The Archers: A Matter of Film and Glory – no. 3: A Canterbury Tale

Three Pilgrims in the usual light of night

A Canterbury Tale has all the makings of a minor film: shot in black and white, during the Second World War, in essence a love story about Kent. It would be easy to assume that its major interests lie in the historical shots of bomb-ravaged Canterbury, which come at the end of a two hour stretch of film that, until its last quarter hour, has confined itself to the (fictional) village of Chillingbourne, ten minutes journey from Canterbury by train, over a sun-drenched summer weekend.
But do not underestimate The Archers. A Canterbury Tale may have been a commercial failure, and may have been available for years only in a crudely edited version that cut out many evocative scenes that were inessential to the film’s vestigial plot, but it has been restored and is recognised as another subtle and beautiful production by Powell and Pressburger.
The film stars Dennis Price, Sylvia Sims and US Army Sergeant John Sweet, with Eric Portman in a major supporting role, though the posters reverse things and make Portman the star and the other three his support. Price and Sweet play Army Sergeants, British and American respectively, Sims a shopgirl turned Land Girl and Portman the local magistrate and gentleman. Burgess Meredith was originally considered for Sweet’s role but the latter, an amateur, was preferred, and is superb, a brilliant choice by that very amateurism.
The trio are pilgrims on a modern day pilgrimage, not that they are aware of this, and in only one case consciously, until the film’s conclusion. That the film involves pilgrimages is made explicit by its introduction, referencing and set in the time of the Canterbury Tales.
There is a bravura leap into the Twentieth Century, executing a cinematic trip that no doubt inspired Stanley Kubrick in 2001 – A Space Odyssey. A gaily adorned courtier releases a hawk from his wrist, which flies away across a shallow valley until, at peak distance from the camera, it cuts into a Spitfire, diving back across the valley and passing over the head of the same man: on guard duty in battledress.
So our pilgrims meet, all three getting off the train in the blackout of Friday evening at Chillingbourne Station. Price is Peter Dawson, returning to camp outside the Village. Sims is Alison Smith, arriving to take up duties as a Land Girl working for the principal landowner, Mr Colpeper, and Sweet is Sgt. Bob Johnson, bound for Canterbury on a 48-hour pass, who mishears the Conductor’s call of “Canterbury next station” and decants himself from the train, only to find he is stranded for the night.
As the trio walk towards the village in the dark, a shadowy figure accosts Alison, pouring glue into her hair. He escapes, seeming to enter the Village Hall under pursuit from Peter and Bob, though the local police, despite being in the Town Hall itself, are far from quick at taking this assault up.
It’s not the first: Alison is the eleventh local girl attacked in this manner by an assailant they have taken to calling the Glueman. The following morning, still enraged by what has happened, she commandeers Bob, and later Peter, persuading the former to remain in Chillingbourne to help her solve the case.
So the film is to be a Detective Story, although it’s not really a detective story at all: the Archers make very little effort to conceal that Colpeper, who has no time for women, is the Glueman, though over the weekend that ensues, the unexpected trio gather enough conventional evidence to prove the case to sufficient a level to take to the Police.
Though Colpeper is of that breed, more recognisable in olden times, of women-haters, without necessarily any sexual/homosexual component, and refuses to accept Alison as a Land Girl (she moves elsewhere to a farm worked by a female owner who is only interested in competence), his motivation for his glue-pourings is by no means simple nor, necessarily, dishonourable.
In his own way, he is targeting girls who he sees as betraying their beaus who are in active service overseas, effectively warning them to stay true. On another, metaphysical level, he is a lover of his county, eager to impress its history, its beauty and its values into any minds he can meet: metaphorically, he is seeking to pour knowledge into their heads, deflecting the women from impure thoughts.
Though the gradual detection of Colpeper’s activities forms a narrative spine for the central section of A Canterbury Tale, it is the least important and, ultimately, interesting element of the film.
As they progress through this idyllic English summer weekend, we learn about the pilgrims. Peter is a classically trained organist, but he is wasting his talent, playing for easy money in night clubs, jobs that demand only a fraction of his ability. Though it is Alison who instigates the investigation, in the end it will be Peter who is hottest in his pursuit of Colpeper, and most determined to involve the Police to bring the Magistrate to Justice.
Indeed, it is Peter who, as the pilgrims approach Canterbury sharing a railway carriage with Colpeper, who becomes overtly self-righteous, as if he, not Alison, is the victim of the Glueman’s depredations His is the deepest emptiness of our pilgrims, the one that will require the greatest blessing to fill.
