Thursday, June 1, 2017


"A pilgrimage can be either to receive a blessing or to do penance."

In the 15th century, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales, telling the stories of millers and knights and monks, and others on the road to the shrine at Canterbury. Humanity is revealed in all its glory and disgrace, its struggle and its silliness.

In 1944 Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger wrote, produced, and directed their own amusing and fantastical version with A Canterbury Tale. Humanity is revealed in all its glory and disgrace, its struggle and its silliness.

Our 20th century pilgrims.
John Sweet, Sheila Sim, Dennis Price, Eric Portman

The village of Chillingbourne is one ten minute train stop from Canterbury and a 50 mile walk. To Chillingbourne comes Alison Smith, assigned by the Land Army as a farmworker in the area. British Army Sgt. Peter Gibbs is joining his battalion stationed outside of the village. American Army Sgt. Bob Johnson is on furlough and has promised his mother he would see Canterbury Cathedral. Bob mistakenly took Chillingbourne for his stop. Perhaps he was meant to be here.

Everyone wants to help Alison out of her sticky situation.

Our trio is beset by a local phenomenon when poor Alison has glue poured on her hair. This has happened to many girls walking in the dark. The culprit has not been caught and these incidents are playing havoc with the social life of young ladies and nearby soldiers alike. Alison is determined to track her attacker down with the active support of both Peter and Bob.

Bob with his junior detectives.

The quirky glue phantom storyline occupies our intrepid trio and amuses the viewer. However, it is the interactions of the characters that keep us emotionally involved with A Canterbury Tale. The detecting endeavours bring our wayfarers into contact with locals and widens their experience. Bob, in particular, reaches out to the children of the village. They are a ragtag lot who play by their own rules and bow down to no adult law. They are more than willing to join in the adventure. The group's main suspect is Magistrate Colpepper, who runs a gentleman's farm and gives lectures on the land and its history. He is a man of a suspicious nature and deep convictions.

It is in unexpected ways that we learn to care for these characters. After all, it is war and war has shaped each in a different way. Also, in their own way each character is on a pilgrimage even if they believe themselves to be standing still. Alison is haunted by lost love. Peter's self-assurance covers up the chip on his shoulder due to a career decision. Bob is learning about the world outside his home and the suspected perfidy of others.

Blessings are received by this unlikely group of pilgrims when the journey to Canterbury is ended. It is a satisfying and charming ending to a gentle comedy fantasy.

Alison: "If ever a man looked right, he did."

Eric Portman plays Colpepper in this, his third film with the Archers following 49th Parallel and One of Our Aircraft is missing. You may also have seen the Shakespearean stage actor in The Bedford Incident and The Colditz Story.

Alison and her memories.

Sheila Sim plays Alison Smith. She was 22 years old at the time of the filming and the following year would marry Richard Attenborough. Their marriage lasted 69 years until his passing. Sheila's other films include The Magic Box and Pandora and the Flying Dutchman.

Sgt. Gibbs prepares to climb a mountain.

Dennis Price plays Sgt. Peter Gibbs. His most famous film role would be the murderous Louis in Kind Hearts and Coronets. His most famous television role would be the inestimable Jeeves in The World of Wooster (1965-1968).

Bob gains a love for this ancient land.

Sgt. John Sweet plays Sgt. Bob Johnson and is a delight. The non-professional was appearing in an Army tour of Our Town in the U.K. when the Archers tagged him for this role. It was his only film and, due to regulations that made him unable to keep his salary, he donated it to the NAACP. After the war, Mr. Sweet returned to his teaching career.

The bright side of the Blitz.
"It is an awful mess ... but you get a very good view of the cathedral now."

TCM is airing A Canterbury Tale on Wednesday, June 14th at 3:45 a.m. in a night devoted to the films of Powell and Pressburger. The leisurely told and warm-hearted film is well worth the investment of your time.

Note: The Archers did not have success with A Canterbury Tale upon its UK release. Prior to releasing the film in the U.S. extensive cuts of 20 minutes were made to the film. Stars of an upcoming production, Stairway to Heaven aka A Matter of Life and Death, Raymond Massey, and Kim Hunter filmed additional scenes. Massey narrates an amusing prologue aimed at the new market. Hunter plays Bob's wife, to whom he narrates his adventures in Chillingbourne. I would not be brave enough to see this film with 20 minutes cut, or even one. 


  1. I always loved P&P films but I remember being hesitant to watch this one because of the glue-man plot....however, I'm so glad I did because it is a lovely film. The ending is especially wonderful and we really do come to know and care about our modern-age pilgrimages as they make their way to Canterbury. Thanks for spotlighting this gem!

    1. Thank you for the kind comment. I really hope people who may have been hesitant about the film will give it a chance this month.

  2. I enjoy all the P&P films and this one is utterly charming. You have done justice to it with your delightful review! My only qualm is that I wish it were in color because The Archers' use of color was glorious in some of their other films.

    1. Oh my, wouldn't it have been lovely to have this in colour!

      Thank you for the compliment. It took me a while to get up the courage to write about A Canterbury Tale because I thought I wouldn't be able to express all I wanted and needed to say.

  3. I look forward to watching this tomorrow. Thanks for submitting to the Classic Movie Marathon Link Party.

    1. My pleasure. I wish TCM had scheduled this charmer in prime time, but we're very lucky that they have it on the evening's program.

  4. I haven't seen this one in decades, but I'm looking forward to rediscovering it thanks to your delightful review.

  5. I am so pleased you will be meeting up with these old friends courtesy of TCM.

    I think your description of A Canterbury Tale as "the gentle drama of British eccentricity" is charming.

  6. ACT is a wonderful English movie and there is a really nice tribute website at www A Canterbury TALE com.



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