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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Diane Broadbent Friedman
Original published in Literature & Film Quarterly: "Powell & Pressburger's A Canterbury Tale: New Pilgrims, Old Pilgrimage (Vol. 36, No 1, 2008).
Powell and Pressburger's A Canterbury Tale:
New Pilgrims, Old Pilgrimage1
Carl C. Curtis, III
The main action of the 1944 film A Canterbury Tale, produced, written, and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, begins eccentrically enough with the attack of a young woman in the company of two sergeants - one British and the other American - in the mythical village of Chillingbourne in Kent. It is night, and the assailant, who appears without warning, remains a shadowy figure, escaping before either the girl or the soldiers can react. His crime? He has poured a quantity of glue on the girl's hair. So begins the search over the next two days through the village for the mysterious "Glue Man." who, as the three almost immediately discover from the local constabulary, has similarly beglued a number of other local girls. Hardly the stuff, one might say, of which great films are made.
Evidently, contemporary audiences agreed. Powell and Pressburger, who had scored a number of successes with such memorable films as Contraband, 49th Parallel, and the controversial but masterly The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and who shortly would go on to produce such immortal works as A Matter of Life and Death, I Know Where I'm Going, Black Narcissus, and The Red Shoes, experienced their first failure with A Canterbury Tale (Britmovie). The team even had trouble recruiting actors for the film; Roger Livesey, a delightful and skilled actor and a P&P mainstay, was sufficiently disgusted by the idea of the Glue Man (the sobriquet of the character Thomas Colpeper) that he refused the part; Deborah Kerr, for whom the lead female role of Alison was intended, was newly under contract to MGM and legally had to decline the offer (Britmovie). But even with the very fine cast that Powell and Pressburger finally assembled, British audiences turned away - as did American viewers when the film was released stateside in an abbreviated version. For years Powell himself (Pressburger liked the movie) regarded the film as a disappointment and possibly his least favorite, declaring the script, in the final analysis, too complex, and citing his own laxity in editing Pressburger's usually fine work (Britmovie).
They were wrong. More recent reassessments by critics and viewers have taken a very different tone, finding A Canterbury Tale, indeed, eccentric, but nevertheless a marvelous study of the conflict of modern and traditional sensibilities (a common P&P theme) and a testament to the resiliency of the British national character in a time of moral crisis.
But, one might ask, is it Chaucerian? Might all of the references to Canterbury, the Pilgrims' Way, and the cathedral have been jettisoned, and might the fight-the-good-fight, stiff-upper-lip, finest-hour imagery just as well have been transferred to some other venue - Yorkshire, Cornwall, or (as in I Know Where I'm Going) the Hebrides?
The answer is yes - and no. As I have already suggested, a film such I Know Where I'm Going - for me, a story almost Shakespearean in comic vision - realizes the modernity vs. tradition theme quite well outside of Kent. But the fact is, A Canterbury Tale is meant to evoke the spirit of Chaucer through the pointed use of specific themes - flesh and spirit, and especially blessing and penance - and through the constant visual reminder that Chaucer's pilgrims moved in a defined landscape toward a destination that is available to modern pilgrims. That specific destination, though in a sense universal, is colored by and essential to the sacramentalism inherent in the pilgrimage. Pilgrims do not spiritually drift through spiritual space; they live, breathe, and walk to a real place - and, in this case, the place, Canterbury, is both earthly and spiritual through a series of ancient associations. Like both the good and bad of Chaucer's pilgrims, the men and women of modern times may or may not realize what they are doing as they walk the Pilgrims' Way, but they move in the same direction, with their own unfolding stories informing the audience of who they are, and of their motives, whether they seek blessing, deserve curse, or need forgiveness.
The film sketches the theme in its own way - for the viewer, very much through the eyes of Michael Powell, himself a native of Kent. The village of Chillingbourne is Powell's creation, cleverly pieced together from shots of various localities in the region. Mythical or no, it has a concreteness to it that is the very stuff of the film. The villagers go about their activities as they always have: they plow fields, muck out stalls, mill timber, and gossip at the pub in a town that by appearances might well be from another century; one feels almost as if there is no war on at all even though there definitely is. Indeed, the opening narration of A Canterbury Tale contributes to this feeling with a pleasing half-modern, half-Middle English recitation of the opening lines of the General Prologue accompanied by a vignette of Chaucer's pilgrims.
