A Canterbury Tale (1944)

Recently I was more surprised than I probably should’ve been to discover Stormfront—the white power organisation—have a thread on their forum devoted to their users’ favourite racist movies. It put me in mind of something I posted a  lot of years ago (way back in October 2002, in fact) on my old blog, which I hope you’ll forgive me for reposting (do you like the way I address “you” as if anyone but me is reading this? Please note that the first link doesn’t work, but the other two do; for some reason I can’t find the Judds’ link from their main page, and I’ve tried, but the page itself is still there):

The conservative Top 40. Can’t remember how I found this (it was a few days ago, might’ve been through Metafilter), but it’s vaguely interesting, if prone to bits of stupidity… Mr Bartlett clearly has no idea that John Lennon was opposed only to violent revolution, not change per se; and can liberals not also possess religious and/or patriotic feelings, or are only conservatives capable of loving God and country? It also annoys the hell out of me in the same way I used to get annoyed at the likes of the Brothers Judd “best conservative films” list, because frankly I don’t see how they help. If someone out there is so determined to live their political ideology to the point that they’ll let it dictate whether or not they like a movie, song, book, etc, then I’m sorry but I find that plain and simply idiotic.
For example, Eve Tushnet’s list of her favourite conservative movies lists Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka, describing it as a “really sweet, funny, very anti-Communist comedy”. As a counterweight to that, let me introduce you to Lev Kuleshov’s The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, which I would describe as being really sweet, funny, but pro-Communist. Ask yourself which you consider to be the most important part of those descriptions. If you’re more interested in watching Ninotchka now because it takes some considerable swipes at Communism, then go away now. And similarly if you want to see the Kuleshov film cos it’s pro-Communist. If you want to see either or both of those films because they’re both funny, then great. You and I can be friends. But if you’re only interested in something because it reinforces your political beliefs irrespective of its actual quality, then I’m not interested in you.

All these years later I still broadly believe that, which is part of why I find the Stormfront thing so baffling… the other part being some of the choices themselves; Birth of a Nation, yeah, but *A Bug’s Life*? I suppose that if nothing else it shows you the lengths people will go to at times to make the artifact fit the ideology; cf. this fuckwit’s claim that Zombieland can be claimed for conservatism cos it has a lot of guns in it. Maybe that’s why the Judds see fit to include Woo’s The Killer on their list. Still, I digress.

Anyway—to finally get to the point—I also recently found this site, which offers its own top 100 conservative films list. And lo, A Canterbury Tale tops the list. I find this odd for various reasons, not least why American conservatives should be so drawn to a film about English culture, so many aspects of which baffle the American sergeant (who, in a glorious WTF moment near the end of the film, avows he’d rather smoke pot than drink tea; so much for the war on drugs!). And what about women doing men’s jobs and not knowing their place, even if there is a war on? And is there not something, I don’t know, kind of sexual about the glue-in-the-hair business (apparently the Glue Man was supposed to slash women’s clothing at first; Powell and Pressburger thought the glue thing was less perverse), quite apart from its inherent weirdness?

Which leads us inevitably to Colpeper. The chief authority of the village (and a magistrate in Canterbury itself), the prime exponent of the “old ways” if you want to call them that… and the Glue Man. So the film ultimately presents its governmental authority figure as not just a metaphysical crank but also a bit of a sexual pervert (and quite possibly gay on top of that)… with whom the three “pilgrims” come to a kind of understanding so that he ultimately gets away with his assaults against the women of the village… yeah. But I call him a metaphysical crank, not a religious one, cos though the film may end at the cathedral, the film’s spiritual sense goes back further than Christianity; Canterbury may be the “home” of that religion, but Colpeper reminds us that the pilgrims’ road was used by the Romans, and the sense of identification with place that the film presents strikes me as more pagan (cf. also the Hand Of Glory hotel) and mystical. As Ian Christie’s Criterion DVD commentary notes, the “blessings” of the pilgrims may be supernatural but even if they are they’re not conventionally Christian at all.

I mean, when I was first exploring P&P’s films in the 90s, I wasn’t a fan of them at first except for this film, but I liked it cos I thought it was a good film in its own right; I didn’t care about whether or not it fitted a particular ideology. Even on that Stormfront forum thread someone pretty much says “you know, you can actually just watch a film as entertainment without these other considerations”. And I said above, I still broadly agree with my old statement, except that I’m not quite as “oh fuck off” as I was then… now I just feel a bit sad for people who let ideology, whatever it is, dictate their interests like that; it speaks of a certain insecurity in their own aesthetic judgements. There is, of course, one final question to be asked about the extent to which we can take lists and sites like the ones I’ve linked seriously in any case, depending on how much the people responsible for them actually know about film in the first place, but that’s a question I’ll let someone else answer…

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