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Sent in by Roger Mellor

A Canterbury Tale.
By Graham Fuller.
Film Comment 13th March 1995 v31:n2. p33(4)

This film is available on VHS in the USA and the UK

In the perfect English summer of 1943, while the Allies were relieving Sicily, Thomas Culpepper, [It's "Colpeper" in the cast list - the herbalist was "Culpepper"] gentleman farmer and magistrate of the East Kent village of Chillingbourne, was assaulting young women in the blackout. On the nights he was assigned air-warden duty, Colpepper would conceal himself in the shadows of the ancient streets and dart out incognito to dump glue on the hair of Fee Baker, Gwladys Swinton, Dorothy Bird, Polly Finn, and others. The sticky stuff was hard to get out. It served Colpepper's puritanical purposes well: the girls became too scared to date the sex-hungry soldiers encamped outside Chillingbourne and were less likely to cheat on their husbands and boyfriends overseas. And with females scarce and nothing much to do until the pubs opened, some soldiers were tempted to attend Colpepper's lectures about the Old Pilgrims' Road that wended its way past Chillingbourne to Canterbury Cathedral. Colpepper, Colpepper - the name blows hot and cold at the same time and makes you think of a medieval herbalist. Presumably descended from the courtier (Robert Donat in The Private Life of Henry VIII) who unwisely slept with his king's fifth wife, this glue-pouring terrorist was dreamed up by Emeric Pressburger for his and Michael Powell's 1944 film A Canterbury Tale, the Archers' followup to The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp ('43). He was played by Eric Portman, not a "man of Kent" like Powell but a 41-year-old Yorkshireman who made Colpepper a supercilious home-counties crusader championing England's national heritage.

Three young conscripts, the English sergeant Peter Gibbs (Dennis Price), the American sergeant Bob Johnson (Sgt. John Sweet), and the landgirl Alison Smith (Sheila Sim), spend the weekend in Chillingbourne trying to nail the glueman after his Friday-night attack on Alison. Their sleuthing is an excuse for a series of rural epiphanies; by the end of the film, Colpepper has emerged as a beneficent magus, an agent of divine blessings. In the majestic last movement - cut to Allan Gray's zigzagging medley of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, a military marching tune, "Onward Christian Soldiers," and a choral refrain - the grieving Alison learns that her lover, an RAF pilot supposedly killed by enemy action, has been found alive in Gibraltar; Peter, a cinema organist in peacetime, fulfills his wish to play a cathedral organ before being shipped to the front; and Bob is given a packet of letters from the girlfriend he'd suspected of forsaking him.

The blessings complete these modern pilgrims' education in the pantheistic mysticism of the English countryside, of which Colpepper is also the instrument. Even before they leave Chillingbourne, they have come to feel a contagious sense of well-being, as would Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller) on the Isle of Mull in the next Archers film, I Know Where I'm Going! ('45). Rhythm has everything to do with this contagion, and it's worth examining how Powell and Pressburger ease A Canterbury Tale from perverse comedy-thriller into perverse Romantic pastoral.

The film begins, of course, with the Archers logo, an arrow thudding into a bull's-eye, and sustains the medievalism with its depiction of the prologue to Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, during which the Wife of Bath shoves one of her fellow travelers off his horse and the Knight unleashes his falcon. There follows a clunky 600-year jump cut as the soaring bird turns into a fighter plane. [Clunky??] Suddenly, the Knight has become an English "Tommy," armored cars are rolling along the Pilgrims' Way, and a Canterbury-bound passenger train is speeding through the Kent fields on a sunny day. (The ape-tossed bone that metamorphoses into a spacecraft in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey possibly has its origins in this sequence.)

Day fades into night and the train disgorges Bob, Peter, and Alison at Chillingbourne Station, where station master Thomas Duckett (tartly played by Charles Hawtrey, later of Carry On . . . fame) rebukes the American, who thinks he's alighting in Canterbury, for jumping off a moving train. In the confusion, the glueman attacks Alison and runs up the lane toward the town hall with Peter and Bob in pursuit. They lose him: Peter catches a bus to the army camp, and Bob and Alison burst into the blazing light of the townhall, where the local officials are flummoxed by the news of the latest "incident." Upstairs, Bob and Alison are granted audiences with Colpepper, whose guilt as the nocturnal predator is quickly revealed, but only to us. Put up for the night at an inn, Bob and Allson determine to catch the glueman.

