In a place with a name like “Chillingbourne,” perhaps it’s inevitable that something strange and unsettling should happen, particularly on a dark night made all the darker by the enforcement of a blackout. Even so, when Alison Smith (Sheila Sim), a member of the Women’s Land Army, arrives in the Kent village, having a mysterious uniformed man pour glue in her hair and then run off is probably the last thing she expects — yet that’s exactly what happens at the start of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1944 film A Canterbury Tale.
Alison’s bizarre encounter occurs while she’s in the company of two sergeants whom she’s just met: Peter Gibbs (Dennis Price), a fellow Brit stationed in the area, and Bob Johnson (real-life sergeant John Sweet), an American planning to visit nearby Canterbury while on leave, strangers to each other as well as to Alison. Although the trio makes a valiant attempt to chase down the assailant, he manages to escape, his face unseen by any of them. A curious business, indeed — and it becomes curiouser and curiouser when they report the crime to the police and learn that this is hardly the first such attack to take place in Chillingbourne in recent months. “She’s the eleventh incident,” a police sergeant (Anthony Holles) informs them matter-of-factly.
After a collective effort has been made to wash the viscous substance out of her hair (“Soap’s no good. Hot water’s the only thing,” says the police sergeant, speaking from experience), Alison presents herself to local magistrate Thomas Colpeper (Eric Portman). “I’ve been sent by the War Agricultural Committee,” she announces, handing him a document as proof. “I want a farm laborer,” he replies, and though she assures him that she can handle the work, he rejects her outright on the basis of her sex. “Miss Smith, there’s a camp near this village full of soldiers,” he says by way of explanation. She insists that she’s not interested in soldiers, to which Colpeper responds, “Perhaps they’re interested in you.” All of her protestations do no good, and she’s forced to give up on the job. Before she leaves, however, something catches her attention: Colpeper has Home Guard uniforms in his closet. This, along with his attitude toward women and the fact that the so-called “glue man” appeared to enter the town hall, where Colpeper works, raises her suspicions that the magistrate may be the culprit behind the attacks. She decides to investigate, and she enlists Bob and Peter as fellow detectives, roles that they quickly embrace.
Aptly, this literally sticky mystery binds these three strangers together. There’s a certain element of chance involved: Bob, for instance, is only in Chillingbourne because he leapt off his train to Canterbury a stop too soon, while the other two have been sent there as part of their wartime duties. In fact, because of the military camp in the vicinity of the village, the war has brought a great number of people from all walks of life to Chillingbourne, as Colpeper points out to an assembled audience of soldiers during a lecture on local history: “I don’t know what you are in civil life. You might be cook, clerk, a doctor, lawyer, merchant. Let me remind you that as much as six hundred years ago doctors and lawyers, clerks and merchants were passing through here on the old road which we call the Pilgrims’ Way.” These modern visitors aren’t along this road for religious reasons — they’re not even there by choice — yet like the pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, they all have their own perspectives and stories to tell.
The residents of Chillingbourne have their own perspectives and stories too, and as Alison, Bob and Peter conduct their investigation into the glue man case, they interact with quite a number of them. Despite the village’s ominous name and the inauspicious welcome that Alison receives from the glue man, it turns out to be a charming, rustic locale, full of essentially friendly people, even if some of them are a bit standoffish toward outsiders at first. In keeping with this rather quaint atmosphere, the investigation never becomes overwhelmingly tense or perilous. The three amateur detectives, along with other people who get pulled into their orbit, are determined to solve the mystery — Peter, in particular, seems dead set on bringing the offender to justice — but there’s a sense throughout that, if this isn’t exactly a game to them, it does have its fun side. It becomes a kind of reprieve in the midst of war and various personal problems, sorrows and disappointments. (War itself is a game to the boys of the village, who stage an elaborate mock-battle with childish gravity. The real soldiers tend to be much more jocular, whether it’s because they’re out of danger at the moment or as a coping mechanism.) Alison even downplays the crime when discussing it the day after it happens. “It wasn’t frightening. Just unpleasant and annoying,” she says.
While busy with their detective work, the three main characters also get the opportunity to broaden their own outlooks. Bob, the lone American, finds himself constantly running into intercultural differences, from variations in terminology to the procedure for using a pay phone, not to mention the ubiquity of tea in England. (“It’s a habit, like marijuana,” his friend and compatriot Mickey Roczinsky [Harvey Golden] insists when they eventually meet up.) Even so, he not only manages make a connection with a local man (Edward Rigby) when they strike up a conversation about timber (Bob’s own family being in the lumber business in Oregon) but also finds peace and contentment for the first time since shipping out, a relief from homesickness and his worries about the fact that he hasn’t received a letter from his girlfriend in seven weeks. Londoner Peter, meanwhile, admits that he’d “hardly realized there was a countryside before the war,” so being stationed there is something of a revelation. “Funny, that, how the war can open your eyes to a lot of things,” Bob remarks to him.
Alison’s relationship with the area is even more personal: three years earlier, she spent “thirteen perfect days there in a caravan” with her then-fiance Geoffrey (like Chaucer?), a geologist interested in the region’s history. Because his class-conscious father was opposed to the match — Alison, who worked in a department store before the war, wasn’t considered good enough for his son — their marriage never took place, and Geoffrey was subsequently killed in battle. (Colpeper points out that, with the war going on, class distinctions no longer mean much, but Alison replies that it’s too late for her.) “If there’s such a thing as a soul, he must be here somewhere,” she says, noting how he loved the hill from which Canterbury Cathedral first came into view for the medieval pilgrims. She feels connected to him in that spot, naturally enough, but another, much stranger connection occurs while she’s up there: she seems to hear sounds out of the Middle Ages, the hoofbeats and voices and lute of a group of pilgrims.
Maybe it’s simply her imagination; she’s heard Colpeper, during his lecture, speak of experiencing similar sensations, and the whole village is like a step back in time, possibly putting her in a receptive frame of mind. Still, it’s clear that the past and present coexist here in a special way. The film’s prologue, set in Chaucer’s day, illustrates this by showing a pilgrim watching a bird soar through the sky; the bird then becomes a war plane and the pilgrim a World War II soldier, with both men played by the same actor, James Sadler. Noteworthy, too, is the indefinite article in the title, suggesting that this is merely one tale among many. There’s also a striking scene near the end in which Alison, who’s gone to Canterbury to see the caravan (her inheritance from Geoffrey), walks down a bombed out street, radically changed since she was there in 1940. Building after building is gone, reduced to a few bricks and a hole in the ground. It’s a harrowing picture, yet with a note of resilience, of continuity: on each business’s site, there’s a sign directing passersby to the demolished shop’s new location. A woman (Kathleen Lucas) whom she asks for directions offers a similarly mixed outlook. “It is an awful mess,” she says. “I don’t blame you for not knowing where you are, but you get a very good view of the cathedral now” — Bob’s words about war opening your eyes to a lot of things made concrete, a literal new perspective.
As it did for the pilgrims six hundred years earlier, the characters’ journey leads them to Canterbury and, at last, its cathedral, for one reason or another. “A pilgrimage can be either to receive a blessing or to do penance,” explains Colpeper, a sort of partly secular, partly religious missionary for the area and its history. Alison, Bob and Peter are skeptical to varying degrees (“I don’t need either,” Peter replies curtly), but just as the past and present live commingled here, so too do the mundane and the mystical, even the miraculous — even for inadvertent pilgrims who don’t realize they’re looking for anything.
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