“A Canterbury Tale”*

*1944 British film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

Paul Banks writes, in Deconstructing the Imagined Village: A Canterbury Tale:

“…Pressburger undermines the element of suspense in the detective story early on: the leading characters in the film and the audience have strong circumstantial evidence about the attacker’s identity. Admittedly, this to some extent vitiates the power of the narrative impetus provided by the crime-solving strand, but it allows for a discursive detective narrative that can effortlessly accommodate an exploration of English mores, manners and landscape, and whose quiet progress is visually paralleled by the slender, meandering course of the river Stour seen wending its way through Kent towards Canterbury…

…The main, central portion of the film starts in the dark, at a railway station, as the American soldier, Bob gets off at the wrong stop: Chillingbourne, not Canterbury. There he meets Alison – a member of the land army  – and Peter a soldier just posted.

As the film progresses we find that all three

1. Have suffered loss

a) of a girl friend who not longer replies to his letters (Bob)

b) of a fiancé lost in action (Alison)

c) of artistic ambition (Peter)

2. Have been geographically and culturally displaced

a) from urban to rural life (Alison and Peter)

b) from America to England.

It is perhaps no surprise that the experience of being a stranger, and outsider, is explored in a number of Pressburger scripts, but never more powerfully than in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and A Canterbury Tale…”

Carl C. Curtis III, of Liberty University, writes, in Powell and Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale: New Pilgrims, Old Pilgrimage:

“…Meanwhile, Alison works her way through Canterbury toward her stated destination, to inspect the caravan that her fiancé bequeathed her. Many critics have remarked on the inspirational closing scene of the film in Canterbury Cathedral, and their assessment is by no means wrong. But for me the most deeply affecting moment of A Canterbury Tale is Alison’s walk through the wasteland of what was once a building-lined street, with the cathedral the one prominent, whole structure in sight. So transformed is the district that she must ask whether she is in the right place, “It is an awful mess,” a woman tells her. “I don’t blame you for not knowing where you are. But you get a very good view of the cathedral now.” And so do we. Alison moves down the street past one exposed basement after another, a picket fence separating the sidewalk from the drop. The background music is still Bach, but no longer the Toccata and Fugue; rather we hear something reminiscent of the opening chorale of Cantata 47 taken from Luke 14:11. “Wer sich selbst erhöhet, der soll erniedriget wenden” (“For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased, and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted”) (Bach)…

Alison finds her caravan in pitiful condition, its tires requisitioned, moths all over the few articles of clothing left inside. While she tearfully inspects what remains, Colpeper arrives. Everybody, he reminds her, has their disappointments in life, leaving us to guess at what his losses might have been. Then with a statement that in more ways than one strikes at the heart of the modern age, he concludes, “There’s something impermanent about a caravan. Everything on wheels must be on the move sooner or later.’ If that knowledge does not give Alison the blessing she needs, the news from the garage owner does. He informs her that her fiancé’s father is in Canterbury and trying to reach her with news. The man she spent thirteen perfect days with on the Pilgrims’ Way three years before is alive in Gibraltar.

I must say that if there is one truly false step in A Canterbury Tale, it is the resurrection of Alison’s fiancé…”

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