an actor who begins as a medieval pilgrim and into twentieth century a soldier, it is Bob (John Sweet) we find on the pilgrim's road with his head turned to the sky. There is no doubt that this new movie is going to be Bob's film - a major shift in focus from the original version. In that Sylvia Sym's [It was SHEILA SIM, not Sylvia Sym] character Alison had been an equal lead and served as Bob's guide to Kent (and our own). Powell had always wanted Deborah Kerr to play that part and for whatever reason out went a many of Sym's solo scenes. Scenes that had played such a central role in the failed first release. Powell's new sequence immediately started causing problems with the logic of the film as the curious love quadrangle between the magistrate and 'glueman' Thomas Colpepper, Alison, Bob and their friend Peter Gibb loses one of its sides. The flirtation and tension between Bob and Alison has disappears perhaps so as sympathy isn't lost for a man we know from the new prologue to be married. Bob had been a confirmed bachelor the first time around, believing the girl who would eventually be played by Kim Hunter to have dumped him. Powell comes uncomfortably close to throwing the baby out with the bath water as essential motivation for later scenes disappears with some seemingly innocuous early cuts. The rich sexual undercurrent in the film is lost as many of the scenes featuring women go by the board and Bob's harmless innuendo with his hotel's landlady is dropped. To cover gaps in the story Bob takes further control of the film by being given a voiceover. The narrative meanderings that make the first version of A Canterbury Tale so remarkable and charming are lost to achieve a more striking dramatic structure. The most unfortunate losses are the scenes of local boys engaging in a pretend war on the river and helping the three investigators prove Colpepper guilty. These scenes which Powell was later to be so pleased with were dropped. This was done on the one hand because in the new structure there was no need for Bob to enlist any help, but also it seems likely because the scenes, so autobiographical as Powell's A Life In Movies revealed, had involved him too personally in the film's failure. This second more humour-filled Canterbury Tale makes for a striking hybrid. No longer such a personal film the slender storyline which Emeric Pressburger said "doesn't seem to lead anywhere, except perhaps to an old caravan, but in fact leads to the majesty of Canterbury cathedral" is given a firm form which we know from the start will only ever lead one place. "Wouldn't you like to be a pilgrim?" Bob asks his wife at the start. But the transition to a classical structure cannot be brought off fully even with the new sequences and so the film becomes even more charmingly curious. In the recut the eccentricities of the rural Kentish folk, so strange to the city dwellers Alison and Peter and the American are met by eccentricities enforced on the story by numerous cuts. We find scenes, central to the plot of both versions also containing actions (such as Peter's theft from Colpepper's house) which no longer seem to have any obvious purpose in the second cut. What is perhaps most delightful about the re-cutting of A Canterbury Tale is what it tells us about Michael Powell himself and his relationship to the film, what he excised and what he kept. It is very rare to find a film-maker of his era, without the modus operandi of the director's cut phenomenon take a film and try to identify what he saw as his own mistakes in so clear a fashion as to give us an entirely different film in the outcome. It is doubly sad then that even with all the excisions and new ideas the film sank just as quickly the second time as it did the first. It wasn't until another thirty years had passed that the unaltered film finally found its audience and perhaps now another twenty have gone the revised version will be appreciated for what it is.
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