Next up for review from my 2016 10 Classics list: A CANTERBURY TALE (1944), written and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
I was an hour into watching A CANTERBURY TALE, which runs two hours and four minutes, and was asked what it was about. And I had no idea what to say! I still don't, really...but I was absorbed for the entire length of the film.
I suppose you could start by saying it's about three people -- a British soldier (Dennis Price), a Yank soldier (John Sweet), and a girl (Sheila Sim) on her way to work on a farm -- who meet at a train station. They spend time together in a little town in Kent, eventually traveling to Canterbury, where each receives a blessing. The end.
That really is the plot, unless you add in the creepy storyline about a weird chap named Colpepper (Eric Portman) who's desperate for people to come to his lectures on the area. But he's not really all that important, nor is the mystery of the village "Glue Man" who puts glue in the hair of young women who are out with soldiers in the evening. (Say what?!)
What's important is simply the quiet, hypnotic recording of the interactions of decent people. A soldier gets to know a villager, bonding over their love of wood, and receives an invitation to lunch. The soldier treats the little children with respect and sweetness. A young girl stands on a hill and looks toward Canterbury Cathedral and is momentarily transported back in time. A cinema organist has the chance to play on the great cathedral's organ.
It's about everything and nothing...moments in life, and the continuity over centuries. (In one of the most striking images, a bird from the movie's introduction, set during the time of Chaucer's story, turns into an airplane, signifying the jump forward in time.) Given that the film was released in the UK while the war still raged, I imagine it underscored what was being fought for.
I particularly enjoyed a little scene where a soldier who's developed a love of tea points out that it's the tea-drinking countries which will win the war!
Anyone who loves England, as I do, will likely enjoy this film. I stumbled across an article in which the author names A CANTERBURY TALE as his favorite film, saying it "may be the most loving and tender film about England ever made. It's a picture that's steeped in nature, in thrall to myth and history; a re-affirmation of the English character, customs and countryside..." That seems about right.
Side note: I studied Chaucer's A CANTERBURY TALE in high school and still have a copy of it. But I don't believe any of my children have read Chaucer -- they were too young for it during our homeschool years -- and I suspect that's common these days in the U.S. Strange to think they wouldn't have a frame of reference for a basic theme of the movie.
John Sweet, who plays the American soldier, was an actual U.S. soldier, and this was his only film. He's natural and likeable, and the same can be said of Price and Sim. (The less said of Portman's character the better. Maybe I'll "get it" more on a future viewing.) Sergeant Sweet passed away in 2011, age 95.
A CANTERBURY TALE was filmed in black and white by Erwin Hillier.
A CANTERBURY TALE is available in a two-disc special edition from the Criterion Collection. There are extensive extras I haven't dipped into yet, including an interview with Sheila Sim, a documentary about John Sweet, and excerpts from the 1949 U.S. release, in which Kim Hunter plays Sweet's girlfriend.
I'm still trying to figure the movie out, and probably will be for a while, but a film which keeps the viewer engrossed while watching and then thinking afterwards is doing its job. Recommended.