A Canterbury Tale (1949)




Critic Consensus: No consensus yet.

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Set not in the 14th century milieu of Geoffrey Chaucer but in wartime Britain, A Canterbury Tale begins with rural justice of the peace Eric Portman adopting a "lock up your daughters" policy when the American soldiers are stationed nearby. To escape the arbitrary edicts of Portman, British tank sergeant Dennis Price, American GI John Sweet and shopkeeper Sheila Sim head down the road to Canterbury. Each of the principals finds their lives changed by the journey. In particular, Sweet (a real-life American sergeant, rather than the usual stereotyped "yank" common to British war films) encounters genuine romance. A product of the always adventuresome "Archers" (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger), A Canterbury Tale contains some extremely creative cinematic moments, though it is the quieter scenes which work best. Esmond Knight narrates the film and shows up in a couple of amusing cameos. A ubiquitous presence on American TV, Canterbury Tale is available in two versions; the American release version, cut from 124 to 95 minutes and including several arbitrary scenes with Kim Hunter, is the lesser of the two. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi
Classics , Comedy , Drama
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Eric Portman
as Thomas Colpepper J.P.
Sheila Sim
as Alison Smith
Dennis Price
as Sgt. Peter Gibbs
Esmond Knight
as Narrator/ Seven-Sisters Soldier/ Village Idiot
Sgt. John Sweet
as Bob Johnson
Charles Hawtrey
as Thomas Duckett
Freda Jackson
as Prudence Honeywood
Hay Petrie
as Woodcock
George Merritt
as Ned Horton
Edward Rigby
as Jim Horton
Betty Jardine
as Fee Baker
Eliot Makeham
as Organist
Harvey Golden
as Sgt. Roczinsky
Beresford Egan
as P.C. Ovenden
Charles Paton
as Ernie Brooks
Jane Millican
as Susanna Foster
John Slater
as Sergeant Len
Michael Golden
as Sergeant Smale
Graham Moffatt
as Sergeant Stuffy
Esma Cannon
as Agnes
Judith Furse
as Dorothy Bird
Barbara Waring
as Polly Finn
Jeanne Shepherd
as Gladys Swinton
Joss Ambler
as Police Inspector
H.F. Maltby
as Mr. Portal
Eric Maturin
as Geoffrey's Father
Kim Hunter
as Johnson's Girl
Anthony Holles
as Sergeant Bassett
Margaret Scudamore
as Mrs. Colpeper
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Critic Reviews for A Canterbury Tale

All Critics (13) | Top Critics (4)

Is this the strangest film produced by (and about) an Allied nation during WWII?

Full Review… | March 3, 2015
Village Voice
Top Critic

Sincerity and simplicity shine through every foot of this oversized modern version of the Chaucer epic tale. Here is rare beauty.

Full Review… | March 25, 2009
Top Critic

Though infuriatingly difficult to categorise, the film is bold, inventive, stimulating and extremely entertaining.

Full Review… | June 23, 2006
Time Out
Top Critic

Very nearly plotless, this 1944 film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger represents one of the few times the narrative cinema has approached the lyrical ideal.

Full Review… | December 31, 1999
Chicago Reader
Top Critic

It's a wonderful film; bizarre, and pulsing with a weird sexual undertow, it abounds with mysticism, beautiful images and a plot that's as compelling as it is daffy.

Full Review… | March 3, 2015

Curious allegorical epic which was supposed to speak to Allied spirits during the second world war but was a trifle obscure in its symbolism even then.

