49th Parallel (1941)
“THE MIGHTIEST MANHUNT THAT EVER SWEPT THE SCREEN!”
Director: Michael Powell
Cast: Leslie Howard, Laurence Olivier, Richard George
Synopsis: A WW2 U-boat crew is stranded in northern Canada. To avoid internment, they must make their way to the border and get into the still-neutral USA.
Powell and Pressburger’s third collaboration, after The Spy in Black (1939) and Contraband (1940), 49th Parallel was the film that made possible the quirky classics the duo produced throughout the following decade. Encouraged by the film’s unprecedented success in the States (it netted an estimated $5 million), J. Arthur Rank expanded production at a time when other British studios were cutting back, and helped establish a number of independent production companies — one of which, of course, was The Archers, which made such cinematic treasures as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, I Know Where I’m Going (both 1945), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947), and The Red Shoes (1948). While this film is not quite on a par with those masterpieces, it is nevertheless an outstanding example of how superbly crafted storytelling can enable a tale such as this to surpass its propagandistic intentions and provide wonderfully memorable entertainment.
Set in Canada, the film is essentially an unconventional road movie, focusing on six Nazi seamen’s journey across the country in an effort to reach neutral America after Royal Canadian Air Force bombers sink their sub. On their travels, the Germans meet a cross-section of Canadian society that, in its diversity and individuality, emphasises the difference in the ideologies of the two warring nations. Commissioned by the Ministry of Information to make a propaganda movie designed to persuade America to enter the war, Powell and Pressburger could not have hit upon a more subtle means of doing so. Not once throughout the picture is there an overt reference to the part America should be playing — or how, like it or not, they are already a part of the war.
The story is told from the viewpoint of the Germans, a device that, at first, seems at odds with what the movie is trying to achieve. However, Pressburger’s intelligent script deliberately avoids attempting to demonise these Nazis. Instead he portrays them as rather ordinary people labouring under the illusion planted by their leaders that they are the chosen race, and know what is best for everybody. At first, it’s difficult to see them as German, due to the precise Queen’s English spoken by them all but, as the viewer is drawn into their plight, their accents become less noticeable, and you’re left wondering whether it was a deliberate ploy on the part of Powell and Pressburger to highlight the similarities between the people of the warring nations.
Lost in a strange country, the Nazis are lonely and afraid, and desperate to return to the authoritarian society that has fashioned them. Each fugitive possesses a distinct personality, with only their leader, Lt. Hirth (Eric Portman — The Prince and the Pauper, Assignment to Kill), displaying stereotypical Nazi behaviour. They squabble and disagree, suffer petulance and camaraderie, the same as any other group. One of their number, Vogel (Niall McGinnis — The Kremlin Letter), a former baker, is even portrayed as a wholly sympathetic figure, indicating that not all Germans are bad, but that their innate goodness is powerless against the will of their leaders. And despite the cliched Nazi behaviour sometimes displayed by Hirth, he doesn’t come across as a totally evil man, but a confused and frightened one, constantly at odds with the liberal and undisciplined natives of the world in which he finds himself. Throughout the movie, these contrasts between the two cultures are repeatedly emphasised, as Powell hammers home the message that the war is as much a clash of cultures as it is a battle between a democracy and a dictatorship.
For all this good work, 49th Parallel isn’t without flaws: the continuity is poor at times, with the Nazis pitching up in places without any explanation of how they got there or how much time has passed since the previous scene. And some of the acting is terrible. Laurence Olivier (Rebecca, The Boys from Brazil) is, famously, the worst culprit; his laughable French accent — which is almost as funny as his false beard — is all over the place, and yet he portrays such a charismatic character that you’re almost able to overlook it. Almost. The final fifteen minutes also seem rather rushed, with Hirth seeming to cover vast distances in a couple of scenes with no apparent difficulty. But these failings are far outweighed by the quality of Pressburger’s screenplay, and Powell’s subtle direction, and it is these that will linger in the memory long after the film has ended.
(Reviewed on 22nd November 2008)