The world is divided into those who, when someone mentions ‘the Archers’, think of BBC Radio Four’s interminable ‘everyday story of inbred folk’, and those others who bring to mind the logo of the production company which propelled the cinematic genius of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger to the screen. My favourite P&P film is almost invariably the latest one I have revisited, though ‘A Canterbury Tale’ always hovers close to the top of the list.
Why? One example of its visual power. Put a group of cineastes in a room and sooner rather than later, they will refer to one of the most iconic transformation shots in cinema: Stanley Kubrick’s use of a shard of bone to journey forward from a pre-history of violent savagery to a space shuttle in mid- commute in 2001. It is possibly Kubrick’s most memorable piece of editing. Yet in ‘A Canterbury Tale’, Powell presents a smoother, and far more poetic transformation shot. It catapults us from Chaucer’s Fourteenth Century, forward to 1940’s wartime England, by transforming a hunting kestrel into a stooping Supermarine Spitfire.
The watching falconer becomes an army sentry.
The ‘Kubrickisti’ at this point look down at their shoes and shuffle self-consciously, realising their demigod has been caught with his fingers in the film splicer….
But there is so much more to ACT. [Followers of P&P tend to refer to their treasures by acronyms] This is perhaps the most genre defying piece of cinematic poetry ever made with the commercial cinema in mind. In written description it seems to be a mass of contradiction.
It’s plot driver is a petty criminal, but this is not a crime thriller.
It is very much a war film played out in a landscape populated with troops, but no shots are fired. [The only violent battle scene takes place between pre-teen children.]
It is based on a classic of English [world] literature, but only loosely.
There is not so much as a kiss, but an atmosphere of febrile sexuality pervades almost every frame.
It identifies human decency derived from a shared language, but the use of which is frequently divergent in meaning.
It is a timeless story story set in a specific location at a particular point in time. Four people and landscape, each bearing the indelible marks of their past record.
The film is, like life itself, fairly plotless; a capture of an episode in the lives of four people who pursued lives before this point and will continue them after we have left them.
The plot device is mundanity itself. Someone is going around pouring glue into the hair of young girls, under the cover of darkness. The ‘Glue Man’s’ crime is of a low priority [and somehow very English in its eccentricity], and in no way comparable with the crimes against humanity being perpetrated across the nearby Channel. The film will not develop into a manhunt feature; the culprit is revealed to the audience within the first twenty minutes or so. Not so much a ‘Whodunnit’ as a ‘Whydunnit’. It is the motivation for the glue assaults which is important. Here, subtext is everything.
The script was a response to the contemporary situation in wartime England. With the entry of the United States into the war, plans to liberate Europe depended on the use of England as a physical springboard. In preparation for a ground offensive, a massive influx of US armed forces personnel were by 1943, “over-paid, over-sexed and over here”.
Figures in authority at any time are suspicious of those younger and more virile than themselves and attribute moral irresponsibility to their condition. Wartime England, its population boosted by American servicemen had more hormonal youth than could be easily controlled from above. Worse, this young immigrant service force were affluent. They brought with them all things modern – dance music, consumer treats and perhaps also a more ‘sophisticated’ or permissive philosophy, with which to impress a young indigenous female population awakened to its own mortality by the casualties of war around them. Any subsequent increase in the rate of pregnancies out of wedlock would create frictions between both the generations and the Old and New World allies and might sap the joint war effort.
The film presents two approaches to this problem. ‘The Glue Man’ proposes to counter this threat to the social fabric through the technique of aversion therapy. Any girl ‘stepping out’ with servicemen on a date is a target for a glue-pouring attack. His hope is to turn young minds away from carnal thoughts towards the more intellectually rewarding pursuit of historical study. This enthusiastic consumer of Ryman adhesive supplies happens to be a Justice of the Peace and a pillar of the local community.
P&P’s solution is to trust in common decency: social intercourse and mutual accommodation built on the foundation of a common language. As words on paper, this reads like an Anglo-American bridge-building propaganda exercise. What they present is actually a very acute series of social details which provide points of connection. A central scene here is when two characters from different nations, generations and occupations discover that they fall back on a shared pool of knowledge of wood types and woodworking techniques.
