The writing and directing duo Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger produced A Canterbury Tale in 1943. The movie was released in August, 1944. The stunning photography is by Erwin Hillier, who also worked with Powell and Pressburger on the Scottish romance I Know Where I’m Going! Two other frequent collaborators with them, Allan Gray and Alfred Junge, wrote the music and did the art direction. All three – Hillier, Gray, and Junge, were German émigrés who came to Britain. It was filmed in the big film studio at Denham as well as on location in Kent, the county where Canterbury lies. The featured players are Eric Portman as Thomas Colpeper, the local official and historian; Sheila Sim as Alison, the “land girl”; and Dennis Price and John Sweet as a pair of sergeants, one British and one American.
Part of the charm of this film for me is its sense of place. As someone who came back to a place he loved as a child, I love Michael Powell’s evocation of his home county – he was from Canterbury. When the American soldier from Oregon compares notes on curing wood with the local farmers in Kent, and discovers that they do the same things and know the same things, I’m happy. It is a film of World War II and one of its messages, counter to the sometimes tense reaction of the British public to the American armed forces occupying their country – “overpaid, overfed, oversexed, and over here” was a common saying of the time – is that Britons and Americans come from the same stem and are basically the same kind of people.
The film historian Peter van Bagh has written, in the notes attached to this DVD: “There are so many moments of wonderment in this film, many of them extremely simple, and just as many made golden by their deep humanity. How the wind waves the hair of the girl; night scenes where only mysterious sounds seem to exist; how the passage of a train into a tunnel produces a short moment of ecstasy; the first sight of Canterbury...Unbearably moving at times, it touches the heart as well as the soul.” The critic Michael Atkinson wrote in the Village Voice, “This ultra-lyrical film never seems at odds with itself, and the final 25 minutes, when the pilgrims' odysseys come to their conclusive salvations, feels like a benediction.” I think you’ll enjoy it, and I invite you to watch it with me tonight.