Of the pilgrims, only Alison knows Chillingbourne from before the War: She and her architect boyfriend spent a fortnight in a caravan on the Pilgrim’s Way, above the village. Though very much in love, they were unable to marry, facing determined disapproval from Geoffrey’s father over her lowly status as a shop assistant. Now all Alison has is the caravan: Geoffrey was shot down over the Mediterranean.
And Bob, the wondering eye who is our eye into this corner of England, he is of a woodworking family. Though a stranger to England, he and the local wood-dealer speak the same language, understand the same things: he is invited to dinner. But he too has a sorrow: his girlfriend back home has not replied to his letters for six months, and he sees a future of emptiness.
Through all their eyes, and especially Bob’s, we see life in wartime in this corner of England. Midway through the film, there is a splendid boy’s game, a river attack in glorious Swallows and Amazons style (one of the sections deleted for many years).
Interestingly, though he is aware that Alison suspects him, Colpeper softens towards her over the weekend, coming close to an admission and an explanation of his motives, though the moment is spoiled by the appearance of Peter and Bob, the former of whom is now personally, indeed aggressively committed to exposing Colpeper.
In contemporary terms the last twenty minutes of the film would probably be regarded as out-and-out sentimentality. Both film-makers and audience have together grown too cynical in the intervening years to be comfortable with the idea of happy endings, even if the film is, underneath all, a tale of Pilgrimage. And Pilgrims who travel to Canterbury must hope for blessings.
They gather on Monday morning, under the sun, to catch the train into Canterbury. Bob’s leave is almost over: he will meet Micky Rozinski at the Cathedral, which he has promised his mother he will visit. Alison is going to the Agricultural Commission, but plans a side-trip to the yard where Geoffrey’s caravan in in store. And Peter is bound for the Police Station, for an interview with Superintendent Hall, where he will present their evidence against Colpeper.
But their companion on the ten minute train journey is Colpeper himself, making his Monday morning trip to sit on the Magistrate’s Bench. Their confined carriage is like a court in itself, with Colpeper on one side and his accusers in a row facing him.
Colpeper doesn’t seek to defend himself. Alison and Bob are hesitant, but Peter is accusatory, determined to see the Glueman brought to justice. Colpeper explains himself by reference to his lectures: once the British Army Camp was established outside Chillingbourne, he had sought to educate, to open the eyes of the soldiers, but his lectures went unattended because off-duty the soldiers preferred to spend time with the village girls.
So Colpeper attacked the girls, to frighten them away, pouring glue into their hair just as he sought to pour knowledge into the men’s heads. Alison cannot resist suggesting that he should have included the ladies from the outset.
On arrival at Canterbury, our pilgrims separate. Before they leave each other, Peter intimates that this is a special day: it is the eve of D-Day, and the Army is going to cross the Channel. There is to be a special service at the Cathedral.
Peter goes to the Police Station, but the Superintendent is not present. As well as the service, there is to be a parade through the Town and this is occupying his thoughts. Peter is still hot for justice, and heads for the cathedral, where the Superintendent may be found. Once inside, looking for someone who can direct him, he approaches an elderly, acerbic man who is the Cathedral organist, and who pays him scant notice. Drawn to the organ, Peter follows the organist, returning to him a page of music that he had dropped.
In the organ loft, his evident admiration of the Church Organ, and his admission of his own training and current status softens the old man’s attitude to him. After all, the elder once played organ in a circus, for 22 shillings a week. He invites Peter to play: Bach’s Toccata and Fugue rolls out through the cathedral.
Alison has, with difficulty, found her way to the yard where the caravan is stored. It is in an area of town that has been badly damaged by bombs, but the yard still stands and the caravan is still laid up. But its tyres are missing, commandeered for the war effort. It is dank and dark, full of moths, deteriorating horribly.
Colpeper has followed Alison here. Awkwardly and ineffectually, he tries to console her, by running down the caravan as an impermanent thing, but his clumsy attempt at wooing her ends abruptly when the yard owner bustles up, berating Miss Alison for failing to leave an address. Mr Geoffrey’s father was there a fortnight earlier, is still in Canterbury. Alison panics, fearing that he is trying to claim the caravan, which is hers, is all she has left of Geoffrey. But this is not the case. Mr Geoffrey’s father has been looking for Alison, has stayed to find her. He has news: Mr Geoffrey is in Gibraltar.