Yet, however Chaucerian its sensibilities, the film's action occurs in the modern world. The transition from the fourteenth century to 1943 (the approximate year of the action) takes place as one of the pilgrims releases his falcon and watches it soar in the sky. As the bird flies, it suddenly changes into an airplane and the camera shifts back to the falconer, now transformed also into a helmeted soldier of the Home Guard. Maintaining his earlier cadences, the narrator speaks:Six hundred years have passed. What would they see,Armored vehicles rove the landscape. Perhaps somewhere in England bombs are falling. The modern pilgrim, as the lines suggest, hardly knows where he is headed. Change, which war always generates, seems to be the chord struck in these disturbing moments.
Dan Chaucer and his goodly company?
Today the hills and valleys are the same;
Gone are the forests since the enclosures came,
Hedgerows have sprung, the land is under plow,
And orchards bloom with blossom on the bough,
Sussex and Kent are like a garden fair.
But sheep still graze upon the ridges there,
The Pilgrims' Way still winds about the Weald,
Through wood and brake and many a fertile field.
But though so little's changed since Chaucer's day,
Another kind of pilgrim walks the way.
Alas, when on our pilgrimage we wend,
We modern pilgrims see no joumey's end.
Gone are the ring of hooves, the creak of wheel,
Down in the valley runs our road of steel.
No genial host or sinking of the sun
Welcomes us in. Our journey's just begun.2
But the effect is short-lived. In the magical atmosphere of Chillingbourne, the flux of war is left behind. The courtroom of the town hall bears the inscription "1593," and village craftsmen talk of their work in terms of unbroken traditions of which their fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers were part.
Into these ancient streets tumble the three modern pilgrims: Alison Smith (played by Sheila Sim), a former London shop worker, now a "Land Girl" (that is, a member of Britain's Women's Land Army) in Chillingbourne to work on a farm as her part in the war effort; Sgt. Peter Gibbs (actor Dennis Price), a cynical, self-satisfied Londoner; and Sgt. Bob Johnson (Sgt. John Sweet), an effervescent American GI who has missed his connection to Canterbury and must spend a night that stretches into a two-day visit in the village. There the three stand, somewhat bewildered, when they meet the Glue Man whom they futilely pursue in the darkness and fog until they arrive at the town hall. Peter catches the bus to his camp, but Bob and Alison enter the hall to lodge their complaint - as it turns out, a very familiar one - first to the sergeant of police and then to Thomas Colpeper (Eric Portman), the local magistrate.
Colpeper stands out as a most remarkable character. Gentleman farmer, magistrate, mountain climber, and apostle of tradition, he sits upstairs at the judge's bench and welcomes the newcomers singly. The bar before the bench has the inscription on it. "Love and Honour the Truth," and to a large degree Colpeper is all about that creed, but never in a merely abstract sense. To him, loving and honoring the truth has an intimate connection with opening one's eyes, ears, and mind to the surrounding world. That, of course, means Chillingbourne, Kent, the Pilgrims' Way, and Canterbury. Later at his public lecture and slide show on Kent at the village's Colpeper Institute in response to one soldier's questioning of what the old pilgrims could possibly mean to "us" today. Colpeper first reminds his listeners that they, just like the pilgrims who walked in Chaucer's day, come from all walks of life: some are doctors, some are lawyers, some merchants, and some cooks. He then lyrically observes:And when you see the bluebells in the spring and the wild thyme, 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 pilgrims that you can hear the thrumming of the hoofs and 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 of the road where they too saw the towers of Canterbury. I feel I've only to tum my head to see them on the road behind me.The link of modern to ancient pilgrim, then, is twofold: the land and the towers of the cathedral.
To at least one recent critic (Duguid) Colpeper's view is neo-pagan, but I cannot agree.3 The error lies in the failure to understand, as Chaucer certainly would have, the sacramental element of Christian doctrine. To almost hear and see the pilgrims, to walk the same path they walked, clearly links the old pilgrims' spiritual journey with the physical journey, What they do on it, what they see, and how they see are of paramount importance. Moreover, Colpeper stresses, here and later, what the pilgrims (Chaucer's and the three modern ones, Peter, Bob, and Alison, as well as the soldiers at the lecture) are about are blessing and penance - hardly pagan notions. The pilgrim whether old or new breathes the real air of Kent as he travels, but one way or the other through that physical act he will breathe also in a spiritual atmosphere at his journey's end.