Breathlessly, at a gallop, Powell and Pressburger have presented medieval pilgrims, the British homefront during the Second World War, and a veiled sexual assault on a woman - all in 24 minutes. Now the Archers rein the movie in, slowing it down to ambling pace, lulling their young pilgrims into a contemplative two days that drive the imperatives of the war out of their minds. Bob wakes in a four-poster once slept in by Elizabeth I; finds a kindred spirit in the Chillingbourne wheelwright, Jim Horton (Edward Rigby); then bums a ride in Alison's cart - she's been hired to work at a hop farm - to the hill beside the Pilgrims' Road, where they compare notes about their lost loves. That Saturday evening, Colpepper gives one of his lantern-slide lectures, which fascinates the three visitors more than they'd anticipated. Its magicianliness is nostalgic for cinema's primitive prehistory, as is Dr. Reeves's "camera obscura" in A Matter of Life and Death. Both come from Powell, investing Colpepper and Reeves with his own sense of himself as an ardent but somewhat remote showman.

The next day, Sunday, Bob delightedly witnesses a river-and-land battle between two friendly gangs of boys whose generals he enlists to help snare the glueman. Up on the hill again, "hearing" the lutesong and laughter of Chaucer's prigrims and the jingle and clop of their horses, Alison stumbles upon Colpepper straining to catch the same vibrations. She sits with him, and you get the feeling that this cold misogynist has fallen a little in love with the lovely, plain-speaking landgirl: the biter bit. At the approach of Peter and Bob, they duck down in the grass and overhear the two soldiers discussing Colpepper's motives. The spell of the country idyll is broken; on Monday morning it's off to Canterbury, ten minutes by train, via Thomas Duckett's station and his caustic comments.

Setting aside Colpepper's unconscious motives for a moment, his evident culpability in A Canterbury Tale makes it a "whydunit" rather than a "whodunit." The movie is a High Tory lesson in cultural conservationism - Colpepper was elected by the villagers to protect the bend in the Pilgrims' Road - that extends beyond the earthquake of war. "Who cares about these things in wartime?" Peter remonstrates to Colpepper at the lecture. "Who cares about them in peacetime?" Colpepper rejoins. The war, you could say, is his blessing, his opportunity to remind the soldiers in his audience of the values that were being threatened by Hitler, and the Archers' opportunity to get the same message across to their audience.

Powell recognized that the kinky premise of the film could facilitate this. "Emeric thought up the glueman," he told me in 1986. "We had some rather important things we wanted to say in A Canterbury Tale, so when he proposed this almost sexual idea of a man pursuing girls in the blackout and dropping glue on them, I thought, 'Oh, Christ, this is going to stop the staid British in their tracks.' I thought I'd better not tell Emeric, because he might abandon the idea. To try and put over these very serious ideas about England and America and the values we were fighting for might have turned the film into a self-praising documentary, so instead of that I let the glueman ride. I said to myself, 'I think I can get away with it.' But I couldn't." [The original idea was to have the attacker slash the girl's dresses]

For all the twists and turns of its conundrum plot, A Canterbury Tale is rigorously structured through a complex pattern of correspondences, serendipities, and visual and verbal rhymes that echo the rhythmical qualities of English country life and invite Britain's younger ally across the pond into the pageant. The kindly, folksy G.I. Bob (soulfully played by the USO actor Sweet) is a moviegoer more than an intellectual, and no convert to English telephones or tea-drinking habits; but he is an avid recipient of the bits of Chillingbourne civic history and folklore dispensed to him by Duckett and the women who work at the inn where he's staying.

