Director: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Writer: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Cinematographer: Erwin Hillier
Producer: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
by Jon Cvack
I’m not familiar with the original "Canterbury Tales", but this movie was boring enough that I have little motivation to go and see how the two versions could possibly relate. All I know is that book contains a series 24 stories written between 1387 - 1400, possibly unfinished, featuring insights into the customs and practices of the day (so Wikipedia says).
With that in mind, I understand the film’s fractured plot - or near completely lack of - a bit more, but I was so bored by what was going on that whatever insights I was supposed to take away were far from worth the two hour + running time. The story focuses on three characters: U.S. Army Sergeant Bob Johnson (played by real-life Sgt. John Sweet, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Edgar Wright’s character from Loving, teeth and all, though just a bit more lanky) who arrives by mistake vai train in Chillingbourne near Canterbury; mishearing the last stop call. He’s joined by British Army Sergeant Peter Gibbs (Dennis Price) and a “Land Girl” (basically agro-focused U.K. Rosie-the-Riveter) Allison Smith (Sheila Sim). They all arrived by mistake and within a few moments, Allison has glue dumped on her which becomes another boring subplot throughout the film as Peter and Bob try to find who dumped the glue on her head, eventually discovering it was the local town judge and intellectual Thomas Colpeper (Eric Portman).
As much as I hoped reading the Wikipedia page would help provide some clarity, it’s pretty clear that this is pretty much the entire story - missing a train stop and entering into a glue mystery. We get to wander around the area, exploring the beautiful town and country, as the film was shot on location. Eventually we learn that Colpeper’s motive was that his local soldiers were becoming distracted by all of the working females, and so he figured dumping glue on women’s heads would prevent them from cheating on their husbands and boyfriends who are away at war. So then enters some strange series of events, where Bob finally gets a letter from his girlfriend who figure she had left him; Susan learns that her AWOL boyfriend is alive; and Peter goes and plays an organ in a beautiful church like he said he always wanted to earlier in the film.
If you’re thinking, “Wow, that sounds pretty boring,” you’d be absolutely right. Similar to what I wrote about Last Year at Marienbad ('61) and its issue of living up to old foreign Art House film stereotypes, A Canterbury Tales does the same with this desultory drama. It’s not that it’s a poorly made film - in some ways it’s worth checking out for the brief on location shooting at Canterbury alone - so much as there are literally thousands of other films that I would suggest before watching this one, hundreds from the time period alone. To think that Odd Man Out ('47) would arrive only four years later proves that this wasn’t some old fashioned mistake, but just a really boring idea.
NOTE: The most interesting part about this movie was learning that John Sweet only appeared in this film, and donated his $20,000 to the NACCP - which was quite the gesture in 1944. I have three films left from Powell - I Know Where I’m Going! ('45), The Edge of the World ('37; which sounds awesome, as it’s about the evacuation of an isolated island community - I assume for WWII), and his the last WWII film of his A Matter of Life and Death ('46), so hopefully A Canterbury Tale was the worst of them.
BELOW: Best part if the locations. Here's a doc by The Guardian about it
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