In the initial interviews of Alison and Bob with Colpeper, two important facts emerge. The first is that Bob, in spite of his rural background that we slowly learn about, has become shallowly modern. After his introduction to Colpeper, he talks about his stay in Salisbury, What did he see there? "[S]ome swell movies," The statement, which the viewer might construe as a potshot at American Philistinism, really is not. The typically modern British characters in the film are as apt to fall into the black hole of contemporary society as the American sergeant, Colpeper's dry rebuttal stands as a sign of things to come, "Pity," he says, "when you get home and people ask what you've seen in England and you say, 'Well, I saw a movie in Salisbury, And I made a pilgrimage to Canterbury, and I saw another one.'" Bob's naive reply "You've got me all wrong. I know that in Canterbury I have to look out for a cathedral" merely sets him up for the magistrate's coup de grace. "Yes do look out for it. It's just behind the movie theatre. You can't miss it," During the conversation with Alison, we discover our second important fact, namely, that Colpeper is a member of the Home Guard, a discovery confirmed by his jacket that Alison sees on the floor of his closet. The point may seem insignificant, except for the fact that she recalls that the Glue Man was in uniform. And Colpeper is definitely the Glue Man.
Over the next two days, the pilgrims canvas the village to determine the identity of the Glue Man - Alison, because, after all, she had the glue poured on her hair; Bob, because he has nothing better to do; and Peter, out of a sense of an almost fanatical and sanctimonious modern legalism. Strangely, they find out almost immediately that the villagers largely approve of the Glue Man. The reason is only suggested when the wheelwright, on hearing of Alison's mishap, rebukes her with the words "I suppose that'll learn you not to run around at night," Only after Alison has gone to work at a local farm does the reason really surface. She finds one of the girls, Fee Baker (Betty Jardin), who, like Alison, had a nighttime encounter with the Glue Man, Alison's talk with this girl establishes the pattern for all of the attacks: all of the girls were with soldiers from the local camp when the Glue Man struck. The nature of these "dates" becomes plain to Alison and to us in this conversation and later through the words of a soldier who was with one of the girls when another attack occurred. First, Fee tells Alison that she would not date another soldier for a thousand pounds, an important point since it shows that the Glue Man's activities are having definite effects. Second, she speculates that maybe they are dealing with a Glue Woman. As Alison demurs. Fee remarks: "Don't be soft. Take Ernie's family, [...] My Ernie. He's with the 8th Army. Do ya think his family like me goin' out with strange soldiers? But a girl must live." What that last comment means is open to only so much interpretation. Fee means either that a girl must have fun, as in "live it up," or that a girl must make a living - evidently by prostitution. When Alison encounters Peter, the English sergeant she met on the first night, along with some of his unit, one of the soldiers, Archie, talks about an evening tryst with one "Gwladys" brought to a crashing halt by "glue." The attack came at night. "Love's young dream." he chuckles cynically. And then with a click of his tongue and a wink, he adds, "Conditions were perfect [...] until the Glue Man came." What "perfect conditions" means is plain enough. The soldiers, bored at camp and looking for a good time, pursue the village girls who, with their boyfriends or husbands off to war, are also bored, looking for a good time, or, at the very worst, trying to find a subsidiary source of income. The later conversation of Alison, Bob, and Peter with Colpeper on the train to Canterbury underscores how well the latter understands the immorality of the situation he has tried to redress. Would Bob, he wonders, like his girl to go out with a stranger in his absence? The point is well taken, and Bob must admit that Colpeper, the Glue Man, is right. His methods may be unorthodox, but his motive is purely traditional. Christian, and perhaps even Chaucerian. (Consider Chaucer's pictures of the promiscuous "coney" hunting Monk, and of the "shriving" of the Pardoner's.) No wonder so many of the villagers quietly applaud him.
As Alison, Bob, and Peter try to catch the Glue Man, we make discoveries about them. Unlike Chaucer's pilgrims, they do not tell stories about others, but, directly and indirectly, they unearth things about themselves. Each is to a greater or lesser degree spiritually maimed. Alison has lost her fiancé, a casualty of war, as has Bob, but in a different sense: his girl has stopped writing. These two live with a sense of loss and suppressed bitterness. Yet, in spite of the pain they suffer, they begin to receive small blessings as they gather clues. A city girl by birth, Alison discovers or, more accurately, rediscovers her love of the country and Kent. Three years before, she and her fiancé, an archaeologist before the war, spent "thirteen perfect days" in a "caravan" (a trailer to us Americans) excavating the Pilgrims' Way. As she works on the farm and wanders through the village and countryside, the old pilgrims' laughter slowly becomes real to her, and her genuine affection for Colpeper, who also understands the land and its connection to the past, grows, even as her desire to bring the Glue Man to justice dwindles.
