A Tale of Two Cities
A Tale of Two Cities
In the summer of 1943, a year after the Baedeker raids on Canterbury that devastated large sections of the historic city, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger began to film A Canterbury Tale on location in wartime Kent. Its plot was curious: three individuals find themselves on the railway station of Chillingbourne, a fictitious village in Kent, during a blackout. Bob Johnson, an American GI on leave, is heading for Canterbury, but has got off at the wrong stop. Alison Smith has come to Chillingbourne to work as a land girl. Sergeant Peter Gibbs is based at an army camp nearby. As these three head into the village, Alison is ambushed by an assailant who leaves some sticky stuff in her hair. They give chase, but the stranger disappears. Arriving at the town hall, they are told that Alison has been the latest victim of a local troublemaker dubbed the ‘Glue-Man’, believed to be a soldier, who pours glue onto the heads of young women, making them scared to go out with the soldiers stationed near the village. Alison, Bob, and Peter eventually deduce that the ‘Glue-Man’ is the local magistrate, Thomas Colpeper. Colpeper runs lectures on the beauties of the English countryside for (male) members of His Majesty’s Forces. Disappointed by small audiences, he comes up with the idea of pouring glue on young women to stop them from dallying with the soldiers who would otherwise be learning about the Old Road that runs by the village, and other matters of local interest. When all four—Alison, Bob, Peter, and Colpeper— travel to Canterbury at the end of the film, Peter intends to report Colpeper to the police, but other events intervene, and each of the three central characters receives an unexpected blessing. This detective story, of sorts, in which the perpetrator of a bizarre crime is unmasked less than halfway through the film, where the criminal goes unpunished, and where his motives stretch credibility, was bound to confuse contemporary audiences when the film was released in 1944. As Ian Christie notes, A Canterbury Tale ‘perplexed even the film’s relatively few admirers’.
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