Thursday, July 23, 2015

A Canterbury Tale: Memories of a Classic Wartime Movie

I'm not sure why, but the older I get, the more the Powell and Pressburger film A Canterbury Tale means to me.

Certainly it is unusual in being a work of English mysticism. We stolid English usually prefer to leave that sort of thing to the Celts.

I knew that a book had been written about the making of the film a few years ago. When I asked about it in The Chaucer Bookshop, they did not let me down.

1 comment:

Nicole M Berg said...

Oh, you're so lucky to have that book. It seems to be out of print now because it cannot be had online or anywhere in the States. Darn.

In 'A Canterbury Tale,' Powell mixes mystery, history, and patriotism to drum up Love For Country in a way that would almost be labeled ecoterroism now (at least by the old Bush administration). It seems to be Powell's most personal film, with the character Colpeper's conflicting environmental zeal & genteel sexism holding up a mirror to Powell himself, an outdoor enthusiast known for his troubles with women. The antics of the four main characters are done under the beneficent watch of Canterbury Cathedral & its stunning Kent countryside. These exalted surroundings sanctify Colpeper's aims to educate the ignorant to not take such grandeur for granted (in wartime or peacetime).

This is one of those movies that takes more than one viewing for the weight & beauty of its message to truly sink in. Powell probably found it challenging to fully express the importance of his nature-loving views in an age where environmentalism had yet to become a catchword. How to make it exciting? The mystery of the glueman acts more as a foil for Powell's plea for land conservation. The local boys' mock war battle in bucolic surroundings & Sheila Sim's alarming walk through the very real decimation of ancient Canterbury is Powell's use of patriotism for Terra Britannia Herself. In such scenes the British audience is warned what can be lost forever if appreciated too late.

Like Powell's intended message, 'A Canterbury Tale' was one of the Archers most underrated gems. I'm glad it made the Criterion Collection. Perhaps they, like Scorsese & Coppola, realized how much the film's environmental theme was way ahead of its time.