Bob, an Oregonian, also recovers a sense of himself, in part by talking to the villagers. In a memorable scene, he chats with the owner of the local lumber mill. As it turns out. Bob "cut [his] teeth on wood shavings." and the conversation about various types of wood the process of cutting, drying, and milling, as well as the subsequent dinner he has with the miller (nothing like Chaucer's Miller), all help him appreciate his past and his ancestry, the family trade, and his connection to the land. Like Alison, he continues to sift the villagers for what he can find about the Glue Man, but the revelations about himself are far more significant than anything he finds out about the shady "criminal."
One of the most charming incidents in the film occurs as Bob joins a group of local boys playing at war, which Bob intends to recruit - as it turns out, successfully - to gamer more clues. The mock war scene evokes a dream of boyhood, with one "army" of boys heading down a stream in a boat to establish a beachhead on the enemy's shores, and another hiding on land to repel the attack. Paper bats, cast-off berets, an occasional officer's hat; wooden guns, and apples for missiles color the scene. Bob tries to stand aside, dodging apples and waiting for one side to prevail. All in all, the battle is delightful - especially the sight of the smallest of the boys, "Commander Todd," decked out in peacoat, wooden sword, and officer's hat, standing in the boat, saluting as he cries uncontrollably. But the charm is mitigated by what we know of operations such as the failed raid I in Dieppe in the year before the film began production. Besides, the one man in actual uniform at the site of the boys' battle will be joining the real thing soon. The touching "surrender" between the boys' leaders. General Terry and General Leslie, as well as General Terry's reasons for being undermanned ("Cause my men must have berries, and I've only got six handkerchiefs") provides a picture of a kind of gentlemen's warfare that has passed away. No civilians are bombed in the boys' battle, but the unforgettable view of Canterbury (notably, filmed on location) Powell and Pressburger give us later shows one flattened building after another. Whether we are meant to recall Chaucer's chivalrous Knight as an exemplar of the older variety of war in the boys' behavior remains questionable, but one thing is certain: by the end of the scene the modern world comes off pretty badly compared to the boys' more humane one. Yet, though the film acknowledges that harsh fact, it also holds out a hope for better times. Shortly after Colpeper begins his lecture at the institute, he tells his soldier audience. "You, I hope, are on your way to secure blessings for the future."
For that to happen intentionally, one must believe in blessings. Of the three modern pilgrims in the film, the most deeply damaged is the English sergeant Peter Gibbs, mainly because he does not believe there is anything wrong with himself but rather with everything Colpeper, Chillingbourne, and the Pilgrims' Way stand for. His talk with Colpeper one Sunday afternoon at Colpeper's house proves crucial to our understanding of him; in it, the nature of his character emerges rapidly. In response to Colpeper's question as to whether he likes walking, Peter's succinct reply is "Not if I can help it. Why walk if there's a train." The modern man whose time is too precious to squander on taking in the beauties of the land around him - whether they be the glories of God's hand in nature or the magnificence of human art in all its variety - stands in full dress uniform in that simple declaration. Certainly, such a man would have trouble managing a pilgrimage anywhere. Colpeper gets the point. When, having observed various books on mountaineering in Colpeper's study, Peter makes reference to the hobby, his adversary is ready with the comment "I suppose you'd recommend me to wait at the bottom till somebody builds a funicular railway." Peter is ready too. "I'd say why climb to the top at all. What's wrong with the valley?" His manners do not improve as the conversation progresses. In fact, here the sparring takes on a nasty edge as it frequently does when the new world meets the old. "And the trouble with this country." Peter avers, "is that every second man thinks he's born to be a missionary, and every third man has a bee in his bonnet [...] Look at you. [...] You're a gentleman farmer with a fine house. [...] Yet the first chance you get, you're off climbing mountains or digging up stuff that six hundred years ago was thrown out as junk." However, Colpeper is not going to back down; to the contrary, he begins to probe deeper to find out who this bitter young man is. What does he do for a living? As it turns out, Peter is an organist in, he claims, the best place someone his profession can be. At St. Paul's Cathedral? No - and here, try as he may. Peter cannot hide his discomfort - at the cinema. Through this revelation, Bob's earlier notion of the value of modern living (and sightseeing) and Peter's disposition have coalesced, and Colpeper the apostle of pilgrimage is not about to let the opportunity to preach pass by. After he poses a few personal questions, Peter admits to him that he did not always want to play in a movie house. His real ambition had been to be a church organist; he studied nine years toward his goal, perhaps as a very different man from the one he has become. In a later scene. Bob, conversing with him, will express the common view that "organists as a race [are] climbers," more specifically "of church towers." Peter - or the man Peter likes to think he is - replies, "I use a lift." In any event, he tells Colpeper that the dream to play in a church vanished when a friend of his told him about the job at the cinema - "luckily for me."