Full Review… | March 3, 2015
Empire Magazine

Audience Reviews for A Canterbury Tale


The early works of Powell and Pressburger are tainted by their links with the Ministry of Information. Regardless of their merits at the time, 49th Parallel and One of Our Aircraft Is Missing are little more than well-made propaganda, designed to pull the Americans into the war. It was only as the tide turned and the need for such propaganda abated that the duo began to embark upon their truly great works. A Canterbury Tale is a 'hangover point' in the duo's history: it contains remnants of their propaganda era in both its characters and its intentions, but it also represents something of a departure. There is a great deal more affection at work, both in Pressburger's screenplay which celebrates all that is English and Powell's direction which has moments of pure inspiration. While not their best work by quite some distance, there is much about A Canterbury Tale that is both enjoyable and admirable. Like most of Powell and Pressburger's work, A Canterbury Tale takes place in a universe where fantasy and reality are constantly intertwined. Its mise-en-scene, to use a pretentious term, is an interesting blend of English realism in the manner of David Lean and the German expressionism of Metropolis and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. There are no dazzling transitions from one to the other like in The Red Shoes, but the film will often catch you unawares as it dips in and out of its expressionist elements. These are most noticeable in the scenes around Chillingbourne station, with their prominent shadows and exaggerated characters like the village idiot (more on him later). But centrally, A Canterbury Tale is a film about the various links between past and present, and how it is important, if not vital, that these links should be maintained. There is a recurring line of "before the war came", as if our characters somehow feel that everything that went before is irrelevant. Ms. Smith certainly has no desire to return to the London shop from where she started. But as the film wears on we begin to recognise the value of the past, both in the internal development of the characters and in the external actions surrounding the Glue Man's crimes. The film retells Chaucer's classic tale fairly loosely, with our travellers to Canterbury as modern pilgrims and Mr. Colpeper as the village squire, whose influence extends far beyond his official office. Much is made of the village's heritage and its place in history, being situated on the 'pilgrim's road' which goes straight to Canterbury Cathedral. There is a brilliant shot at the beginning where a mediaeval traveller releases a hawk into the air: it flattens its wings, before we cut to a shot of an aeroplane swooping down, and the traveller is replaced with a soldier. This is a magical moment, showing how the world has changed while situating this change in a landscape which still familiar. It is also a clear influence on the animations in Pink Floyd - The Wall, in which a dove is torn open to eventually form a bomber. The mystery elements of A Canterbury Tale sit very oddly. It's the kind of story that Alfred Hitchcock would have loathed, partly because of his distaste for whodunits, but because there is little or no means to cultivate suspense. And even as whodunits go, the Glue Man's is story incredibly straightforward. We don't even need a scene at the beginning revealing who he is, because we eliminate the other characters so quickly. As an abstract thriller, then, A Canterbury Tale doesn't work. But the film manages to get away with it because of where it situates this story. The most interesting thing about the Glue Man is not his identity, or his choice of weapon (if glue can be called a weapon). It is instead the motive, his reasoning behind his actions which he explains to our heroes on the train. Colpeper is a character with a passion for the past, a passion so forthcoming that it mutates into a desperate desire to pass it on by any means possible. He explains that the reason he only attacked women was to stop them going out with soldiers - soldiers who could just as easily attend his lectures, and who upon leaving the town could pass the knowledge on. Colpeper despises frivolity, and when he is not lecturing he is either reading or working in his garden. Eric Portman plays his scenes very well, retaining an air of graceful tranquillity even when it seems he is done for. Regardless of whether such action was morally justified, one can't deny that elements of Colpeper's crusade rub off, both on the characters and on the audience. Sergeant Johnson, played by real-life Sergeant John Sweet, begins the film deriding English customs; there are running jokes about his stripes "being the wrong way up" and the locals mistaking his quarters for shillings. But after venting his fury to the phone operator, he slowly begins to realise his place in Canterbury's heritage. Likewise, Ms. Smith eventually finds herself standing on the same hill as the pilgrims, and in a moment of magical realism, she can almost hear them right beside her. From a narrative point of view, however, A Canterbury Tale has its problems. After the scene in the railway carriage where Colpeper confesses, the film literally runs out of steam. At that point whatever mystery there was has been solved, and yet we still have to endure half an hour of sorting out all the loose ends. The Canterbury Tales in its original form was famously unfinished - maybe that was a sly joke on Chaucer's part, who knew deep down that things should not end on a whimper. All the scenes surrounding the pilgrims in Canterbury make sense in terms of their individual arcs - Smith hears from her old friend, Johnson gets his girlfriend's letters, and Gibbs finally gets to play a proper organ. But their execution is desperately contrived, so much so that it almost sours the whole film. Then there is the more general problem of quaintness. So many films which are tarred with this label are defended as a celebration of Englishness. But while A Canterbury Tale does celebrate England and all her victories (a hangover from the propaganda days), it does come across as irritatingly picture-postcard at points. The entirely fictional village of Chillingbourne is a caricature of the English idyll, complete with hay carts and helpful landlords. A little bit of quaintness goes an awfully long way, and it is hard to go the distance without either laughing or shaking one's head in dismay. For all their brilliance, Powell and Pressburger's record with comedy is not first-rate. Some of their films have great comic moments, like the scene in The Red Shoes where the choreographer produces an enormous champagne bottle and struggles to pour it out. But here such moments are more of a lurch from one extreme to another. The scenes with the camp village idiot, who can only say "That's right!", are funny in themselves but don't sit well with the surroundings. And that's not to mention the clunky romantic lines, like Johnson asking Ms. Smith what colour her hair is (it's black-and-white: we don't really care). A Canterbury Tale is a partial success for Powell and Pressburger. It's hampered by its narrative shortcomings and its occasionally overbearing attitude towards the inherent oddness of England. But it redeems itself in the end through a number of beautiful scenes, coupled with fine performances (watch out for Charles Hawtrey as the tetchy station master). In the end it's a minor work, an improvement on their earlier wartime output and a good indicator of the brilliance to come.

Daniel Mumby
Daniel Mumby

Super Reviewer

I'm just not British enough to really enjoy this.

Ken Stachnik
Ken Stachnik

Super Reviewer

A film about what it means to be British, scripted by a Hungarian. Hmmm, they got the date wrong on this, and it sure as hell wouldn't be classified NC-17! It was actually released in 1944, sandwiched between The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and I Know Where I'm Going. It's not one of The Archers' great masterpieces but it's still a quirky and wonderful little movie.

Stephen M
Stephen M

Super Reviewer

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