A Canterbury Tale

A Canterbury Tale

US theatrical poster (1949)
Directed by Michael Powell
Emeric Pressburger
Produced by Michael Powell
Emeric Pressburger
Written by Michael Powell
Emeric Pressburger
Starring Eric Portman
Sheila Sim
Dennis Price
Sgt. John Sweet
Kim Hunter (US release)
Narrated by UK: Esmond Knight
US: Raymond Massey
Music by Allan Gray
Cinematography Erwin Hillier
Edited by John Seabourne Sr.
Distributed by General Film Distributors
Eagle-Lion Films
Release dates
21 August 1944 (UK)
21 January 1949 (US)
Running time
124 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language English

A Canterbury Tale is a 1944 British film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger starring Eric Portman, Sheila Sim, Dennis Price and Sgt. John Sweet; Esmond Knight provided narration and played several small roles. For the postwar American release, Raymond Massey narrated and Kim Hunter was added to the film. The film was made in black and white, and was the first of two collaborations between Powell and Pressburger and cinematographer Erwin Hillier.

A Canterbury Tale takes its title from The Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer, and loosely uses Chaucer's theme of "eccentric characters on a religious pilgrimage" to highlight the wartime experiences of the citizens of Kent, and encourage wartime Anglo-American friendship and understanding.


St George's Church tower, seen in the film after being gutted in the Baedeker raids (modern photograph)

The story concerns three young people: British Army Sergeant Peter Gibbs (Dennis Price), U.S. Army Sergeant Bob Johnson (played by real-life Sergeant John Sweet), and a "Land Girl", Miss Alison Smith (Sheila Sim). The group arrive at the railway station in the fictitious small Kent town of Chillingbourne (filmed in Chilham, Fordwich, Wickhambreaux and other villages in the area), near Canterbury, late on Friday night, 27 August 1943. Peter has been stationed at a nearby Army camp, Alison is due to start working on a farm in the area, and Bob left the train by mistake, hearing the announcement "next stop Canterbury" and thinking he was in Canterbury.

As they leave the station together Alison is attacked by an assailant in uniform who pours glue on her hair, before escaping. It transpires that this has happened quite a few times before, to other women. Alison asks Bob if he could spend the weekend in Chillingbourne to help her solve the mystery. The next day, while riding a farm cart in the countryside, Alison meets Peter, who surrounds her cart with his platoon of three Bren Gun Carriers. Alison agrees to meet Peter again. The three decide to investigate the attack, enlisting the help of the locals, including several young boys who play large-scale war games.

The three use their detective skills to identify the culprit as a local magistrate, Thomas Colpeper (Eric Portman), a gentleman farmer and pillar of the community, who also gives local history lectures to soldiers stationed in the district. Alison interviews all the glue man's victims to identify the dates and times of their attacks. Gibbs visits Colpeper at his home and borrows the fire watch roster listing the nights Colpeper was on duty in the town hall, whilst a paper drive for salvage by Johnson's boy commandos lets Johnson discover receipts for gum used to make glue sold to Colpeper. The dates of the attacks correspond with Colpeper's night watches where he wore a Home Guard uniform kept in the town hall to carry out his attacks.

On a train journey to Canterbury on the Monday morning, Colpeper joins them in their compartment. They confront him with their suspicions, which he doesn't deny, and they discover that his motive is to prevent the soldiers from being distracted away from his lectures by female company and to help keep the local women faithful to their absent British boyfriends. In Colpeper's words, Chaucer's pilgrims travelled to Canterbury to "receive a blessing, or to do penance". On arriving in the city of Canterbury, devastated by wartime bombing, all three young people receive blessings of their own. Alison discovers that her boyfriend, believed killed in the war, has survived after all; his father, who had blocked their marriage because he thought his son could do better than a shopgirl, finally relents. Bob receives long-delayed letters from his sweetheart, who is now a WAC in Australia. Peter, a cinema organist before the war, gets to play the music of Johann Sebastian Bach on the large organ at Canterbury Cathedral, before leaving with his unit. He decides not to report Colpeper to the Canterbury police, as he had planned to do.