Colpeper's response to all of this modern bravado might prove embarrassingly hackneyed to us if we do not consider the time in which it was uttered, "it seems to me, Sergeant," he begins, "there are two kinds of men. One who learns to play Bach and Handel, only to play "I Kiss Your Little Hand, Madame,' and the man who learns to walk step by step so that one day he might climb Mount Everest." Surely, such a statement made today would provoke either groans or peals of laughter from any audience. But in 1944 Everest had not been scaled and remained one of the greatest of all challenges, provided a man had the spirit to tackle it. And the analogy is appropriate for Colpeper: after all, he is a mountain climber. Furthermore, the symbolism behind mountain climbing raises both spiritual and current questions of what the soldiers, many of whom see the world as Peter does, are truly fighting for. Is the future hope found in thirty pounds a week (Peter's salary) and a comfortable flat, so the world might be made safe for cinemaniacs of all nations, world without end? Or do men lay down their lives for something bigger, more permanent, perhaps based upon something eternal? The Everest analogy may seem trite to us, but it does pose the question A Canterbury Tale seeks to answer.
By the end of their stay In Chillingbourne. Alison, Bob, and Peter are convinced that Colpeper is the Glue Man, and as they settle into their railway compartment for Canterbury, Peter announces almost matter-of-factly his firm intention to denounce Colpeper to the superintendent of police once they reach the town. The culprit, as it happens, must himself go to Canterbury to sit on the bench of magistrates, a duty he fulfills every Monday. In the same carriage the four of them sit uncomfortably and discuss their separate destinations. Not for one minute does Peter try to hide the truth about where he is headed, and his self-assurance sparks another debate, this time an open confrontation about the legitimacy of the Glue Man's attacks. When confirmed, Colpeper admits that he cannot and will not defend "pouring glue on girls' hair." but he will "pouring knowledge into their heads, by force, if necessary." To get people to listen and learn about the beauty of the country and recover some reverence for their past, he acknowledges, would take a miracle, but he believes the project is worthwhile. Besides, he observes, in some ways the war provided the miracle he was looking for. It brought a camp full of soldiers to Chillingbourne who, if they avail themselves of the opportunity Colpeper is giving them through his lectures, might see the glories of the country around them. The statement might define a kind of egotism, except for the fact that what Colpeper desperately wants is not an audience but pilgrims. The three people with him in the train compartment are a start.
And assuredly they have become pilgrims although, as Bob says to his friend Sergeant Roczinsky after he arrives in Canterbury, they "don't know it." More to the point, unlike Chaucer's pilgrims, who went to Canterbury as a matter of tradition and faith, these modern pilgrims must go if they are to have any future at all. To the Knight and the Oxford Clerk, even to the Wife of Bath and the Summoner, Canterbury was a kind of given because everything it stood for was given. From a self-righteous scoundrel such as the Monk who almost certainly rode in confidence of blessing, to the meek and humble Parson who just as certainly traveled in humble and penitential fear, the Pilgrims' Way meant the Faith. In Chaucer's work we never see the pilgrims arrive at their destination, but in many ways we do not need to see it; their lives were a pilgrimage, of which the real road to Canterbury constituted a living symbol, a pilgrimage in a faith none of them would have denied, right down to the blackest sinner among them. Not so the modern pilgrims. Cinemas, nightclubs, and London shops are all they know: the spiritual dimension of life barely amounts to an afterthought. Alison sums up their outlook when she tells Colpeper on the train. "The trouble is, you believe in miracles." The point is clear enough. The modern world has no meaning beyond what one can see, and that sight is blurred to the point of outright blindness. For all that has happened to them in Chillingbourne, the new pilgrims' lives are still spiritually empty. They must reach Canterbury, surely for the blessings and penance it can ofter, but more for the knowledge that blessing and penance - modern miracles - are still possible at all. If they can attain that knowledge, it likely will become the focal point for them for the remainder of their lives.
