Film – A Canterbury Tale

What an odd little film this is. Like my favorite Powell/Pressburger effort I Know Where I’m Going, I hardly think it could exist in the modern world – it is just too vernacular. A mystery, an examination of “British types”, thwarted love stories, historicism and war propaganda. The main character is played by a non-actor, American GI John Sweet, who’s perfect as a foil for all that cucumber sandwich. His loping walk and drawl, his easy talk with the village boys and local wheelwright – he just makes the English look puckered and repressed, which I don’t think was the intention. Hands across the sea and all that.

The local toff and magistrate Mr Colpeper, played by Eric Portman, is incredibly creepy – he may love the pilgrim road and sense that the village green is a dying spectacle, but his speeches on the need to preserve Kent, and all that is ‘antique tables and billiards’ seem like the ravings of a slightly undead anorak. Don’t get me started on the Freudian schtick with the “Glue Man” who attacks women’s hair, either. The man lives with his mother and lies in the grass looking at clouds.

Sheila Sim is sure, slim waisted and pluckish as the land girl everyone is a little sweet on, but the real revelation in this antique piece is Dennis Price as classical organist turned soldier Peter Gibbs. His restless, brusque London-Johnny is the modern man starkly set against the cob-and-thatch quaintness of the setting. He’s a scalded cat from the worst of the Blitz. And of course, all British movies are class movies. Despite his lovely voice, Gibbs is not of the right class to be a High-church organist. That is why he is slumming it as a picture theatre Wurlitzer-man in civilian life. When he tells Colpeper what work he does there is a beat where he dares the privileged man to disapprove, just a space. Colpeper demures, of course.

The scenes inside the Cathedral are meant to inspire awe, but mostly had to be matted in with studio painting as the Cathedral had all its treasures removed long before the picture was made, in case it was targeted for bombing. It looks a bit tinny. The scene which really stirs is when Alison walks the high street of Canterbury and sees the gaping holes and scarred basements of stores destroyed, with signs advertising where the businesses have moved. You can’t stop a nation of shopkeepers.

Anglo-Saxon attitudes

Anglo-Saxon attitudes

Two alarming moments:
When the GI catches up with his buddy in Canterbury and scoffs at tea-drinking, his friend assures him “It’s a habit, like marijuana” Ah, excuse me? Did the Limeys really think the Yanks were mad on reefer? In 1944?

When Peter is mobilised and the GI asks “Where to?” (most inappropriately – careless talk costs lives), Gibbs replies “We’ll all be there soon”. Hello Hitler, sweating on that second front?

Not the perfect jewel that is I Know Where I’m Going, but much to recommend it. The Old Curiosity Shoppe in khakis.


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