DVD Review: A Canterbury Tale/The Prisoner
By Glenn Abel
The English mainstream loves its eccentrics, but purveyors of the strange had better watch their step.
British director Michael Powell saw his distinguished career shredded in 1960 with the release of the psycho-voyeur study "Peeping Tom." Reviled in its day, "Tom" found respectability of a sort in the decades since.
The director flirted with a similar fate 16 years earlier with the far-gentler but certifiably weird "A Canterbury Tale," one of several World War II-era efforts from Powell and his screenwriting partner Emeric Pressburger (aka "the Archers"). Just released in the States by the Criterion Collection, the stealth propaganda film is long overdue for consideration by U.S. film fanciers, most of whom have never heard of it.
"Canterbury" remains "a truly strange film," says film historian Ian Christie, who provides outstanding commentary on the double-DVD set (retail $39.95). The movie "sets about its propaganda in an almost perverse and certainly playful way."
"Canterbury" contains no Churchill speeches, no demon Nazis, no fiery images of the blitz. Instead, its strategy seemed to be to unfurl a vision of a rural Britain so stirring that the citizenry could only get swept up in the war effort -- as their soldier boys do in the heart-swelling finale, marching off to the sound of a celestial "Onward Christian Soldiers."
Critics and audiences of 1944 weren't saluting. So poorly received was "Canterbury" that Powell quickly came to doubt one of his finest works, cutting out a half hour and adding dumb bookend scenes so American moviegoers could relate to it (they didn't). Powell said it took years for him to appreciate "Canterbury" as one of his best.
"Mickey (Powell) was very saddened by the reviews," says Sheila Sim, who played the heroine. "Who wouldn't be."
"Canterbury" finally was restored to its original running time of 124 minutes in the late '70s; today, the movie is a regular on the British film fest circuit with its many Archers tributes. The "Canterbury" video footprint in the States barely exists -- an old VHS release on Home Vision, but apparently no Region 1 DVD.
The film begins with Chaucer's jolly 14th century pilgrims making their way to Canterbury in search of blessings. Time does a jig as a falcon in flight morphs into a Spitfire warplane (a transition that almost surely pleased young Stanley Kubrick).
The film's trio of World War II pilgrims -- two soldiers, American and British, and a Women's Land Army girl -- meet in the middle of the night at a train station outside Canterbury. They're introduced in film noir-style lighting, a scheme that comes and goes throughout the film.
The twilight zone creeps in as the young travelers encounter a boogeyman who dumps glue on the hair of Kent's young women. Motive? To make them afraid of dating soldiers, especially the Americans.
The Glue Man's low-rent B-story turns sublime, in time. "I don't think the critics could fathom what it was about," says Sim, who goes by Lady (Richard) Attenborough these days. (The boogeyman started out as a dress slasher, but the sexual overtones were a bit much even for Powell.)
Outside of sporadically trying to unmask the Glue Man, our pilgrims don't do much, really; most of the film concerns the countryside, hardworking villagers, the old ways living on, animals and insects, modest hopes and personal sorrows. Think Terrence Malick: "Canterbury" viewers must come equipped with patience.
The final scenes follow the soldiers, the girl and the elegant glue suspect (Eric Portman) to Canterbury, which was heavily damaged in the bombing but still is possessed of its towering cathedral, home of miracles.
Few propaganda films outlive their conflicts. What makes this one a robust time traveler, Sim speculates today, is "the connection with history and the people who've gone before." And, of course, "the countryside."
Amateur actor Sgt. John Sweet gives the film much of its sense of wonder, playing the simple but wise American. (One of the film's missions was to humanize G.I.s for local audiences.) Six decades later, the amateur actor returned to Canterbury for its Powell film fest. His visit is captured in a 2001 short film that is included as a DVD extra. He marvels at the town's transformation from a "quiet kind of bleak place" to a humming tourist attraction. "It was fun to be a 15-minute celebrity," the old man says of his brush with movie fame.
Sweet and Sim regard Powell as a good but difficult man. "He ruled by fear," Sweet recalls. Like "a steel spring coiled."
Sim says Powell "could be very tough on actors. ... He didn't know how they ticked." Still, she calls him "a man of immense charisma." Years later, Sim discovered her role had been written for Deborah Kerr, Powell's lost love. "It must have been very hard for him," Sim says.
Another short film looks in on "A Canterbury Tale" day in Kent, a summer tradition since 1997. Powell- Pressburger fans wander about sites used in the film, reading from the script and catching rays.
The bookends Powell added for U.S. release are included as well. They feature Kim Hunter as the G.I.'s young wife.
The DVD extras conclude with a piece of video art built around a loop of Sim as she beholds the fields of Kent, sensing its ancestral ghosts. Best experienced as a museum installation, or not at all.
Criterion's presentation of "Canterbury" looks divine, in silky black and white. Damage such as scratch lines and flashing do little to dull the effect of Erwin Hillier's landscape cinematography -- or of his powerful, noirish lighting. Allan Gray's music, a treat, sounds pretty good in the mono audio.
Patrick McGoohan's "The Prisoner," another fine oddity from England, never seems to go out of style.
The show, which first confused and delighted viewers in 1967 and '68, enjoys a "Star Trek"-like following of those dedicated to its rat's nest of mysteries and intrigues.
"Prisoner" tells of a secret agent who resigns in anger, then finds himself velvet-coffined in a Kafkaesque seaside resort where people are known only by their numbers. Escapees are hunted down by what seems to be a giant marshmallow. "I am not a number!" McGoohan bellows. "I am a free man!" Hear, hear.
A&E has rereleased "The Prisoner" in a "40th Anniversary Megaset" (retail $139.95) sporting all 17 hourlong episodes. A&E's previous DVD release, from 2000, was spread across five volumes, sold separately or in a box set.
Alas, owners of the previous DVDs have no reason to upgrade: A&E has simply improved the packaging (dumping the clamshells for slim cases), throwing in a map of the Village and a nicely done 60-page episode guide. The DVDs' numerous but mostly unexceptional extras are ported over.
The original discs looked OK, but it's a bloody shame this imaginative and colorful series didn't get the first-rate restoration it deserves. What's up, A&E No. 1?
Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter
Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter
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