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The Criterion Collection presents

A Canterbury Tale (1944)

"It's a great thing to sit in an armchair and watch the world go by in front of you."- Sgt. Bob Johnson (John Sweet)

Stars: Eric Portman, Sheila Sim, Dennis Price, John Sweet
Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

MPAA Rating: Not RatedRun Time: 02h:04m:46s
Release Date: 2006-07-25
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A A-B+B A-


DVD Review

The chance to buy war bonds or plant a victory garden is the stuff of a few generations ago now, and so watching A Canterbury Tale is as close as we'll come to experiencing life during wartime in the English countryside. This is a deeply patriotic, even spiritual film, one sure to win over even the most skeptical. The filmmaking tandem of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger had made a number of fine films already (including, immediately previously, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp), but none of their work, either before or after, is quite as intent on keeping the home fires burning.

Given the film's title, the story opens with the necessary Chaucerian prologue, showing us pilgrims making the trek to Canterbury; you need not fear that you'll be stuck in some gaudy costume drama, though, for we're propelled into 1943 with one of the great edits in movie history, going from a medieval carrier pigeon to a World War II fighter plane. (It seems like an obvious antecedent to the cut from the past to the future in 2001.) Now we meet our three pilgrims—and curiously, the better part of the story is set not in Canterbury but in Chillingbourne, the previous stop on the train line. We're introduced to Sgt. Bob Johnson, U.S. Army—he's gotten off at the wrong stop, for he's supposed to meet his buddy in Canterbury for a few days' leave before reporting again for duty in London. Sgt. Johnson is happy for the mistake, though, for this part of Kent bears more than a passing resemblance to his native Oregon. Next is Miss Allison Smith (Sheila Sim), a London shop clerk who has signed on to work a local farm—despite the fact that all the able-bodied young men of the town have been pressed into military service, Miss Smith is still deemed unsuitable by her prospective employer by the fact of her gender. And finally there's Sgt. Peter Gibbs (Dennis Price), whose accent announces him as upper class, who has landed in Chillingbourne by design, for the Royal Army has established a post just outside of town.

It may seem a little grand to say that the movie is about the spiritual journeys of these three, but there is something to that. Johnson hasn't heard from his girl in weeks, and is concerned that he's been given the heave-ho; the news is grimmer for Allison, whose fiancé has been killed in the war. (In a more conventional movie, there would be the spark of romance between these two, but Powell and Pressburger have other things in mind.) And Gibbs dreamed of greatness in the church, as an organist of the first rank; he's had to set his sights lower, and now is an accompanist in a cinema, but the fact that Canterbury is the home of perhaps the most grand cathedral in England with an organ to go with should suggest where Gibbs' story arc is headed. Crucial to the journeys of all three are their interactions with Colpeper, the local magistrate; as played by Eric Portman, he's the very embodiment of all things English.

The strands are loosely yoked together by the jarring tales of the Glue Man—it seems that over the last weeks, young women venturing outside at night and alone have been the victim of the local prankster, who lathers up the women's hair with a great vat of glue, in what seems like a bizarre parody of a sexual attack. But it's not the mystery that drives the movie, but rather the characters themselves. John Sweet has a winning, unstudied naturalism as Johnson—this is his only screen performance, and he was in fact in the U.S. Army at the time, so the parallels between his own life and that of his character's must account for much of the disarming success of his work here. Sheila Sim has just enough starch as Allison, and Price has even more of the same as Gibbs; more generally, the filmmakers clearly have tremendous affection for the locals, who are seen as the salt of the earth, good steady rural folk, portrayed with decency and without condescension.

The movie of course ultimately does push on to Canterbury, and the filmmaking takes on a more documentary air—the city had recently been bombed badly by the Germans, and the camera doesn't shy away from showing us the worst of it. But the resilience to rebuild, to fight on, is a given, and the stirring conclusion to the film demonstrates somewhat surprisingly just how cumulatively powerful the movie has been. It's not a grand and sweeping epic, but it's charming and resolute and resilient, and God save the Queen.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Criterion has once again done excellent work in restoring a feature for DVD; but even the best technology cannot undo all of six decades of abuse, and you'll still notice some scratches and even occasional missing frames. The black levels are steady, though, which is a blessing.

Image Transfer Grade: B+

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: Some hiss on the mono track, as the music is pretty sparing; all the dialogue is audible, though the recording equipment of the time put a pretty low ceiling on the aural possibilities, it seems.

Audio Transfer Grade:

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 18 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
4 Documentaries
1 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Ian Christie
Packaging: Amaray Double
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. excerpts from the American version (see below)
  2. accompanying booklet
Extras Review: Film historian Ian Christie provides a creditable commentary—occasionally he slips into narrating the movie to us, but generally he's very good on the history and details of the film's production, on biographical information on the filmmakers and actors, and on this film's place in the Powell-Pressburger canon. Also on the first disc of this set are the prologue (06m:11s) and afterword (06m:12s) shot for the film's American release—apparently the movie was a critical and financial disappointment, and its storyline deemed to be too opaque for American audiences, so new footage was shot of Sgt. Johnson back in the States with his new bride, played by Kim Hunter, in which he reminisces about his memories of wartime. It's all pretty cheesy, especially the newlyweds' trip to Rockefeller Center.

Disc Two has a wealth of information on the filmmakers and the impact of the feature, starting with a 2006 interview (20m:05s) with Sheila Sim, recalling memories from some sixty years ago now, about working with Michael Powell in war-torn Canterbury—she obviously still holds the project and her director in high regard, which is no surprise. John Sweet: A Pilgrim's Return (22m:29s), made in 2001 by Nick Burton and Eddie McMillan, documents the sergeant's first trip back to Canterbury in 57 years—it's a look at how both he and the city have changed, grand stories told over a pot of tea served in one of the film's pivotal locations. A Canterbury Trail (23m:43s), made in 2005, marks the centennial of Powell's birth, and focuses on a walking tour of the film's locations, adding detail about Powell's childhood, for he grew up nearby, no doubt accounting for much of the fondness with which the locations and locals were shot.

Listening to Britain is a package that's even more specific about the influence of the feature. Here you'll find Listen to Britain (18m:13s), a 1942 documentary made by Humphrey Jennings, showing the sights and sounds of his country at war—soldiers going to the front, farmers tilling the fields, dance halls crammed with couples holding one another close. This and A Canterbury Tale were the principal inspirations for a 2001 video piece (06m:59s) made by Victor Burgin; the piece bears the same name as Jennings' documentary, and intercuts shots of Sim from the Powell-Pressburger film with sweeping, poetic images of the Canterbury countryside. Burgin's text introduction is worth reading, as well, as he discusses the formation of his own iconography of his country.

The accompanying booklet features rapturous essays on the film by critics Graham Fuller and Peter von Bagh, and further recollections from Sweet. Also, the feature comes with optional English subtitles, though they're mentioned neither on the disc menu nor the case for the set.

Extras Grade: A-

Final Comments

The faith in the English national character is the prevailing sentiment of this film, one that will make you want to put on a pot of tea, or tuck into a good Yorkshire pudding. But this is about much more than simply keeping the home fires burning; it's a surprisingly spiritual piece of filmmaking, and its lukewarm reception upon its initial release makes the opportunity to celebrate this DVD that much more rewarding.

Jon Danziger 2006-07-24