The film has many shots of the Kent countryside, as well as extensive bombsites in Canterbury itself, so soon after the Baedeker raids of May/June 1942 which had destroyed large areas of the city centre. Many local people, including a lot of young boys, were recruited as extras for the extensive scenes of children's outdoor activities such as river "battles" and dens. The Cathedral itself was not available for filming as the stained glass had been taken down, the windows boarded up and the organ, an important location for the story, removed to storage, all for protection against air raids. By the use of clever perspective, large portions of the cathedral were recreated within the studio by art director Alfred Junge.[1]

The focal point for the ending of the film is Canterbury Cathedral as a parade of soldiers march through the city before stopping at the Cathedral. Many of the streets used in the film are still recognisable today. Soldiers parade down the High Street, Actress Sheila Sim walks down Rose Lane and G.I. Bob meets his friend for a drink in the Buttermarket. Chilham Mill features in the film in the scene where GI Bob meets children playing in the river on a boat and later, with Peter, when they get the proof about Colpeper. The village was used for scenes showing Chillingbourne village. In the scene where soldiers gather for a lecture at the Colpepper institute they are actually in Fordwich. Selling Station appears in the film as "Chillingbourne" Station at the beginning of the film. Bob and Alison ride on a cart through the village, the local Wickhambreaux Mill can be clearly seen. Colpeper's house was the still extant Wickhambreaux Court. A local Wingham village pub "The Red Lion" was used for some exterior shots of "The Hand of Glory" inn where Bob stays whilst in the village.[2] Other exterior shots of "The Hand of Glory" were filmed at "The George & Dragon", Fordwich.[3]

Style and themes

The film's visual style is a mixture of British realism and Hillier's German Expressionist style. But this is harnessed to a neo-romantic sense of the English landscape. This sense that 'the past always haunts the present' in the English landscape was a powerful theme that would be mined by countless British novelists and film-makers from the 1960s onwards.

Described as "morally weird but forever English", its characters, rare for mainstream cinema, play out their moral choices instead of merely verbalising them.

Anglo-American (mis)understandings

A major theme is Johnson's problems with, and gradual acceptance of, the differences and common ground of American and British 1940s life and heritage, along with the villager's acceptance of him. These include:

Anglo-American relations were also explored in Powell and Pressburger's previous film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and in more detail in their subsequent film A Matter of Life and Death.


The world premiere was held on 11 May 1944 at the Friars' Cinema (later the second site of the Marlowe Theatre, now demolished), Canterbury, England, an event commemorated there by a plaque unveiled by stars Sheila Sim and John Sweet in October 2000.[4] The film initially had very poor reviews in the UK press,[5] and only small audiences.

According to trade papers, the film was a success at the British box office in 1944.[6]

The film was the first production of Powell and Pressburger not to be a major box office success.[3] With the war over Powell was forced by the studio to completely re-edit the film for the U.S. release, cutting over 20 minutes to make the film shorter and faster moving, adding narration by Raymond Massey, and filming "bookends" which introduced Kim Hunter as Sergeant Johnson's girlfriend to make the film more contemporary. At the time of filming, Hunter and Massey were preparing to film A Matter of Life and Death for Powell. Powell filmed her sequences with Sweet on an English set simulating New York City where the couple, now married, presented the film as a flashback similar to the openings of The Way to the Stars and 12 O'Clock High. Sweet was actually filmed in New York with the sequences combined.[3] The film was fully restored by the British Film Institute in the late 1970s and the new print was hailed as a masterwork of British cinema. It has since been reissued on DVD in both the UK and USA.

Music featured

Besides that composed by Allan Gray for the film, musical works featured include:


Before the credits, the following plays over an image of the cathedral from the Christ Church Gate:

The Archers gratefully acknowledge the invaluable help and advice given to them by the Dean and Chapter of Canterbury, the Very Reverend the Dean of St Albans,[7] the Mayor and Corporation of Canterbury, the Women's Land Army, and by the United States Army. / They also thank the citizens of Canterbury and men and women of Kent who helped to make the film.

Major characters

Sgt. Bob Johnson

Gibbs, Johnson and Smith
The Seven Sisters Soldier is standing behind Peter & Bob and Sergt. 'Stuffy' (Graham Moffatt) is asleep
(John Sweet)

Sergeant Bob Johnson, ASN 31036062, hails from Three Sisters Falls, Oregon. On his way from Salisbury to Canterbury to meet his friend and fulfil a promise to his mother to see Canterbury Cathedral, he gets off the train at Chillingbourne (filmed at Selling railway station in Kent) by mistake and almost immediately gets caught up in the mystery of the "glue man". He has come to Britain as a part of the American Army preparing for the invasion of Europe. He becomes more and more willing to learn something about England during his visit.

