Perverse Pastoralism and Medieval Melancholia in Powell and Pressburger's A Canterbury Tale

By Pugh, Tison | Arthuriana, October 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Perverse Pastoralism and Medieval Melancholia in Powell and Pressburger's A Canterbury Tale


Pugh, Tison, Arthuriana


A Canterbury Tale, a 1944 'why we fight' film, mixes a pastoral celebration of England's history with a perverse plot concerning the peculiar Glue Man. The protagonists solve this mystery during their Canterbury pilgrimage and, in so doing, realize that England's glories depend upon accepting, not defeating, perversion. (TP)

To celebrate English history in A Canterbury Tale, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger elegize the medieval past, lamenting that which was not yet lost (and, indeed, never was)-England itself.1 Released in 1944 before the conclusion of World War II, the film ponders the possibility of Nazi victory, and this fear that England might be conquered tempers its consideration of time and history, in which Chaucer's status as the Father of English Literature provides a nostalgically pastoral foundation upon which to defend the nation against alien threats. Amid this penumbral pastoralism, the film posits an internal threat to English society through the Glue Man, a mysterious figure who attacks women at night by pouring glue in their hair. The barely allegorized sexuality of these attacks, in which a man victimizes women in nocturnal confrontations climaxing with oozy liquids, points to England's failure to uphold idyllic virtues ostensibly at its core. The melancholy unleashed in A Canterbury Tale, through the characters' confusion of external and internal enemies and their inability to recreate the past in the present, undermines the film's investment in England as a seamlessly organic land of eternal values. For Chaucer to uphold English identity as normative requires the narrative trajectory of the pilgrimage to re-emerge in fractious times, but this journey cannot succeed when melancholy upends affirmative declarations of English pastoralism and exposes pastoralism's inherent perversity.

The perplexing mix of pastoralism and perversity in A Canterbury Tale confounded its contemporary critics, and their reactions marked the film as an inferior entry in Powell and Pressburger's oeuvre. Powell lamented that '[a]t the time nobody thought that A Canterbury Tale worked.'2 Recent criticism has reassessed the film's artistic accomplishments,3 but as it has not yet reached the level of general acclaim accorded to such Powell and Pressburger masterpieces as Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948), a brief plot summary will be helpful for the subsequent analysis. American sergeant Bob Johnson (John Sweet), British sergeant Peter Gibbs (Dennis Price), and Land Army girl Alison Smith (Sheila Sim) arrive in Chillingbourne, a small village on the Pilgrims' Road to Canterbury, and as they proceed to town to find lodgings, the mysterious Glue Man assaults Alison. 'Somebody came out of nowhere and poured something on it....Somebody's poured some sticky stuff on my hair,' she cries, and the three decide to solve this mystery. As their investigations commence, they meet the local magistrate, Thomas Colpeper (Eric Portman), who revels in England's glorious past. Johnson, Gibbs, and Smith succumb to the town's pastoral charms, enjoying conversations with local residents while pursuing the crime's perpetrator. The film ends as these three modern travelers complete their Canterbury pilgrimage, with each achieving enlightenment along the way: Johnson learns that his girlfriend still loves him; Gibbs fulfills his ambition to play the Canterbury Cathedral organ; and Smith learns that her lost lover is miraculously alive in Gibraltar. The Glue Man is revealed to be Colpeper, yet his motive for the attacks-to teach soldiers of England's glorious history by diverting their attention from women-leads the protagonists to forgive him in light of the salvific merit of their journey and the sincere motivations behind his perversion.

The glories of Canterbury Cathedral, as shot in A Canterbury Tale's transcendent ending, cannot wash away England's perverse foundations, and the sexuality unleashed throughout its storyline projects England as both idyllic and menacing. …

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