When they arrive in Canterbury, as one might expect, Peter is the first to act; however, the superintendent has left the station for special duty during the service for the departing troops Peter himself will soon join. Undeterred, he heads to the cathedral where he buttonholes one Dr. Kelsey (Eliot Makeham) and asks for the superintendent. The reply he gets is chilly enough: "This is Canterbury Cathedral, not the police station," One suspects the difference is not entirely lost on Peter either. Somewhat abashed, he continues, 'I'm sorry, sir, I was told he might be here. He wants to see me urgently." The doctor's answer remains a classic example of the man who knows his place in the eternal scheme of things, confronting someone who does not - or does not wish to. "Urgently?" he asks, casts his eyes heavenward, and heads up to the organ loft. For there is more to the meeting than the rebuff: Dr. Kelsey is the cathedral organist. That should be the end of that. But in a world where everything means something, little events take on great, more specifically spiritual significance. So it is that as Dr. Kelsey ascends the stairs a sheet of his music falls from under his arm and drifts down toward Peter who, after a doubtful moment, retrieves it and also ascends - a movement that has rather clear significance in a pilgrimage of which he remains only dimly aware. There is no "lift'" here; a man must walk. As if to underscore the symbolic nature of what Peter is about to do, the camera pulls back, making the man appear smaller, the journey longer. When he somewhat apologetically returns the sheet to Kelsey, the older man castigates himself for carelessness with both humor and humility: "Hmm. Too much urgency." As Nevill Coghill some years ago remarked of one of C.S. Lewis's outrageously contra-mundum statements, "Ulster, Greece, Rome, Oxford, and Cambridge were in that joke." And here, we might add, Canterbury.
The two men begin to converse, and after Peter has revealed that he studied organ at the Royal Academy of Music and that the service later is for the departure of his battalion. Dr. Kelsey becomes more interested. Where did Peter last play? The uncomfortable pause prompts the kind but curmudgeonly Kelsey to ask Peter if he might be deaf. There is no choice but to tell the truth. The church organist's delighted response proves surprising. The cinema? He began his career playing the harmonium at the circus. But the difference between the two men is immense. For Kelsey, the circus was but one step of many toward Colpeper's summit; for Peter, the cinema is the first and last step to nowhere, unless he changes. That change comes when Dr. Kelsey offers Peter the opportunity to play the organ, saying, "Have a go. If you're one of them," meaning one of the soldiers about to leave, "it's only right that you should play it." He offers but one caution: "Play something - anything - only, don't swing it." The choice, Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, is hardly swing. Now seated at the organ, Peter glances at Kelsey and does something he has not done except on rare occasions in the film - and usually then only in cynicism. He smiles.
As the music echoes throughout the cathedral. Bob moves through the transept to the choir. Gazing up to the ceiling, he reflects on at least one thing he has learned on his pilgrimage: the kinship of the builders of Canterbury and his own church-building forebears. "And my dad"s pa," he whispers, "built the first Baptist church in Johnson County, Oregon red cedar. Cedar shingles. 1887. Well that was a good job too." But although Bob has gained much in his recovered love of his heritage, his pilgrimage still remains spiritually pointless in the final sense. Reunited with his army buddy Roczinsky outside the cathedral, he can point out the old Pilgrims" Way upon which they stand, and he can acknowledge its reality, but he cannot accept that blessings might be available to people today. The old pilgrims came "for blessings," but "it don't work nowadays. That was six hundred years ago." To his amazement, Roczinsky, the "heavenly messenger" (his words, not mine), pulls out a bundle of letters from Bob's girlfriend. The delay has a simple explanation; she joined the WACS and is stationed in Australia. And Bob has his blessing.
