The fan of Powell and Pressburger (or 'The Archers') films has several top quality productions from which to select a favourite. 'The Red Shoes' and 'A Matter of Life and Death' are the deservedly obvious ones. But for me, 'A Canterbury Tale' has the edge. It has a strange, ethereal quality that seems to sometimes predict the likes of David Lynch much later on. Filmed during World War Two and the Baedeker raids which had damaged much of Canterbury, it clings to the idea that history is not just about buildings - it's in us all - we just need to find it within our subconscious.
So we are treated to the sounds of Chaucer-esque pilgrims on their way through Kent merging with the noise of tanks and aircraft. Then a Land Girl and two soldiers - one from the US army - arrive in a village peopled with the embodiment of English history. Of these villagers, the most important is a misogynist magistrate called Colpeper, who has taken to throwing glue into girls' hair of an evening. His only redeeming feature is his dedication to advancing the study of local history and archaeology. He believes this to be so important, he fears that modern life and women are driving men away from it. But he is shown that tangible history does not need to be defended so vigorously.
The most telling scene features the US soldier Bob Johnson and the local wheelwright. Often bewildered about the English language and customs, he is a refreshing portrayal of a GI. So often, British films set in WW2 show these servicemen in an unflattering light - as being brash, annoying and taking liberties. But Bob is an ordinary, polite young man who misses home and is comically confused much of the time. However, back in Oregon he has grown up around wood and all its associated crafts. So the scene where he meets the wheelwright and communicates with him better that the London Land Girl ever could is extremely salient. The world has changed, but they can both tap into an ancient language that is fixed deeply within. We all have a place to start to find our history.
When the primary characters arrive in Canterbury towards the end of the film they all receive a blessing. They are all given a second chance in some important aspect of their lives. Meanwhile, we are shown the freshly bombed ruins of one of our most historic cities. But it's not such a sad sight, because we've been shown a way forward.