As well as bonding with the wheelwright in their conversation about the seasoning of timber, Bob befriends a fellow pipe-smoking soldier (Esmond Knight) at Colpepper's lecture, and confides in Alison. A year and a half after Pearl Harbor, he is Powell and Pressburger's full-fledged symbol of anti-isolationism, and his crowning moment comes when he stands rapt in the nave of Canterbury Cathedral and welds Britain and America together with the awestruck reflection, "And my dad built the first Baptist church in Oregon ..." As seen through Bob's eyes, the film is a repository of Englishness - not just in artifacts like the four-poster, the ducking stool in Colpepper's office, or the plaque outside the Colpepper Institute, but in his understanding of the timeless throb of that culture, which makes him reflect on its American counterpart.

Alison, a shopgirl in a London department store before the war, is visiting Chillingbourne for the second time. Three years before, she stayed with her archaeologist boyfriend Geoffrey in a caravan on the bend on the Pilgrims' Road and (as Powell says in A Life in Movies) lost her virginity to him there. Though spurned by Colpepper as an employee during their first meeting, she offers to donate to his institute's museum the Roman coins that Geoffrey had found in a dig. Colpepper discovers to his embarrassment that it is one of his female victims who understands his mission best.

Peter, abrasive and cynical, the least persuadable of the three pilgrims, grows to admire Colpepper, although he still intends to denounce him. An urban materialist, he has easily become friends with the spiritual country boy Bob, and they toss a ball at each other as they stroll along a sunlit street and share blackberries by the Old Pilgrims' Road. (Bob and Alison share cigarettes, as if they were in a Howard Hawks movie). Peter subsequently finds a kindred spirit in the cathedral organist, whose great rival, it transpires, was the younger man's professor at the Royal Academy of Music. The coincidence may seem arbitrary, throwaway, but, like Reg Horton (George Merrit) telling Alison that his own father was a blacksmith, it is another example of a traditional art being passed from one generation to the next.

Archers scholar Ian Christie argued in an essay on Pressburger's problematic status in their oeuvre ("Alienation Effects," BFI Monthly Film Bulletin, October 1984) that the writer knew fully "that the narrative of A Canterbury Tale should be subservient to image and incident, that it should produce the poetic juxtaposition on which the film depends for its true meaning." Accordingly, the skein of newly formed friendships, cross-references, and arcane parallels background the narrative thrust - the investigation of the glueman - and provide the basis of the film's hypnotic beat, echoed by Gray's rhapsodic orchestration with its repeated lyrical themes, and such recurring motifs as the sounds of Chaucer's pilgrims. Not the least of the correlatives to the ebb and flow of history evinced in the progress of the three contemporary pilgrims is the film itself, with all its cuts, dissolves, and ellipses.(*)

Powell and Pressburger often traded in illusionism: the characters in their films contrive to see what they want to see. This "Indian Rope Trick" (as it's called by Clive Candy in Blimp when he sees Miss Hunter reincarnated in the nurse, Barbara, his future wife) is reiterated by several sleights-of-camera here. Rhetorically scorning the idea that a halo should ever appear above his head, Peter is immediately crowned by a burst of sunlight as the Monday morning train to Canterbury exits from a tunnel: a harbinger of Colpeper's unearthly powers. A few minutes later, Peter asks the cathedral organist if he's the cathedral organist and is admonished with the words, "Do I look like the charwoman?" - only for that lady to appear on her knees with bucket and sponge beside Bob in the nave.

What is more, she (or her Scottish equivalent) fetches up anecdotally - a typical Powellian private joke - with a bar of music from A Canterbury Tale in the hotel where Joan lunches with Torquil in I Know Where I'm Going! The fluttering hymn sheet that leads Peter up the steps to the organ also "returns" in IKWIG as the list of directions Joan drops on the quayside, hindering her journey to the island where the wrong suitor awaits her. In both films, magic forces are at work, disturbing order, causing chaos, making "strange," but leading Powell and Pressburger's unwitting pilgrims to a transcendent mystical union with their environs.

