A Canterbury Tale

A Canterbury Tale is a British film by the film-making team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. It stars Eric Portman, Sheila Sim, Dennis Price and Sgt. John Sweet; Esmond Knight provided narration and played several small roles. For the 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.


The story concerns three young people: British Sergeant Peter Gibbs (Dennis Price), American 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, near Canterbury, late on Friday night. Peter has been stationed at a nearby Army camp, Alison is due to start working on a farm in the area, Bob had 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 a mysterious assailant in uniform who pours glue on her hair, before escaping. It transpires that this has happened quite a few times before. 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.

They soon identify the culprit as a local magistrate, Mr Thomas Colpeper (Eric Portman), a gentleman farmer and pillar of the community, who also gives local history lectures to soldiers stationed in the district. On a train journey to Canterbury on the Monday morning, they find themselves in the same compartment with Colpeper. 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 J.S. Bach on the large organ at Canterbury Cathedral, before leaving with his unit. He decides not to report Mr Colpeper to the Canterbury police, as he had planned to do - in its way a blessing for Colpeper, when he had expected instead to do penance.

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-features of American and British 1940s life and heritage, along with the townsfolk's acceptance of him. These include:

  • His surprise at the station that so small a settlement as Chillingbourne is a town
  • His lack of acquaintance with the British blackout, particularly in his use of a torch that is far too bright for it, at the station and in chasing the glueman
  • British sergeant's stripes being upside-down compared with American ones (a repeated joke)
  • British police not carrying guns, and generally not acting as quickly as their American counterparts (when they chase the glueman to the town hall at the start — to which the constable replies that they may not be as fast or active as "G Men" or London policemen but they know their ways and do their duty, and that with regard to guns "This is Chillingbourne ... not Chicago.")
  • The identical ways of woodworking between Oregon and Kent in his chat with Mr Horton that gives a mutual understanding and respect between Johnson and Mr Horton.
  • A quarter (quarter dollar) being equivalent to a shilling, to the boy standing on the haycart near the beginning and to the boys in the mill
  • Drug stores being called grocers, just after the river battle
  • Telephones, mirrors, tea drinking, left-hand driving, as he lists when struggling with a British telephone
  • Comparing British and American rivers and countryside, when he and Gibbs look down on the Stour after climbing a hill towards the end of the film
  • When offered tea, he asks Gibbs how he can "drink the stuff". Gibbs replies that Johnson has joined the tea drinkers of the world, for the only countries that haven't been defeated and conquered are the tea-drinking ones, England, Russia, and China. At the film's end, Johnson accepts an offer of tea from his American friend Mickey who says "it's a habit you just fall into — like marijuana".
  • In wonder at the cathedral interior at the end of the film, he comments that his father "built the first Baptist church in Johnson County, Oregon, and that that was a good job too".

Anglo-American relations were also explored in Powell and Pressburger's subsequent film A Matter of Life and Death.


The film is notable for its many exterior shots showing the Kent countryside, as well as extensive bombsites in Canterbury itself, so soon after the infamous Baedeker raids of May/June 1942 which had decimated 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.


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

The film was the first production of Powell and Pressburger not to be a major box office success. 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. 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 re-issued on DVD in both the UK and USA.

Music featured

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

  • Angelus ad Virginem mid-15th century polyphony heard as a peal of bells in orchestral guise under the opening titles
  • Commando Patrol by Allan Gray, Stan Bowsher, Walter Ridley - quickstep heard in the background during Johnson and Gibbs's scene in the lobby of the Hand of Glory
  • I See You Everywhere by Allan Gray, Stan Bowsher, Walter Ridley - slow foxtrot heard in the background during Johnson and Gibbs's scene in the lobby of the Hand of Glory
  • Turkey in the Straw - folksong heard as Agnes leaves Bob's bedroom
  • Come to the Church in the Wild Wood - Bob sings as he washes
  • Hear my prayer, O Lord by Henry Purcell - the ethereal choral music heard as Gibbs pauses on entering the cathedral
  • Bond of Friendship - Regimental March of the King's Division. Played as the band nears the Cathedral
  • Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 538 by JS Bach and the hymn Onward Christian Soldiers - played on the organ by Gibbs

Cast and credits




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

Major characters

Sgt. Bob Johnson

(John Sweet)
Sergeant Bob Johnson hails from Three Sisters, 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 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.

Sgt. Peter Gibbs

(Dennis Price)
Sergeant Peter Gibbs is an organist from London. He has been conscripted into the British Army and is stationed at the military camp outside Chillingbourne with his unit, rehearsing manoeuvres.

He disembarks from the train at Chillingbourne to go up to the camp and, as he and Bob Johnson are accompanying Alison Smith from the station to the town hall, he witness 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, implied but never explicitly stated to be the invasion of Europe.

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, a geologist 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 "Ma'am, 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-US 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, distracting Colpeper so that Peter Gibbs may search a bit more thoroughly and by handing in the receipt book from the grocers which shows that Colpeper had been purchasing gum and other ingredients of glue long-distance 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, USA in 1949.

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

Several video artists have re-cut the more visionary sections of the film as video-art.

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


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




External links

DVD Reviews

Region 1 USA Released as part of The Criterion Collection, Region 1, NTSC

Released by Carlton, Region 2, PAL

Released by L'Institut Lumière and Warner Home Vidéo, Region 2, PAL

Search another word or see A_Canterbury_Taleon Dictionary | Thesaurus |Spanish
Copyright © 2015, LLC. All rights reserved.
  • Please Login or Sign Up to use the Recent Searches feature