The original script mentioned that Johnson was on his way to Canterbury as his ancestors had come from there.[3] The producers had originally planned to use Burgess Meredith in the role but changed their mind in favour of an unknown. Meredith acted as a script editor for Johnson's character.[3]

Sgt. Peter Gibbs

(Dennis Price)

Sergeant Peter Gibbs is a cinema organist from London. He has been conscripted into the British Army and has just been stationed at the military camp outside Chillingbourne, where his unit is engaged in training manoeuvres.

He disembarks from the train at Chillingbourne and, as he and Bob Johnson are escorting Alison Smith from the station to the town hall, he witnesses the attack by the "glue man". A cynical young Londoner, he initially has no time for any thoughts about Kentish history of the land or its people, but is "converted" by the end of the film, just as his unit leave the camp and are deployed to an unnamed location.

Alison Smith

(Sheila Sim)

Alison Smith is a shop assistant in a department store in London. She has joined the Women's Land Army to "do her bit" to help in the defence of her country. She has been assigned to the farm of Thomas Colpeper, the local JP in Chillingbourne. Alison had previously spent a happy summer just outside Chillingbourne, living in a caravan with her fiancé, an archaeologist who has since joined the RAF and is missing in action at the outset of the film. (He is reported at the end as alive and in Gibraltar.) Alison is determined to solve the mystery of the "glue man" and seeks the help of Bob Johnson to do so. Johnson replies "You need about as much help as a Flying Fortress"

Thomas Colpeper, JP

(Eric Portman)

Thomas Colpeper is a gentleman farmer and magistrate in Chillingbourne. He is a bachelor, living with his mother and, being very keen on the local history of the area, wants to share that knowledge with everyone around him, particularly with the soldiers from elsewhere in England who have been billeted nearby.

Narrator / Seven-Sisters Soldier / Village Idiot

(Esmond Knight)

The Narrator reads the modernised extract from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, followed by a piece in Chaucerian style on the changes to Kent since Chaucer's time (both only in the non-U.S. version).

The Seven-Sisters Soldier is the British sergeant at the lecture who gets into conversation with Bob and then joins Peter and Alison.

The Village Idiot supplies some information for Peter after the lecture, and is mocked for his speech impediment.

The Boys

(Leonard Smith, James Tamsitt and David Todd)

The film uses an adventure and river battle between a group of boys as part of the bucolic setting. The boys were all local to the Canterbury area. Three of them were selected for more important, speaking roles. Leonard Smith played "General" Leslie, James Tamsitt played "General" Terry and David Todd played "Commander" Todd, the boy crying in the boat after the river battle.

The boys also help with the hunt for the "Glue Man" by providing some local information and by carrying out a paper salvage collection which both distracts Colpeper so that Peter Gibbs may search a bit more thoroughly and reveals receipts that show that Colpeper had been purchasing glue from Ryman's in Canterbury. For their reward in obtaining evidence in the manner of Sherlock Holmes's Baker Street Irregulars, Johnson buys the boys a football, seen in the film's final scene in the end credits where they are no longer playing war games.

The Hortons

(George Merritt and Edward Rigby)

An important scene takes place in the yard of the local wheelwright and blacksmith. This serves to remind us of the importance of the horse and cart and the knowledge of the old ways of doing things that have served the British countryside for generations. The blacksmith, Ned Horton, was played by George Merritt. The wheelwright, Ned's brother, Jim Horton, was played by Edward Rigby. The real Horton brothers, Ben and Neville, are seen acting as assistants to the actors. Alison doesn't seem to be able to communicate properly with these country folk despite she and they both speaking British English (indeed, he initially tries to make fun of her for her lack of knowledge of obscure wheelwrighting terms). In contrast, although he's a foreigner, Bob can talk to them because he and Jim Horton both know about woodworking and felling and can speak as equals on that topic.


Margaret Mitchell, the author of Gone With the Wind, was killed by a speeding automobile whilst walking to a screening of this film in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1949.

There is now an annual festival based around the film, in which film fans tour the film's locations.[8]

Several video artists have recut the more visionary sections of the film as video art.[9]

The film was shown in the nave of Canterbury Cathedral on 19 September 2007 to help raise money for the cathedral restoration fund.[10]

The film was shown in Chilham village hall to help raise money for the restoration of the war memorial. It was shown on 11 May 2014, the 70th anniversary of the film's première in Canterbury. Chilham was one of the villages around Canterbury where the majority of the film takes place.


The theme of the film was used by Spike Milligan for the Goon Show The Phantom Head Shaver of Brighton in 1954.[11]




External links

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