By Peter Hummers on May 18, 2023
Laurence Olivier (Rebecca, Wuthering Heights) plays a French Canadian fur trapper! As fun as that sounds, it’s not even among the reasons for my affection. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (A Matter of Life and Death) pulled out all the stops on this masterpiece, from a suggestion by the British Ministry of Information for a propaganda piece designed to influence neutral America to enter World War II.
“You think we hate you, but we don’t. It is against our faith to hate. We only hate the power of evil which is spreading over the world.” (Peter, the Hutterite leader)
Director Michael Powell’s brief was to “scare the pants off the Americans” and thus bring them into the war, and Emeric Pressburger’s tight screenplay sought to serve that aim artistically—which was good, because while it may have helped American public opinion, it didn’t influence it: The Invaders (as it was titled in the USA) wasn’t released in America until 1942, three months after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. So the art of the film transcended its political aim, and it remains a brilliant war drama.
49th Parallel opens with a breathtaking aerial vista of the blue Canadian Rockies (albeit in black and white) over which is a typically polite dedication to Canadians and the governments of the U.S.A., Canada, and the United Kingdom and the actors who came from all parts of the world to play in “our story” while Ralph Vaughan Williams’ beautiful musical score begins. It continues: “Leslie Howard – Laurence Olivier – Raymond Massey – Anton Walbrook – Eric Portman – And the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams in –” and here Williams’ “49th Parallel” prelude swells as the title card is shown: “49th PARALLEL.” I’m stirred already, even before the first line of dialogue. (Watch the opening credits and hear Williams’ prelude here.)
The camera zooms in on a map, and then the mountains and wheat fields of the 49th parallel—the U.S.A./Canada border, “the only undefended frontier in the world,” before settling on the Gulf of St. Lawrence, while the music quotes, oddly but effectively, a dark, minor-key phrase recalling Martin Luther’s hymn Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, and a German U-boat rises from the waters. Its kommandant comes on deck and through binoculars inspects a sinking freighter. “So the curtain rises on Canada!” Before long, but not before a shore party is dispatched ashore, RCAF bombers arrive and sink the U-boat.
We feel a twinge of sympathy as the German sailors onshore watch their sub being blown apart; their individual reactions foreshadow the later roles of antagonist or protagonist that each will play. The leader of the shore party, Leutnant Hirth (Portman) is alarmed, but contains himself with a natural soldier’s bearing. He is a committed National Socialist, but not all in the shore party are—although at this point they will follow orders and do their duty as Kriegsmariners.
And now they are stranded in Canada, which had declared War on Germany in 1939, after Germany invaded Poland. The story is set in 1941, when the picture was released, and the United States was still neutral, bound by Congress not to lend aid or assistance to any “belligerents” in the European conflict.
So the six crewmen late of Unterseeboot 37 have to try to reach America if they want to avoid spending the duration in a Canadian prisoner of war camp. (Many U-boats were sunk here, off the Outer Banks, by the way, after America joined the fray. Cape Hatteras earned the nickname “Torpedo Junction.”) The sailors’ oddysey takes them to a Hudson’s Bay trading post; a diasporal German Hutterite settlement (Anabaptists similar to the Amish), where they pose as seasonal farm workers; and Winnipeg, at an eccentric English writer’s (Howard) lakeside camp, where they are taken for lost tourists.
They don’t all get this far: one is shot by an Eskimo from, and one drowns in, a stolen seaplane; one goes AWOL, and another is arrested. Leutnant Hirth and the remaining seaman stumble upon the writer’s camp, where they have a provocative discussion about “primitive warlike tribes,” including “one currently in Europe.” The writer fancies himself an anthropologist and is shocked when he realizes that the war has found his remote camp.
An unsigned article in Britain’s Monthly Film Bulletin of October 1941 said, “[Director] Michael Powell is to be congratulated on his persistence with this at first apparently ill-starred film. It is an admirable piece of work from every point of view and credit should be given to everyone connected with the finished product.”
And although 49th Parallel was obscure when I was a budding cinéaste, it’s widely available to see today. Good job!
(Pete Hummers is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to earn fees by linking Amazon.com and affiliate sites. This adds nothing to Amazon’s prices.)
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