Overt spirituality is often undermined in this film by bizarrely comic episodes from everyday life. Certainly the most bizarre plot element concerns the Glue Man – someone who attacks young women at night by slapping glue on their hair. The latest victim is a Land Girl up from London – in this respect apparently like several previous victims. Having been rushed through a shadowy opening sequence about this Glue Man, we, the audience, also now feel stuck with two newly billeted soldiers – one English, one American – and the gutsy new Land Girl, all of us keen to find out what the heck is going on.
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A tall young English soldier walks into the cathedral and, as if in awe, momentarily freezes. Not a lot is made of this. A bit of supporting musical soundtrack perhaps. The soldier will in fact end up belting out Bach on the cathedral organ. But with the acquiescence of the cathedral organist it’s all in a day’s leave from wartime duty. In high summer sunshine we’ve just seen the soldier/organist walk through recently tidied bomb sites lined with business-as-usual advertising boards.
With one exception, the incongruities here are very much intentional – the main intention being to play down any suggestion of religious high-mindedness. So successful is this gambit you’d be forgiven for not reading the above scene as particularly “climactic.” But it is, in fact, a late scene in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale, which builds on the sense of timeless ages by frequent references to the Pilgrim’s Way, a famous ridgeway path close to the small village where most of the action is set.
In fact, overt spirituality is often undermined in this film by bizarrely comic episodes from everyday life. Certainly the most bizarre plot element concerns the Glue Man – someone who attacks young women at night by slapping glue on their hair. The latest victim is a Land Girl up from London – in this respect apparently like several previous victims. Having been rushed through a shadowy opening sequence about this Glue Man, we, the audience, also now feel stuck with two newly billeted soldiers – one English, one American – and the gutsy new Land Girl, all of us keen to find out what the heck is going on.
I’ll come back to that unintended surprise, but staying with the film’s incongruities we are treated – and it is a treat – to something much more intriguing than a run-of-the-mill propaganda movie. Indeed, Powell and Pressburger have been so true to their ideal of presenting a deeper human reality you might completely forget that this was made and set in wartime.
Also a huge and unexpected delight is the sort of technical jazziness which looks as “British” as Orson Welles in his prime. A low internal house beam cuts the screen in two, strangely barring clear shots of a main character. (Can this village squire actually be the Glue Man?) Cameras suddenly offer jerky montages from inside fast-moving vehicles. A boy hovers supernaturally outside a first-floor window. He’s chatting casually with a young Oregonian woodsman/conscript presently engaged with shaving and dressing and incidentally helping win a European war. (A European peace, too?) Then we see the boy has been standing all the time on top of a hay cart.
The latter scene could strike fans of Powell and Pressburger as a more than usually literal allusion to their characteristic view of Nature-as-Moral-Uplifter. But for those who don’t believe that “good British filmmaking” is a contradiction in terms, they might just happen to be reminded of Albert Finney’s character, Arthur Seaton, in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), especially of his great yearning for something beyond the daily grind: “You’ve got to enjoy life, haven’t you?”
In fact, I’m not sure a feeling for Nature or struggles for spiritual fulfilment are peculiarly British in any way. Yet Arthur’s quest does echo what’s going on in A Canterbury Tale. And again, it’s hidden in plain view – in this case by director Karel Reisz and screenwriter Alan Sillitoe, author of the kitchen sink classic. Recall, for example, Arthur and his girlfriend on an open hillside overlooking a housing estate. In a wordless final shot the reluctant couple head back down to a glaringly bright, profoundly unloved urban desert. And so, resonating with our own anxious era more powerfully than ever, A Canterbury Tale and Saturday Night . . . both silently evoke a dense array of feelings about an imminently threatened natural world and, of course, our own threatened future within it.
Back finally to that unintended incongruity in the cathedral scene. The English soldier who comes to a brief standstill as he takes in his ecclesiastical surroundings is the young Dennis Price, not an actor known for spirituality or even – unlike Albert Finney – for refreshing Chaucerian earthiness. Playing Louis D’Ascoyne in Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) Price is best known as the serial killer and “unfairly” excluded heir to the D’Ascoyne family fortune. Of dubious moral purpose but always beautifully mannered in the most English of middle-class ways, Louis is absolutely nailed in a performance Price was born to give. In A Canterbury Tale, this potentially disturbing and entirely unwanted association we are simply forced to overlook because, whatever the casting decisions in the film, they were clearly not influenced by that later portrait of ultra-suave, exclusively self-serving roguery.
But as an established comic actor, maybe Price was already emitting strange rays from his elemental gift for dark comedy – a sort of invisibly dangerous threat well understood by Chaucer and his famous literary model: not so much Boccaccio but that other great Italian and European, Dante Alighieri.
In this context, it’s interesting to note that one of Dante’s best translators into English is Dorothy L. Sayers – no mean hand herself at darkly entertaining stories of human evil. But if we conclude somewhere near where we started, it’s even more relevant, I think, that Chaucer – for all his celebrated comic flair and homespun style – was, like so many male and female writers in the late Middle Ages, deeply versed in moral philosophy. He was, for example, one of the best known and influential translators of Boethius, whose Consolations of Philosophy reads more than ever, to some of us anyway, like a tellingly fresh study of cognitive behaviour therapy. Boethius himself, just to remind ourselves, spent years under sentence of death. In such circumstances the often underexamined link between deep spiritual practice and the mundane, often comic vagaries of daily life remains possibly our best guide in our search for mental and spiritual wholeness. It’s a zone we do best not to overanalyze perhaps; but at the same time it’s something we can’t afford to ignore.
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Unless otherwise indicated, all images are screenshots from the film’s trailers or DVD.