Most potent of all are the sudden Puckish materializations of Colpepper in his garden when Alison and Bob ride by, sitting up in the grass on the hill to surprise Alison, outside the Canterbury garage when she is weeping over her decaying caravan. "Puckish" is the operative word, for Colpepper is an adult version of the Puck who spins a series of adventures - of a Roman centurion, a Norman knight, a Renaissance artisan, and English villages of the past - for two Edwardian children, in Puck of Pook Hill, Powell's favorite book as a child. Set in Sussex, adjacent to Kent, Rudyard Kipling's 1906 novel initiates these children into taking their "place/ As men and women with our race" through the acquisition of knowledge about England as an eternal, unchanging land with psychically deep-rooted traditions. Initiation is precisely what Colpepper is about, too, and in Alison's case the pouring of glue on her hair is a kind of baptism.

Powell was not satisfied with the film. This is him writing in the second volume of his autobiography, Million-Dollar Movie: "Why is it that legend is more potent than reality at stirring the emotions? Why do the songs and tales of our fathers and mothers touch our imagination more than our own personal experience as children? When I agreed to make A Canterbury Tale I expected that it would be a far more personal film than it turned out to be. I was working, creating a story in the county I was born in, the 'garden of England', a chalky country of bare downs and shallow valleys, of chestnut woods and little chuckling streams, of slowly turning water and windmills, and white-capped oasthouses with the bittersweet smell of hops drying in the kiln. All this I knew from childhood, yet somehow I failed to get it on the screen."

He was right in this respect. The edenic Kent he remembered was thankfully for us - transfigured in A Canterbury Tale into a place less easily encapsulated into the bucolic calendar photograph he describes. The immediacy of making the movie in wartime and Powell's virtuosity as a metteur-en-scene cut through his nostalgia, enabling him to create something far more interesting. For all its pastoralism, A Canterbury Tale is a film on the edge of noir that never quite takes the plunge. Stylistically, it is a long flirtation with Expressionism: Alison silhouetted at the station as she stubs her cigarette out; Colpepper silhouetted by his projector's beam at the lecture; tightly lit closeups on the main characters' eyes; a deep-focus shot of the village idiot (Esmond Knight again) standing in mist at the end of a lane. Erwin Hillier's lambent cinematography is a virtual shadowplay.

And coursing through the film is a weird sexual energy. "I'm still a maid," Prudence Honeywood, Alison's fortyish employer, confesses to her within an hour or two of their meeting. Her sister tells Bob a ribald joke about the bed he just slept in at the inn. Colpeper's Freudian attacks on the girls may have a cultural rationale, but it is also the work of a troubled man; whether or not it's the girls he desires or their would-be soldier escorts is never made clean There is a homosexual implication in the fact that he lives with his mother, but his attraction to Alison is palpable. "Life is full of disappointments," he tells her in the Canterbury garage a moment before she learns her lover is alive. Straight or gay, pansexual or asexual, the glueman is the archetypally repressed Archers hero.

The same summer Colpepper was on the rampage, my father, a 14-year-old school leaver in 1943, was working as an apprentice wheelwright, making spokes from oak, ash, and elm for a blacksmith in the rural village of Yeoford in Devonshire. "Everything has its season," he said, echoing Jim Horton in A Canterbury Tale, when I told him about this article. Just such a boy as my father might have been at that time can be seen in the wheelwright sequence, along with the real Horton brothers, Benjamin and Neville, whom Powell had known since childhood. I allude to this not out of sentiment, but to confirm Powell's point that our parents' tales affect us far more than our own childhood experiences. And as with family yarns, so it is with the long-woven tapestry of national culture. If it errs on the side of Anglocentrism (understandable during wartime), A Canterbury Tale beautifully celebrates the notion that England's mythic past is just a jump-cut back in time.

* The meaning spoken of by Ian Christie was lost in the shorter version of the film that Powell reluctantly edited for U.S. release in 1949. It included a freshly shot framing device in which Bob, reunited with his girl (Kim Hunter) on top of a skyscraper in Manhattan's Rockefeller Plaza, tells her about his Chillingbourne adventure in flashback. The battle between the two gangs of boys was cut and the movie's rhythmic scheme destroyed. So was the continuity: Hunter is a redhead, but Bob mentions to Alison that his girl is a blonde. The original version was restored by the National Film Archive in 1971. - G.F.

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