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With: Eric Portman, Sheila Sim, Dennis Price, Sergeant John Sweet, Esmond Knight, Charles Hawtrey, Hay Petrie, George Merritt, Edward Rigby, Freda Jackson, Betty Jardine, Eliot Makeham, Harvey Golden, Leonard Smith, James Tamsitt, Kim Hunter (alternate sequence only)
Written by: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Directed by: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 124
Date: 08/21/1944

A Canterbury Tale (1944)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Pilgrim's Road

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The British filmmaking team Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, also known as the Archers, enjoyed one of the longest runs of great films in history.

For ten years, the pair, who shared writing, directing and producing credit, though Powell mainly directed and Pressburger mainly wrote, turned out a series of classics still beloved to this day: 49th Parallel (1941), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), I Know Where I'm Going! (1945), A Matter of Life and Death (1946, released in the U.S. as Stairway to Heaven), Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948) and The Tales of Hoffmann (1951), among others.

Now the Criterion Collection has released one of the duo's most elusive films, A Canterbury Tale (1944), in a two-disc Special Edition.

A flop both here and in England, the film has remained difficult to see for years (aside from a VHS release); this DVD marks the first time viewers can really get a good look at it.

Though Powell and Pressburger made hits and pleased the critics at the same time, they were still obligated during the war years to make films that promoted national morale, i.e. propaganda.

The idea behind A Canterbury Tale is the concept of pilgrims and pilgrimages, based loosely on Geoffrey Chaucer's writings. After a Chaucer-inspired prologue, the virtually plotless film begins when two such pilgrims get off the train at Chillingbourne, just one stop away from Canterbury. Alison Smith (Sheila Sim) is looking for work as a member of the Women's Land Army, and is joined by American army sergeant Bob Johnson (St. John Sweet), who mishears the name of the train station.

Almost immediately upon arrival, some unseen figure pours glue in Alison's hair; the secret identity of the "glue man" becomes perhaps the film's only driving factor (although it's pretty easy to figure out). The "glue man's" apparent motive is to keep the local women from dating soldiers. From there, our heroes, along with other characters like the English sergeant Peter Gibbs (Dennis Price) and the village squire Thomas Colpeper (Eric Portman), walk around, talk to the locals, talk to each other and wind up with a kind of spiritual re-awakening, and a deep connection with their forefathers. Sweet in particular, a non-actor, has a genuine warmth and wisdom in his polite, laconic drawl (he's the opposite of the "ugly American").

It's a simple, yet complex film. Yet it's difficult to know exactly what Powell and Pressburger are trying to achieve, and yet each individual moment is warmed by their particular style. It's oddly soothing and exciting to just bask in the film's images and listen to its stories and ideas.

DVD Details: For its original American release, Powell was forced to cut his lengthy, 124-minute film and insert an "American" prologue and epilogue in which Johnson recounts his adventures to his American girlfriend (Kim Hunter). Criterion's disc includes these alternate scenes separately. Other extras on this deluxe, two-disc set include an audio commentary by historian Ian Christie (the driest of all commentators, he frequently contributes to Criterion). Disc two includes several featurettes and interviews, mainly about the film's devoted following. The best extra is the classic short wartime documentary, Listen to Britain (1942), directed by the legendary Humphrey Jennings, an influence on Powell and Pressburger and a continuing influence on filmmakers today (Paul Greengrass included). Also included is a video installation piece based on Listen to Britain, as well as a nice, thick liner notes booklet containing essays by Graham Fuller, Peter von Bagh and Sweet.

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