In this strange season we currently find ourselves in, I occupy more time than ever before by reading books and watching films. A little over a month ago I watched something of a forgotten gem — British duo Powell and Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale — and not a day has passed since that it hasn’t crossed my mind. Considering the volume of things to which I’ve recently devoted my attention, this is no small feat, even if the thoughts in question were less fully formed intellectual musings than brief flashes of an image or moment that embedded itself in my mind and never let go. A Canterbury Tale lends itself to this kind of extended experience, however; the effect of watching it in real time is rather disorienting, as it neatly defies clear narrative structure in favor of a drifting, strung-out series of lingering moments. The final result is immaculate almost in spite of itself, the various threads coming together for a coda almost as miraculous as Ordet and as moving as It’s A Wonderful Life.
The film was produced in and unfolds during what we now know to be the final days of World War Two, but what seemed then only the beginning of a hopeless eternity, the return of displaced sons and husbands dauntingly uncertain. Bob Johnson (John Sweet) is a homesick American sergeant who inadvertently disembarks his train just outside Canterbury in the small town of Chillingbourne, where he meets Alison Smith (Sheila Slim), due to begin work at a nearby farm, and Peter Gibbs (Dennis Price), a British sergeant. The only real plot the film pursues kicks off when, as the trio heads from the train station to the nearby inn, a dark figure lurking in an upstairs window douses Alison’s hair in a generous deluge of glue. Perturbed by this bizarre crime and the figure — dubbed “the Glue Man” by locals — the three decide the mystery must be solved and the culprit caught before the young men depart the next day.
Ultimate destination aside, the Archers’ film seems to have little to do with Chaucer’s titular anthology of pilgrim tales. The cast of main players is dramatically reduced from thirty-one down to three. They don’t entertain each other with wild stories, but instead share misgivings about the future and the little tragedies that accompany wartime life. Chaucer’s pilgrims are mischievous, conniving, and often wicked, but these are good people, decent almost to a fault. While Chaucer uses his characters to satirize and critique, the Archers seem disinterested in anything less than honoring the patient courage of soldiers far from the homes they’re defending and the civic pride of the people waiting for them. The film is an earnest exhortation rather than a sly caricature.
This distinction between the film and its namesake is only one in a series of contrasts A Canterbury Tale puts forth, emphasizing the little divisions that often separate people despite the best of intentions. Bob is frequently misunderstood due to his usage of American vocabulary; Alison is derided by a blacksmith for her limited knowledge of his craft; an old man compares his salary to that of a younger man’s. This is much too nice a film, however, for such minute distinctions to hold any real sway. Human connection prevails over these little boundaries, strengthened in spite — or perhaps because — of them.
But nationalities, classes, and generations are easy walls to overlook in the pursuit of unity. Much more difficult to overcome is the wall of time that separates history from the present, removes ancestors from descendants, and clouds old tradition so that it becomes lost or forgotten. From the very opening scene the Archers understand this division. The film opens in the distant past with a band of pilgrims traveling to Canterbury, and as they crest the hill overlooking Chillingbourne, one of them removes the hood of the falcon on his arm, letting the creature take flight. The camera follows it into the sky, and a match cut turns the wheel of time as the bird becomes a fighter plane. We pan down to the same hill, now half a century older. The simple elegance of this opening is a remarkably concise summation of A Canterbury Tale’s thematic aims: emphasizing the gaps between people, places, the past and the present before seeking to bridge them.
At the heart of this historical disconnect is Thomas Colpeper (Eric Portman), a judge who, in his free time, gives lectures on Chillingbourne’s history to soldiers passing through. As he exhorts his audience, among which sit Alison, Bob and Peter, to “follow the old road, and as you walk, think of [your ancestors] and of the old England,” the projector’s light frames his head within a saintly halo. His vision of unity through the fracturing nature of war is nobly conceived. Looking back, remembering one’s past, aligning one’s destination with that of the old pilgrims — such habits provide a comforting clarity and humility. Alison is deeply moved by Colpeper’s words. Later she does just as he says, walking the road that overlooks the distant cathedral, closing her eyes, and, in a magical moment, hearing the music and laughter of the ancient pilgrims making their way to Canterbury.
In this way, the characters themselves are also on a pilgrimage, their ultimate destination of Canterbury rendering them such whether they know it or not. We’re told that the original pilgrims approached the cathedral “to do penance or seek blessing,” and Alison, Bob, and Peter are to some extent in need of both. Each has undergone their own disillusionment or tragedy — all three are removed from their homes, Alison has received word that her fiancé was killed during battle, and the absence of letters during the past few months has persuaded Bob that his fiancé back in Oregon is no longer waiting for his return. Their need of penance is slight but present: their sins are of omission and not commission, as they do not believe in miracles, even though (per Mr. Colpeper) “They still happen, you know.”
Just before the three are due to leave Chillingbourne for Canterbury, their strange little mystery is solved and the Glue Man revealed: none other than the respectable Mr. Colpeper himself. Later, he joins the three young people in their train compartment. When pressed for a confession, he admits responsibility, revealing that it was intended to keep the local girls from going out with soldiers and thus faithful to their deployed partners. It’s shocking at first, and yet makes sense, his ideals of unity manifested in “glueing” the people of his fractured country together. His methods are questionable, silly, but his motive is pure, and Colpeper insists upon his moral innocence. Whether correct or not, his assertion that “there are higher courts than the local benches and magistrates” is spoken just as the train rounds a corner and the Canterbury Cathedral suddenly fills the landscape. The score takes on a hushed reverence, and under the cathedral’s great beauty the issue suddenly seems very small.
Upon their arrival, they find portions of the town ravaged by bombshells, and yet, as they go their separate ways, a feeling of vibrant expectancy contradicts the scattered ruins. There’s a shot early in the film that frames Bob waking in his hotel room, his bed bathed in rays of sunlight, and the feeling that it immediately provokes is one of a warm providence. It is, as it turns out, a foreshadowing of the things to come.
Peter wanders into the cathedral and sees the old organist ascending the stairs. He follows him, admiring the grand instrument. As a boy, Peter says, he wanted to be a church organist. Instead, he ended up playing for picture shows. The old man asks him if he wishes to play. With great reverence, Peter plays Bach — Toccata and Fogue in D minor, the oldest known organ composition.
Bob finds himself in the nave of the empty cathedral. The overwhelming grandeur of it reminds him, of all things, of “the first Baptist church in Johnson County,” built by his grandfather and, with a sense of pride, “Well that was a good job, too.” The majestic cathedral points him back to his humble past, the end of his pilgrimage reminding him of the beginning, the past and present unified. He then rendezvouses with a friend, who, to his utter delight, hands over several letters from his fiancé back home. They were mis-delivered, but never stopped being sent.
Alison makes her way to the blacksmith’s shop, where she finds the old caravan wagon she lived in as a girl. It is decaying and filled with moths, but she never expected to see it again and the sight of it fills her with great melancholic joy. But even this pales in comparison when her fiancé’s father finds her and delivers the news that his son isn’t dead, but wounded and safe in the hospital.
Against this series of little miracles is a backdrop of British soldiers arriving in the city, forming a triumphant parade as they march toward the cathedral. People spill into the street to cheer them on, joining them to file into the church as Peter continues to play the great organ. They sing and worship together, unified in spite of the war — or perhaps, mysteriously, because of it. As a passerby says to Alison: “It is an awful mess; I don’t blame you for not knowing where you are. But you get a very good view of the Cathedral now.”