Meanwhile, Alison works her way through Canterbury toward her stated destination, to inspect the caravan that her fiancé bequeathed her. Many critics have remarked on the inspirational closing scene of the film in Canterbury Cathedral, and their assessment is by no means wrong. But for me the most deeply affecting moment of A Canterbury Tale is Alison's walk through the wasteland of what was once a building-lined street, with the cathedral the one prominent, whole structure in sight. So transformed is the district that she must ask whether she is in the right place, "It is an awful mess," a woman tells her. "I don't blame you for not knowing where you are. But you get a very good view of the cathedral now." And so do we. Alison moves down the street past one exposed basement after another, a picket fence separating the sidewalk from the drop. The background music is still Bach, but no longer the Toccata and Fugue; rather we hear something reminiscent of the opening chorale of Cantata 47 taken from Luke 14:11. "Wer sich selbst erhöhet, der soll erniedriget wenden" ("For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased, and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted") (Bach). Both blessing and penance lie at the heart of the scripture, and they stand before us in images of desolation and eternity in this scene. The heaps of mortar and brick that were hotels and shops, the allied bombers in the sky, and the clock overhead all speak eloquently of the tragedy of war and the impermanence of this life of which war is perhaps the greatest expression. If we really do not know we are pilgrims in this world, if we cannot affirm the possibility of blessing awaiting us, we may as well kick back in the cinema and let the bombs fall. But amid the ruin and the despair that so often accompany war the cathedral stands, the one whole structure in the scene, as if to confound literally and symbolically the claims of modernity.
Alison finds her caravan in pitiful condition, its tires requisitioned, moths all over the few articles of clothing left inside. While she tearfully inspects what remains, Colpeper arrives. Everybody, he reminds her, has their disappointments in life, leaving us to guess at what his losses might have been. Then with a statement that in more ways than one strikes at the heart of the modern age, he concludes, "There's something impermanent about a caravan. Everything on wheels must be on the move sooner or later.' If that knowledge does not give Alison the blessing she needs, the news from the garage owner does. He informs her that her fiancé's father is in Canterbury and trying to reach her with news. The man she spent thirteen perfect days with on the Pilgrims' Way three years before is alive in Gibraltar.
I must say that if there is one truly false step in A Canterbury Tale, it is the resurrection of Alison's fiancé. The film spends some time developing the relationship of Colpeper and Alison as their common love of Kent becomes apparent and their mutual respect grows. But perhaps Powell and Pressburger were right in not making the two characters lovers. Colpeper is all about Kent, Canterbury, and pilgrimage; possibly, as with St. Paul, there is really no room for a woman in his life. As for Alison, it is hard to say what she might have learned to feel for Colpeper. All we know is that she has her Mr. Geoffrey (the fiancé's name: just one of the Chaucerian jokes in the movie), and that is the main blessing she wants for now.
Meanwhile the soldiers march from the civilian-lined streets of Canterbury through the arch of the entrance to the cathedral where the effigies of the saints gaze down in benediction, and the movie heads toward its conclusion. Bob is inside. So is Alison with her fiancé's father. Peter plays contentedly in the organ loft. Dr. Kelsey beside him. When the doctor points out the police superintendent and asks. "Want him?" Peter simply shakes his head and smiles. The peace in his soul is evident in every line of his face; one doubts that he will return to the cinema organ after the war, or, if he does, it will be as the first of many steps towards something higher. Colpeper, head bowed, follows the crowd into the nave. Peter sets the key of the hymn "Onward Christian Soldiers," and, to conclude the action, the camera pulls away to a view of the cathedral surrounded by the town and the trees of Kent.
The film is not precisely over yet. During the credits we see two curious scenes. The first shows men - mostly soldiers - and women. Instead of hiding in the dark of night in the preferred trysting places, they walk together in broad daylight away fom what appears to be the Colpeper Institute. The next scene is of the boys, not playing war but football (soccer) with, one must suppose, the ball Bob gave them money to buy earlier. Is this world the present or is it the future that the soldiers have been blessed in the cathedral to usher into being with their blood? Either way, it is not hard to see that it is Colpeper's world that has triumphed. But, then, this appears to be merely the optimistic hope of the film.
Just over sixty years have passed since A Canterbury Tale perplexed its first audiences. Modern tastes and tendencies being what they are, we necessarily look askance at the world it presents, which moves so easily from the implicit cynicism of the three young pilgrims at the beginning of the film to a traditional and essentially religious world of blessing by the end. The reason why is simple enough: the modernity that Alison. Bob, and Peter embraced so uncritically remains at heart the same beast we cannot live without. What the cinema and lift were to Bob and Peter, the worldwide web, instant messenger, and television are to us. To declare that these "riches" have little or no relation to real living is plain heresy. Yet that declaration rests at the very heart of A Canterbury Tale. In the world today where bureaucrats grow more arrogant every day, where the land is ravaged beyond recognition, where with each passing year gentle customs give way to new barbarities, where the only recognized "religions" pay homage to the rival gods of convenience and power, and where there are few, perhaps no more mountains or church towers left to climb, it may seem that the Colpepers of the world have lost. But, then, they always seem to have lost - at least, until another miracle occurs. And, happily, as all knowing pilgrims will attest, there are precedents for new and unexpected miracles every day, even for those who are pilgrims and do not yet know it.