For a moment, Alison’s vision (and that of the camera) blurs and sways, but as the implication sinks in, she rushes to the caravan, throws open its windows, begins to air it. Her future has been given back to her. She turns to Colpeper in excitement, but he has left without a word.
As for Bob, he is impressed by the size and splendour of the Cathedral, and whilst there is no comparison, he is also filled with pride that it was his grandfather who built the first Baptist Chapel in Three Sisters Falls, with good wood. He locates Micky Rozinski, using a cine camera outside, and gets dragged off into a local cafe to drink tea. Whilst Micky boasts of his time in London, Bob brings up the Pilgrim’s Way and his weekend in Chillingbourne, but expresses regret that Pilgrims to Canterbury no longer receive blessings.
Gleefully, Micky corrects him, producing from his pocket a bundle of letters, seven weeks worth. Their stamps are unfamiliar: they are from Australia: Bob’s girl has joined the WAACS.
Two of our Pilgrims have now received blessings, blessings that restore to them futures that they had thought lost. The military parade and its band have reached the Cathedral, and everyone files inside. Alison, with Geoffrey’s father, passes Colpeper in the doorway: the Glueman lowers his eyes and will not look up until they have passed. In the organ loft, the organist points out Superintendent Hall to Peter, who has no use for him now. At a signal, he launches into the opening hymn, ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’.
The churchgoers sing lustily, until the Cathedral bells drown them out. For a moment, we look from the bell-tower to the spires of the Cathedral, the shot seen in the film’s opening moments. The credits begin to run. The final background shot shifts back to Chillingbourne, as the gangs play a kick and rush game of football with the ball bought with Bob’s money.
The more I watch A Canterbury Tale, the more I think upon the future of our Pilgrims. After all, the film ends on the eve of D-Day, the invasion of Europe, an invasion on a scale greater than any in any War in history. Two of our Pilgrims are servicemen, the third the fiancée of another serviceman. What lay ahead for them?
For Alison, I see the future she hoped for: marriage, children, a long life with the young man who she has loved for so long and who she thought was dead. The blessing she receives is, in its way, the reversal of death, and within the logic of a universe in which blessings occur, that cannot be given with one hand and snatched away with the other.
Bob, our Holy Innocent, is to me equally destined to live. He has feared and doubted, and his doubts have been refuted. The unnamed blonde is the right girl for him – the reference to walking in silence in the woods for ours and then both saying the same thing is of great personal significance to me – and the path ahead for this couple is equally clear. Bob will live, will return to Three Sisters Falls, will marry, will build the lumber business carefully and solidly. In thirty years time, he and his wife will tour England, and he will take her to Chillingbourne, tracing that strange weekend he spent there, during the War.
But Peter. I cannot foresee such things for the British Army Sergeant. Peter’s absence hasn’t been in love, in a caring, sharing partner. He’s been the outsider among our Pilgrims, dragged away by his duty at first, only joining the detectives long after they had begun their enquiries, and yet the most vigorous, most determined of the pursuers. Peter’s been full of an aggression, an anger that hasn’t affected either of the others, as if he personally has been the victim, and of something more serious.
What Peter has lost, and which has been restored to him in the Cathedral, is his soul. Instead of the music he loved from childhood, Peter has diverted himself into comfort, indulgence, sterility and it has reflected back on his personality. The Cathedral organ allows him to recapture that part of his soul, but inside, my intuition tells me that it is only a temporary reprieve. I have the strongest feeling that Peter Gibbs does not return from Western Europe.
Only Colpeper is left unfulfilled. The pilgrims have come to Canterbury and received their blessings. Ahead lies the invasion of Europe that will succeed in winning the war. For the moment, a service, and the Canterbury Bells, give thanks to God. Even for an atheist like myself, it’s an extraordinary outpouring of joy, an extremely moving finale. No, this film is not minor, not minor at all.

6 thoughts on “The Archers: A Matter of Film and Glory – no. 3: A Canterbury Tale

  1. I haven’t yet. I only discovered your site a couple of weeks ago and I’ve been dipping in now and then and I like what I’ve read so far.

    1. And you’re very welcome. As well as the two films you’ve already mentioned, I’ve written at length about The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. The top two should be easy to predict, but in what order?

  2. My top two are A matter of Life and Death and The Life and Death of Col. Blimp, but not necessarily in that order.

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