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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A Canterbury Tale (1944)
By Henry Coombs
I wish I could have liked it more
28th January 2000
Did Bob Johnson get on anyone else's nerves? He certainly got on mine. After a while I wanted to get up and wallop him for spoiling what would otherwise have been a beautiful movie - and is anyway, to some extent. I suspect it was the actor more than the character. Sergeant John Sweet was a real soldier, not a professional actor, but it's not that his acting is so bad that it dispels the illusion - rather, it infects the character, so that Johnson himself comes across as mechanical, thoughtless, lifeless and forced. And that accent! It's like listening to a drill.
Putting Sweet's acting to one side, I'm not sure it was necessary for his character to be one of the `pilgrims' at all. His pilgrimage sort of duplicates another character's pilgrimage, so that his Canterbury scenes weaken the effectiveness of the Canterbury sequence as a whole. Making Johnson an American was a bad move, too. To think that for the US release they actually ADDED scenes featuring this guy; and even strained to pretend that this least essential of characters was the central protagonist!
The rest of the cast is wonderful, down to the tiniest of the bit roles. Sheila Sims is gorgeous. She makes good John Sweet's charisma deficit (which is saying a lot), and it's really the interplay between her and one other of the pilgrims that make the story so effective.
Much of what I'd heard or assumed about the film is false. It isn't slow moving; it isn't hard to understand; it isn't dull; the `glue man' plot is not a pointless MacGuffin. It could have been great had it not been for a single character. But it's still worth enduring this character, if only for the sake of the strange and lovely conclusion in Canterbury.
Date: 22 January 2001
Summary: I recant.
Just a brief note to say that I was wrong. Subsequent viewings have revealed to me that John Sweet's character doesn't ruin the film; I don't know why he seemed at first to dominate, but he actually moves on and off centre stage with remarkable grace. I certainly can't claim that he takes up too much screen time in Canterbury. His acting, and the character portrayed, have grown on me; I now find both charming. (The key is to realise that he's more modest and unassuming than his accent may lead you to suppose - although, judging from some comments, some people were never led to be mistaken on this point; perhaps it was just me.)
The scenes before Canterbury, entrancing enough the first time around, also reveal more of their magic on second and third acquaintance. Could this turn out to be Powell and Pressburger's best work...? On reflection, certainly not, but that's only because of the extremely strong competition.
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