Amongst Powell and Pressburger films, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and A Matter of Life and Death will always be my two favourites, but each time I watch A Canterbury Tale, it sets me to rethinking that preference. Opinions may always change, and I can foresee a day when this minor-key film, made in black and whie in 1944, between those two films, may slip between them in my preference and estimation.
Despite coming after the controversial Colonel Blimp film, A Canterbury Tale aroused no ill-feelings and enjoyed the full co-operation of all those required to make it, including the British Army. It’s a long, and in some ways sprawling experience, deliberately taken at a gentle pace in keeping with the Kent countryside in which 90% of the film is set. After the War, like Colonel Blimp, the film was cut savagely, and for America The Archers were forced to replace narrator Esmond Knight with Raymond Massey, and add bookends featuring Kim Hunter (both were then filming A Matter of Life and Death) that, ironically given the subsequent treatment of Colonel Blimp, turned the film into one massive flashback.
The film can be described in deceptively simple terms as a detective story, though the mystery is given away at the beginning. The detective story – who is the Glueman and why is he pouring glue on the hair of young women? – is non-existent as a whodunnit, and almost mystical as a whydunnit, and is used solely to provide a narrative spine for the film’s other and primary concerns. The film is in truth a love story, not a human love story, although three such relationships underlie it, but a love story to the Kent countryside of Michael Powell’s childhood, married to a mystical sense of the unity of time and place that derives from the Canterbury pilgrims of time past, bound on the Pilgrim’s Way to Canterbury Cathedral.
Three of the film’s stars were unknowns at the time of filming, each in their first role. Two, Dennis Price and Sylvia Sims, went on to substantial careers but the third, US Army Sgt. John Sweet, was the true amateur and in many ways the most important figure in the film. The part was originally conceived for Burgess Meredith but the producers opted for a complete unknown, to glorious effect.
Three strangers get off a train on a dark Friday night at Chillingbourne Station, ten minutes from Canterbury. Two ave been posted there, the third leaves the train in error. British Sergeant Peter Gibbs, a cinema organist in civvy street, is posted to the Army camp, Alison Smith, a former shopgirl, is posted as a Land Girl to a Mr Thomas Culpepper, and US Army Sgt. Bob Johnson is on the 72 hour furlough, first in Canterbury, then London, and misunderstands the call for ‘Canterbury next station’ (the station master is a minor role for Charles Hawtrey).
Walking up to the Town Hall to register their presence, Alison is attacked by the Glueman. The trio chase her assailnt into the Town Hall, wherein he ‘disappears’. No effort is made to doubt the instant suspicion that he is the local Magistrate, Mr Culpepper (Eric Portman): magistrate, gentleman farmer, enthusiast for local history, and a kind of quasi-squire to the village. He’s also a classic women-hater, though hate is too strong for his actions. He dismisses the idea of Alison working for him on his farm (she is taken on by a woman farmer with far less prejudice), as he dismisses the idea of women – his mother excepted – as being worth botthering with.
Culpepper’s motives can be discerned by his concern, indeed overwhelming enthusiasm, for sharing his local knowledge and love of his place on Earth by lectures to the soldiers: he is pouring knowledge into their heads. There’s an interlocking off-key logic to his antics as the Glueman. He is warning off the local girls from going on dates with soldiers when ‘their’ men are in the Services, overseas, and he is diverting the soldiers to his lectures by cutting off their ability to get dates. When confronted, as the film enters its final and extraordinary sequence, Culpepper acknowledges his guilt on Earth but is unrepentent of his actions by reference the the greater good that he sees.
He’s got away with it so far mainly because he is Mr Culpepper. He is a part of the Village, almost of the land itself and as such cannot be suspected. It takes three strangers to suspect and, with simplicity, obtain the evidence no-one else would look for.
What Culpepper doesn’t suspect, despite his rootedness in the Pilgrim’s own land, is thatPeter, Alison and Bob are themselves pilgrims, bound for Canterbury to receive blessings that all need in this ongoing War. Alison, despite her self-confident forthrightness, is a lost soul. Once she spent thirteen days in a caravan outside Chillingbourne with her geologist fiancee. They couldn’t marry because his father opposed it, thinking a shopgirl beneath his son. Alison has the caravan, in storage in Canterbury, but Jeffrey was a pilot who was shot down.
Bob too is a lost soul. He’s a conscript to a War in a country far away, a chance visitor to aland far different from his own in Oregon, but in which he, the outsider, the observer, sees far more correspondences than he could ever imagine. He and the wheelwright are both men of wood, talking the same language, both gently surprised that their practices 5,000 miles apart, are identical. He receives an invitation to lunch as if he was an old friend. But Bob, like Alison, has no future. He has a girl, back home, a blonde about whom he says little because Bob Johnson doesn’t talk that way, but what he says reveals the depth of his feelings: a walk in the woods, silent for two hours and hen both saying the same thing at the same time. The one you can be silent with in comfort is the one, but she no longer writes to him. The War has taken his future away too.
Peter, the cyncical, over-bright, slightly sneering one, is different. Alison and Bob are lost but they have kept their souls: Peter has lost his. A classically trained organist with dreams of becoming a church organist, he has settled for playing in a cinema. An easy life, on good money, nothing to do, nothing to be for, he regards action and achievement as ridiculous. Peter is the empty man and its no coincidence that, despite his growing liking for Culpepper – all three grow to like him as they investigate him further – he is the most determined to see him face justice. Peter has lost touch with that part of him that could create and has become creation’s other face, destruction.