Such connections are counter-intuitively reinforced by the divergences the nations have occasionally made from the common pathway. The American officer discovers that the English speaking peoples have different words for currency and grocery stores. Different measurements for town and river size. Radically different police methods and telephone systems. Military stripes which follow opposite directions of travel symbolise the deviations from the common cause -but also represent the small scale of these differences within the broader scheme. By the end of the film, even 50% of the film’s American contingent have succumbed to the pleasure of tea-drinking!
Always give a film a viewing before referring to an online movie critique site. ‘Rotten Tomatoes’ presents some interesting and widely divergent views, which might, on balance, just usher a potential viewer away from this gem [though seen as a ‘small’ film, one must invest two hours in it] towards more easily digestible commercial fare. However, guest reviewer there, “Brian R.” in his critique of February 2011 succinctly describes the film thus:
“By today’s standards it is slow-paced, almost meditative. Four disparate characters follow the Pilgrims’ Way to Canterbury Cathedral (symbolic of the spiritual journeys being made by the people of a country at war) and receive unexpected blessings.The Kent countryside is glorious and is allowed to speak for itself, but the most visually impressive thing is Art Director Alfred Junge’s recreation in the studio of the interior of Canterbury Cathedral. The acting from the four leads is brilliant, with real life American G.I. Sergeant John Sweet outstanding as Bob Johnson.”
I concur wholeheartedly with his assessment of John Sweet’s performance. Portman, Price and Sim are always going to be reliable and entertaining fellow travellers, but how adventurous the decision to cast a non-actor in the central male role. Powell had initially hoped to use Burgess Meredith, already an actor of note. Though a fine talent, he would have impregnated the role with a degree of off-screen personality and worldly wisdom. Thanks to US Army bureaucracy, Powell instead had to use an amateur he had seen in a Red Cross production and the result produces an anchor of realism for a soaring, almost mystical portrayal of a nation at the crossroads of history. In his acting inexperience, Sweet imbues Sgt. Bob Johnson [from Oregon] with his own gaucheness and naivety, being himself a young man adrift in surroundings most unlike his native Minnesota. He knows nobody, he struggles with everyday objects [his battle with the telephone actually took him 23 takes to get it right], the ‘blackout’ rules and the Inn’s breakfast protocol.1
Frustration gradually develops into enchantment with this alien culture with roots which, he is reminded by station master Charles Hawtrey, travel deeper back through time well beyond Columbus’ ‘discovery’ of the New World. He experiences this epiphany largely because he makes an effort with the local people; Wheelwrights, children and his fellow ‘pilgrims’. He called upon his own experience to refine his performance, for example, “a scene sitting in a farm cart lamenting the lack of letters from my girl friend back home. Now it just so happens that I myself was in a no-mail-from-my-wife slump and when I talked about my loneliness it came out on the film quite real and life like. Where, said director, did you find this sudden mastery ?…. despite the edge of sarcasm, I needed and welcomed the compliment.” 2 Sweet’s wholesome good nature was not simply screen persona. He received $2,000 from the film company. US Army regulations ruled that any extra-curricular pay must be donated to a charity. He elected to give the full sum to the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. Coming from a native of Minnesota and enlisted in an army which had imposed a rigid colour bar within its own institutions, this was a profound gesture and fully vindicated Powell’s reading of human nature.3
At an upstate New York film festival, someone asked this humble man about the effect of the film on his career – was there a fan club? He said he received a total of three fan letters from three lonesome British servicewomen. 4
In return for his invaluable contribution to the film, the production and the corner of England which provided its location shoot rewarded ‘pilgrim’ Sweet his own blessing; ”The few months I spent making the film were the most profound and influential of my life”.5
My personal favourite moment? Everything here is a pleasure, but the sequence which moves me closer to tears with every viewing is when Alison returns to the caravan which she shared with her fiance on a prewar archeological excavation. he is now lost in action. This conduit for her memories of him is decaying before her eyes. Her revulsion at the flight of the clothes moths emerging from his coat and into the light, is moving beyond words.
And then…. her blessing is awarded and in an unexpected form… watch and be delighted.
5 A Pilgrim’s Return by Nick Burton and Eddie McMillan. This documentary is featured in the Criterion Collection DVD