Tuesday 16 June 2009

A Canterbury Tale (1944)

Directors: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
Stars: Eric Portman, Sheila Sim, Dennis Price and Sgt John Sweet, US Army

Beginning with a reading from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and a jolly set of mediaeval pilgrims, this doesn't stay in the middle ages long. In a scene reminiscent of the bone into orbiting missile platform shot in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but a quarter of a century earlier, a pilgrim lets loose a hawk into the air which turns round and becomes a fighter plane. No it's not as slick as Kubrick, but it seems very likely to be the direct influence for his unforgettable metaphor. The plane means that we're in the Second World War and so now it's generally tanks heading down the Pilgrim's Way to Canterbury rather than pilgrims, but we do have one character who's going there for personal reasons.

He's an American sergeant, surprisingly played by a real American sergeant called Sgt John Sweet, though he was really from Minnesota not Oregon. As Sgt Bob Johnson, he's stationed in Salisbury but wants to visit Canterbury before going home because of its history. Unfortunately he gets off the last train a stop early so is temporarily stranded in a small Kent town called Chillingbourne until morning. On his way to the town hall with a couple of others to spend the night, one of them is attacked by a local lunatic known as the Glue Man whose modus operandi is to run up to young girls and throw glue into their hair before running away again.

The victim this time, the eleventh such, is Alison Smith, a land girl played by Sheila Sim. Land girls were members of the Women's Land Army, women who worked in agriculture to replace men who had been called up to the forces; and this one had left her job as a salesgirl in a London department store to work on the land in a town she knew from former holidays. The third in our core trio is Peter Gibbs, a British soldier returning from leave, who is played by no less a name than Dennis Price though his name wasn't worth much in 1944. This was his first credit and his first real role after a slot as an extra in a film six years earlier.

These three were all together when young Alison is attacked and they take it upon themselves to track down the culprit. But, and here's a major but, the quest to expose the Glue Man is really a MacGuffin. Or is it? This is a deceptively light and meandering film, which seems to dance around that apparent central plot strand, but it's really full of hidden depth. But to really understand what that hidden depth is and why it's so important, we need to look at the context.

This film was released in 1944, which in England was towards the end of the Second World War. The English people had been fighting this war for five years and were both thoroughly used to and thoroughly fed up with it. What this film represents is that strangest of entities, a war film that doesn't appear to have a war in it. There are no battles, no fighting, none of the things we normally expect to see in a war. But the war is all around in the things we don't usually think of looking for: the bombed out buildings in Canterbury, the rations, the blackouts, the tyres having been requisitioned from Alison's inherited caravan, the fact that all the victims of the Glue Man are women working in men's jobs because the men had gone to war.

And yet while this is all going on, life is going on around and in between the war. The organist is still playing music at Canterbury Cathedral, even though the services are often being held for departing soldiers, and kids are still being forced to turn up to church. The wheelwrights are still fixing cartwheels, three generations into the same family, and the stables still need to be mucked out. The inns are still putting up guests, even though they may be visiting servicemen. The Americans are still trying to work out why the British drink tea. And of course pilgrims were still finding their way to Canterbury.

Here's another point of context to take note of. The Americans were a mixed blessing in England. We English may not say it too often, but they made a real difference in Europe and we were certainly blessed to have them turn up, however late they made it. But at the time and to many people, they were more like a curse; as the epithet went, they were 'over sexed, overpaid and over here.' Many an Englishman, fighting abroad, came home to find his girl whisked off over the pond by a GI stationed in Britain. Yet here Sgt Johnson is a courteous, respectful and thoroughly decent chap, while still remaining demonstrably American.

This is a feel good movie all round and it's nigh on impossible not to be swelled up by it. It's a light hearted couple of hours, but it feels very much like it means something. Even now, 65 years later, it's a heartwarmer, with happy endings for all of the core trio of characters that don't feel trite or forced, however much they would be so in lesser hands. But at the time, this must have felt like a godsend to a country that was tired of war but couldn't escape from it. Here's a gentle reminder that whatever war was doing, life was going on too and the war could never stop that.

And there are lessons here beyond that. Slow down and look around you, whatever your circumstances, even in wartime. Women are as capable as men, because they can do precisely the same jobs when the men aren't around. Americans may be Americans but in many ways they're just like us. Keep your faith where you feel you need to keep it and keep hope your friend. Even kids can be useful if you just treat them right. Writing it down here, it sounds crazy to even attempt all this in a single movie without it turning into saccharine Disney nonsense, but Powell and Pressburger don't just make it all work, they do it apparently without even trying. Magic stuff.

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