What of Culpepper himself? Throughout the film, until that final sequence, he isimpervious, giving up nothing of himself, only showing his humanity in his thirst to preach his land. He is a misogynist, and it’s not hard to see him as a repressed homosexual (Portman himself was gay). His automatic response to Alison is dismisssal, coupled with disdain for her being female. Yet as the film progresses, he has to make adjustments, and you can see each stage in his face.
First, she attends his lecture (later, when he is explaining his motives as the Glueman, she simply siggests he might have invited the girls to his lectures too). He’s supercilious with her until she identifies herself as the fiancee of the geologist who discovered Belgian coins on the Pilgrim’s Way, coins that found there way into no Museum: Alison admits she has them.
Then when she disturbs him on Sunday afternoon, on the Way, lying in the long grass, looking at the clouds, the fact Alison shares the same imaginative sympathy he possesses, that she can hear the horse, the harness, the conversation of the pilgrims of the past, sees him open up in genuine interest in her. It’s a brief moment of harmony, shattered by the passing of Bob and Peter, unaware anyone is present, confirming that the three have identified Culpepper as the Glueman.
Pilgrims made their way to Canterbury to receive blessings or to do penance. To reach whatever end there is, they must arrive in Canterbury. All three Pilgrims, and Culpepper, share a carriage on the same train on Monday morning, he to the Bench, they to the aims that will separate their brief alliance forever. Despite Culpepper’s admission of his motives, Peter is determined to bring Justice and punishment down on his head. Alison is on her way to the Agricultural Commission, Bob to meet his buddy Micky Roczinski.
What follows is a glorious and shamelessly emotional ending. Bob meets Micky outside the Cathedral that has awed him, awed him enough that he has needed to keep his feet on the floor by remembering that his grandfather, his line, built the first Baptist Chapel in Three Sisters Falls, in wood, ‘and that was a good job too’. Micky’s a cliche American, big, boisterous, loud-mouthed, but he is an instrument of Heaven in his way. He is carrying letters, from Sidney, Australia, from Bob’s girl: she has joined the WACs. Micky Roczinski gives Bob Johnson his future back.
Alison finds her way to the yard where the caravan is stored. It’s immobilised, its tyres requisitioned, but worse still it is lifeless, dark, dusty, full of moths eating its curtains, Jeffrey’s greatcoat. Almost bizarrely, Culpepper has followed her. He is clumsy and awkward, beginning by gently castigating any importance a caravan has, a transient thing that one time or another, has to move, a thing that never becomes part of anything. He’s clearly abut to offer Alison somehing more permanent, established, in a place he knows she loves. What Culpepper cannot see is that whilst Alison loves Chilingbourne and the Pilgrim’s Way, she loves it throughh Jeffrey, and whilst he may not be here to share it with her again, she loves it through, of and because of him.
But pilgrim’s come to Canterbury to receive blessings. The yard owner steps up, with news he has had to hold, not knowing where Miss Alison is, only that she’s coming to Canterbury. Mr Jeffrey’s father is here, wanting to see her. He’s waited two weeks. His business with her is important. He has news: Mr Jeffrey is in Gibraltar. Alison sways a moment as her future is given back to her then, a typical English girl, she rushes into re-airing the caravan. It will be needed again, it will be shared. Culpepper has gone, unable to share her good fortune. His penance has begun. It is Jeffrey’s father who escorts Alison into the Cathedral, who touches her shoulder, who smiles on her, reconciled and caring only that they two have a blessing to be shared.
And Peter? Before he parts from Bob and Alison he lets slip that this is the day, his lot are off. Canterbury is seeing them off, with a march through the town and a special serviceat the Cathedral. Peter still has no thought but pursuit and vengeance. But Superintendent Hall is that the Cathedral, more concerned with the day than any petty reports. Peter pursues him. But inside the Cathedral, gazing up at its vast, stern, majestic interior, his soul is restored to him. The elderly church organist climbs to the organ loft. Peter follows him, restoring a lost page of music. He gazes at the organ in awe. The cynical, crusty old man recognises a fellow musician. He played the organ in a circus. He does not disapprove of Peter’s choice of career, but he completes the blessing by inviting Peter to play the organ: first, for his own pleasure and redemption Bach’s Toccatta and Fugue, then, for the men he will serve beside, and to Bob and Alison who do not know it is their partner, Onward Christian Soldiers.
Last time I wrote about this film, I speculated about what happened afterwards to Bob and Alison and Peter. For Bob and Alison I foresaw, I still foresee, marriages, peace-time contentment, long lives. But for Peter I still see nothing but a death in battle. Bob and Alison were given back their futures, but Peter was given back his past, his soul. There is a darkness about him that I cannot see alleviated. His blessing is to reach his future in a state of grace.
There is so much else that I love about A Canterbury Tale, so many simple lines, momentary descriptions, the unhurried depiction of life in wartime that nevertheless has not broken the bond between people and place. Culpepper is an extreme example of this and, in comparison, a strident version. Everyone else is simply living what he longs to express. Not for nothing is the final shot the boy’s armies, local kids all, great-grandfathers now if they have lived this long, playing with the football Bob buys them, as reward for their alliance.
And US Army Sgt. John Sweet, in later life a teacher. That he is an amateur is self-evident, alongside the rest of the cast. But it is that stiltedness, that awkwardness that brings a truth and an honesty to his remarks. Bob is the stranger, the alien, but the one most ready to absorb, and be absorbed into his surroundings, to see what is diferent and what is nevertheless the same about this oddball place. You can tell he loves Three Sisters Falls, that he will never leave there once duty returns him, but he will never forget.
A minor film? No, not at all.