Friday, August 31, 2007

Summer of British Film: War

So it's on to the penultimate week of the festival, which looks at war films. And there is a lot of pleasure to be had.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is simply magnificent. As ever, Powell and Pressburger managed to lift their wartime films high above the simple pieces of propaganda they might have been in less skilled hands. Here they tackle the moral dilemma implicit in total war. In order to defeat Nazi Germany, did we have to become more like it? Yet an Anglo-German friendship lies at the centre of the film too.

Another Powell and Pressburger film, Ill Met by Moonlight, has Dirk Bogarde at his most dashing as Patrick Leigh-Fermor - later a celebrated travel writer. It tells the true story of the kidnap of the German general in charge of occupied Crete. It is altogether a lesser work than Blimp, but still fun.

King Rat is a powerful tale of survival in a prisoner of war camp. And no film which has a scene with James Fox, Denhom Elliott and Leonard Rossiter sitting in a row eating stewed dog can possibly be bad.

A film I may tape are The Colditz Story, if only because I so enjoyed the Colditz television series as a boy. It went out before Monty Python and made Thursday evenings something to look forward to. And there is also Anthony Asquith's The Way to the Stars - if nothing else it was directed by the son of a Liberal prime minister.

But the film of the week has to be yet another Powell and Pressburger offering: A Canterbury Tale. It tells the story of three wartime pilgrims to the city. Sheila Sim (now Lady Attenborough) has lost her fiance in the war. The American Bob Johnson has lost his girl and Denis Price has lost his vocation as musician. By the end of the film, they have had what they desire restored to them.

Presiding over this is Eric Portman as Mr Colpeper, a patrician Puck who worries that servicemen would rather go out with girls than come to his lectures on local history. He takes extreme measures to put this right.

A Canterbury Tale is that rare thing, a work of English mysticism. Look for the cut from a hawk to a Spitfire, which long predates Kubrick's bone to spaceship cut in 2001. And listen for Colpeper's spine-tingling words:

There is more than one way of getting close to your ancestors.

Follow the Old Road and as you do, think of them; they climbed Chillingbourne Hill just as you did. They sweated and paused for breath just as you did today.

And when you see the bluebells in the spring and the wild thyme, and the broom and the heather, you're seeing what their eyes saw. You ford the same rivers, the same birds singing. And when you lie flat on your back and rest, and watch the clouds sailing as I often do, you're so close to those other people, that you can hear the thrumming of the hoofs of their horses, and the sound of the wheels on the road, and their laughter, and talk, and the music of the instruments they carried.

And they turned the bend in the road, where they too saw the towers of Canterbury. I feel I have only to turn my head to see them on the road behind me.

A Canterbury Tale is on BBC at 11.50 p.m. on Wednesday 5 September.


HE Elsom said...

I think you have to include A matter of life and death among P&P's war films as well because it's certainly about dealing with death in the war. (I can't work out from the BBC web site whether it's being shown or not.) It's more fantastic and less spiritual the A Canterbury Tale, which I love as well, but that's at least in part because it's also a celebration of what we've won rather than a reminder of why we fight -- and an attempt to come to terms with and enjoy American exuberance since we're stuck with it. Also, the technicolor is gorgeous, and the melody that the young Anerican in heaven plays on the harmonica, which wafts down as Peter washes up on the beach and then turns into the goat boy's whistle is incredibly beautiful.

Jonathan Calder said...

A Matter of Life and Death is not being shown as part of the BBC season, but it did get a lot of respectful coverage in the documentary earlier this evening.

I have written about it here.

Jonathan Calder said...

And I see you commented on that earlier posting.

Blognor Regis said...

That poster is chronologically strange. "Ranks with Red Shoes and Stairway to Heaven (AMOLAD)" A Canterbury tale preceedes them both.

Anyway, I was delighted when I visited Canterbury for the first and only time a few years back to walk down the street where Boots is to see how little it had changed.

However I was even more delighted to ride along the Pilgrims Way during some early season cycling events this year with "To Canterbury they did wende" whirling around my mind.