Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1944 film is a profoundly personal
retelling of Chaucer’s famous literary tale of pilgrimage, made
relevant and current because of its contextual resituating in a
The film gracefully segues from its
brief period prologue to the tumult of Great Britain in August, 1943,
where it focuses in on three modern-day incarnations of said wanderers.
First is plainspoken American army sergeant Bob Johnson (played with
folksy charm by John Sweet), a genial Oregon native who gets off at the
wrong train stop. We also meet Alison Smith (a pleasantly pie-faced
Sheila Sim), a melancholic London shop clerk who’s signed on to work at
a local rural farm after her fiancé has been killed in the war, and
abrasive, upper crust Englishman Peter Gibbs (Dennis Price), also a
sergeant in the military as well as a cinema organist. Teaming with
local squire Thomas Colpeper (Eric Portman) to solve a series of
bizarre assaults that play as only slightly subdued sexual metaphor —
someone’s dousing women’s hair with glue, and fleeing — Bob, Alison and
Peter make their way to the mythical town of the title, each finding a
bit of redemption along the way.
Though later released in a truncated American cut, this original version of A Canterbury Tale
showcases the full latitude of Powell and Pressburger’s ambling
rhythms. Mixing perversity and pastoralism in unusual fashion, it’s a
movie that’s both beautiful to look at and also elliptically evocative.
While it at least partially and irrevocably remains a document of its
time and place, A Canterbury Tale also showcases the luminescence of dinged humanity amidst discord and turmoil.
Spread out over two discs and available in a thicker-than-usual Amray case, A Canterbury Tale
is presented in 1.33:1 full frame with an English language mono track,
and while the transfer is a fairly solid one with respect to color
levels, there is still some grain and surface scratching throughout.
Optional English subtitles are also available. Film historian Ian
Christie sits for a feature-length audio-commentary track crammed with
production minutiae, and there are also two six-minute excerpts from
the aforementioned American version of the movie, with Kim Hunter
playing Bob Johnson’s Stateside bride to be.
The film’s second disc includes a new, 20-minute video interview
with Sim, who warmly recalls the production. There’s also a 2001
documentary by Nick Burton and Eddie McMillan, John Sweet: A Pilgrim’s Return,
which documents its subject’s first return to England in more than 55
years. David Thompson’s superb, 24-minute production doc A Canterbury Trail,
meanwhile, delves into plenty of biographical detail about Powell’s
adolescence. Alongside a booklet featuring essays from Graham Fuller,
Peter von Bagh and the recollections of neophyte actor Sweet, is the
1942 doc Listen to Britain, full of wartime sights and sounds, and a 2001 video-installation piece of the same name from artist Victor Burgin. B (Movie) B+ (Disc)