It’s a testament to Criterion’s care and intelligence that its double-disc edition of a largely forgotten war pic — an especially odd product of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s eccentric partnership — should make the case for a film even enthusiasts have trouble explaining.
Equal parts mystery, idyll, parable and polemic, “A Canterbury Tale” follows three “pilgrims” — thesps Sheila Sim and Dennis Price (in their first credited film roles) and real-life American Sgt. John Sweet — waylaid in Kent and briefly bound together. Their nemesis-cum-guide is Eric Porter’s Colepepper, a typically ambiguous Powell-Pressburger character.
But if Criterion’s bountiful supplementals reveal anything, it’s that the specifics are irrelevant. Far more important — film historian Ian Christie says in his erudite but accessible commentary — is this film’s spirit, a muffled cri de coeur for a preindustrial England largely gone by the time the filmmakers made this film and its cinematic siblings “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” (1943) and “I Know Where I’m Going!” (1945).
Besides Christie’s invaluable commentary, package features a newly taped interview with Sim (now Lady Attenborough) — radiant and enchanting even 60 years on — and another, from 2000, with an aged Sweet. Particularly illuminating, if appalling, are excerpts from the American version of the film, a misguided attempt to make the pic more conventional by adding an incongruous framing device with an otherwise absent Kim Hunter and then trimming nearly a half hour from the movie’s 124-minute run time.
For those still not sated, Criterion includes footage from a 2001 video installation by Victor Burgin partly inspired by “A Canterbury Tale” and the durable 1942 docu “Listen to Britain,” an audio-visual pastiche meant to summon Blitz-time patriotism. Go Blighty!