In the course of a very pleasant chat in the pub on Saturday, I was asked what my favorite movie is. I should really have a ready answer for this, but somehow I cannot bring myself to pick one to set in stone. A couple of years ago I broke down and made a top ten but it has since crept to thirteen, and in any case I am not sure if it wouldn’t be half different if I sat down and started it over again.
The first thing that popped into my mind on Saturday, however, was A Canterbury Tale. It was made in 1944 by the Archers, Michael Powell and Emeric Presburger, the greatest British film-makers there ever were (even if Pressburger was Hungarian). Generally speaking, Powell directed and Pressburger wrote, but both butted in on the other’s work (especially Powell) and they shared the “written, produced and directed” credit on sixteen films over fifteen years in the forties and fifties, including such canonised classics as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, I Know Where I’m Going, A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway to Heaven in the US), Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, and no less charming and fantastic movies like One Of Our Aircraft Is Missing, Gone To Earth, The Small Back Room, Tales Of Hoffman and A Canterbury Tale.
After a Chaucerian prologue and a jump cut anticipating Kubrick’s bone/spaceship by goodness knows how many years, the story opens at night in a village railway station outside Canterbury, where an English and an American soldier disembark, along with a land girl down from London. She immediately has glue poured in her hair by the notorious local ghoul, the glueman, who has been running around under cover of darkness pouring glue into the hair of local girls who step out with soldiers from the nearby camp.
Over the next few days, the trio’s hunt for the perpetrator takes in various endearing village characters, although their suspicions quickly fall on dour local magistrate, Thomas Colpeper (the magisterial Eric Portman). Colpeper is a man who feels a deep connection with his land, the Kentish countryside and hills, and its history. The disenchanted British soldier (Dennis Price) is a Londoner who gave up his music school dreams and plays the organ in a flea-pit and cannot see the romance of the countryside. The land girl (Shiela Sim, later Lady Attenborough) has a semi-sour apple face that belongs on a farm, but she is mourning her MIA lover with whom she spent a glorious summer in these parts, excavating the old pilgrim’s road to Canterbury. Lastly, the American soldier is an Oregon boy (wonderful first-timer John Sweet) who’s heard nothing from his sweetheart in months, and whose good-heartedness is utterly winning.
The story is less about the hunt for the glueman than about fleshing out these characters, and exploring the mysterious and profound continuities of history and landscape. There was never a better film made about the glorious English countryside (Powell was a man of Kent himself, and not for nothing is the county known as “the garden of England”), and few that even attempt to pin down the mysterious sense of continuity across centuries that it imparts. As the pilgrims before them, these four end the film travelling to Canterbury: as Price dryly suggests, to receive their blessings. And receive them they do, the blessings appearing quite fantastically to be natural and magical at the same time, in such a way as to make one believe in miracles (and, almost, the existence of God. Or at least the director as God â Powell executes a nice little sight gag on the way, crowning Price with a halo).
Still and all it is a maddeningly difficult film to describe or pin down, quite unique in cinema, even in the Archers’ oeuvre; I Know Where I’m Going seems similarly stalled, but even that has more obvious narrative drive. The script is deceptively inconsequential and as with all of Pressburger’s work, is wonderful at building character through dialogue, handing out marvelous exchanges and quietly moving speeches as though they grew on trees.
The leads are uniformly superb, and there’s wonderful colour in the locally-recruited support (as well as a cameo â two in fact â for the splendid Esmond Knight). It is supremely good-natured, light-hearted and entertaining, yet deals with the profound and tricky subjects of historical continuity and spiritual connection with the land (and not simply confined to Kent, as Sweet’s character recalls the woodlands of his own home).
Although it was quite misunderstood and somewhat reviled on first release, mainly due to all the horrid business with the glueman and his conflicted motivations, it is, in its quiet way, an intensely patriotic film (the action takes place in the run-up to D-Day) in its attempt to capture some sort of ineffable and continual “Englishness”; and only The Go-Between can match it for capturing the ethereal magic of the English countryside in the height of summer.
Criterion did a bang-up job with the dvd of this a couple of years ago, so there should be no trouble finding one to rent. That said, just go buy it: it’s a movie to watch again and again, in which to luxuriate and with which to grow old, letting it convince you that people can all be basically good-hearted if sometimes wrong-headed and that the world really is a miraculously wonderful place.