Carl C. Curtis, III
1 The inspiration tor this essay is primarily my love for Chaucer and A Canterbury Tale: however I would be remiss if I did not point out that the occasion for my remarks is the July 2006 release by The Criterion Collection of a newly restored two-disc set of the film - the first time, to my knowledge, that it has been available as a DVD in NTSC (Region 1) format.
All stills and quotations from the film are from A Canterbury Tale, dir. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Eagle-Lion Distributors Ltd. / The Archers, 1944. The Criterion Collection (2006).
2 The lines are, of course, from the film, but the transcription (with my corrections) comes from Thomas Vonverk, "The Archers' Tale Der Spielfilm I Canterbury Tale und seine Beziehung zu Geoffrey Chaucers The Canterbury Tales."
3I am thinking chiefly of the comments of Mark Chiguid: "Despite the trappings of Christianity, particularly the grand finale in the cathedral, the film's strange atmosphere seems at times closer to paganism than Anglicanism, and the most memorable character, a mysterious man who pours glue in the hair of local women who fraternize with American soldiers, resembles a fairytale bogeyman." However, according to Sheila Sim (now Lady Attenborough), who played Alison, it was not Powell and Pressburger's original intention to include the Glue Man. Instead they planned on a mysterious stranger who slashed the clothing of the offending girls, but they felt either the censors or the public would not accept such a suggestive act, I am rather inclined to believe such a character would have stressed the more traditionally moral nature of Colpeper's crusade that Powell and Pressburger had in mind. See her comments in the interview from The Criterion Collection DVD.
Bach, Johann Sebastian. "Wer sich selbst erhöhet, der soil emiedrieget werden." BWV 47. Complete Cantatas. Cond. Nikolaus Hamoncourt. Concentus Musicus Wien. LP. Das Alte Werk (Telefiinken). 1975.
A Canterbury Tale, Dir. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Perf. Eric Portman. Dennis Price, Sheila Sim, and Sgt. John Sweet (US Army). Eagle-Lion Distributors Ltd. / The Archers. 1944. DVD. The Criterion Collection. 2006.
"A Canterbury Tale-1944." Britmovie. 29 July 2006 <http://www.britmovie.co.uk/films/A-Canterbury-Tale_1944>
Coghill Neville. "The Approach to English." Light on C S Lewis, Ed Jocelyn Gibb. A Harvest Book. New York: Harcourt, 1976.
Duguid, Mark. "Canterbury Tale, A (l944)." Screenonline.org. 29 July 2006 <http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/438020/index.html>
Sim, Sheila (Lady Attenborough). "Sheila Sim Interview." A Canterbury Tale. Dir. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Eagle-Lion Distributors Ltd. / The Archers. 1944. DVD. The Criterion Collection, 2006.
Vorwerk. Thomas. "The Archers' Tale Der Spielfilm A Canterbury Tale und seine Beziehung zu Geoffrey Chaucers The Canterbury Tales," Thomas Vorwerk für satt.org, 29 July 2006 2006 <http://www.satt.org/film/01_12_canterbury_1.html> a link in The Powell and Pressburger Pages <http://www.powell-pressburger.org>.
- Steve Crook
Moreover, Colpeper stresses, here and later, what the pilgrims (Chaucer's and the three modern ones, Peter, Bob, and Alison, as well as the soldiers at the lecture) are about are blessing and penance - hardly pagan notions.
Au contraire, they are very pagan notions that have been around a lot longer than mere Christianity.
Curtis' thought that Fee Baker and the other girls were going out with the soldiers as prostitutes is just nonsensical. They might have got a few extra rations from a soldier boyfriends (having been strictly rationed for the past 3 or 4 years), or chocolates and nylons from the GIs when they arrived, but it's hardly prostitution.
Peter doesn't think that playing in a cinema is the best he can ever do. But he's grateful for it after the recessionary times through the 1930s when jobs were scarce.
Curtis thinks that Colpeper & Alison might have become lovers - thus ignoring all the signs that Colpeper is gay. He also neglects to include Alison asking Colpeper if he had considered asking the local girls to his lectures. When he dismisses the idea her comment of "Pity" is lovely. But then in the final scene, under the credits, we see the soldiers and their girlfriends, going to his next lecture
Maybe this should be read in conjunction with The Shame and Disgrace of Colonel Blimp
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