Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
One of the best-formulated propaganda movies of the war, 49th Parallel (known here as The Invaders) was the last film pairing of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger before they took on the binary billing persona, "The Archers." Written to persuade America to join in the war, Pressburger's Oscar-winning original story has the audacity to make its main character a Nazi fugitive on a dash across Canada to reach sanctuary in the still-neutral United States. Powell's second unit, along with several key actors, crossed the Atlantic to film all over Canada, inserting stars like Leslie Howard and Laurence Olivier on sound stages in London. Sometimes awkward and sometimes quite beautiful, 49th Parallel succeeded magnificently in its main objective, to reach the hearts and minds of Americans and Canadians with its anti-Nazi sentiments.
Nazi idealist naval Lieutenant Hirth (Eric Portman) and five sailors are stranded in Hudson's bay when the RC.A.F. sinks their U-Boat. They seize supplies at an Inuit trading post, striking down French Canadian trapper Johnnie (Laurence Olivier) and stealing a seaplane. The plane takes them only so far and their numbers dwindle when they are forced to cross Canada on foot. Hirth thinks he is among comrades when they come upon an agrarian Hutterite community run by the kindly German expatriate Peter (Anton Walbrook), but the fundamentalist Christians want nothing to do with them. Nazi sailor Vogel (Niall MacGinnis) attempts to stay behind as the community's new baker, but Hirth has a predictably hostile reaction. The group murders its way to Banff, where the Mounties and Native Americans assist in another capture during an Indian Day celebration. Hirth comes upon Philip Armstrong Scott (Leslie Howard) an intellectual vacationing on a Canadian lake, and accuses him of being a decadent coward. Finally fleeing alone, Hirth manages to steal aboard a freight car headed across the U.S. border at Niagara Falls. But he seriously underestimates the patriotism of an A.W.O.L. Canadian soldier, Andy Brock (Raymond Massey).
49th Parallel is remarkable from many angles, even though it is less of an artistic achievement than most of their other films. It is late 1940 and an embattled England desperately needs the stubbornly isolationist United States to come into the fray. So Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger do a wartime thriller on a larger scale than their previous The Spy in Black and Contraband, this time sublimating their personal agenda to the war effort. The movie was made for the express purpose of influencing American public opinion.
It's a beautiful piece of persuasion. The movie is careful not to present its Germans as vicious Huns. Up until this time most Nazis in movies were either rabid Heil-ing maniacs or outright clowns, as in Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator. 49th Parallel takes on a know-your-enemy appeal as we are forced to identify with the desperate attempt to reach the title latitude, the border between Canada and the neutral United States.
The show breaks down into three or four rather cramped episodes with big stars playing a cross-section of stereotyped Canadians, all of whom have a lot to say about their distaste for Nazis. Finlay Currie is the grizzled factor of a trading camp way up in Hudson's Bay and Laurence Olivier is a lusty (some say wildly over-acted) French trapper that sayez le pooh-pooh to ze fooleesh Jair-mains. Leslie Howard is also exaggerated as a refined author vacationing at a beautiful Canadian lake location, the kind of noble natural man who camps in a teepee but has brought artworks by Matisse and Picasso along with him! Finally, the big Canadian star Raymond Massey strains credibility as the philosophical A.W.O.L. soldier who gets to deliver a beating to the remaining Nazi invader.
All of these stars are filmed on interior sets back in London (or Toronto) and intercut with Powell and cameraman Freddie Young's expansive location work across the expanse of Canada, one of the largest countries in the world. Olivier stays indoors at the trading post, Massey is locked in a baggage car and Leslie Howard works exclusively on a night forest set.
It's also been pointed out that the film's geography is off kilter. The vast distances between places like the St. Lawrence Seaway and Hudson's Bay are minimized, and the Nazis' hike leapfrogs a thousand miles across a couple of convenient dissolves. 49th Parallel also conceives of Canada as a convenient stack of travelogue stereotypes. In the arctic we meet jolly Frenchies and furry Inuits; the Banff holiday is all Mounties and noble Indians, etc. For the purposes of morale, the film also insinuates that the vast expanse of Northern Canada is fully protected by the navy and air force, which has to be a gross exaggeration.
49th Parallel stages a series of debates between Eric Portman's militaristic German and the democratic and humanist values of the true-blue Canadians. Olivier's anti-authoritarian Frenchman drives Portman's Hirth to violence with a few jolly insults. Howard's rather absurd intellectual compares the Nazis to the worst of the Indian tribes. Hirth sneers at Howard for vacationing while a war is on, but English superiority wins out when the man of letters walks coolly through a hail of bullets to capture one of the Germans. Raymond Massey's plain-Joe Canadian happily admits he cannot argue with the sneering Hirth, but takes a know-nothing's relish in beating the tar out of him. Thus Pressburger presents free men in a democracy as superior to Hirth's Aryan zealot.
But one episode shows 49th Parallel operating with great finesse and skill. Hirth and his hungry company chance upon a little agrarian Utopia of German Hutterites, a fundamentalist commune in the northern plains. They immediately ask who the leader is, and want to know the salute. Hirth thinks he's found the ideal Nazi community and doesn't realize that there's more to Germans than blood and birthplace. He gives a stirring Nazi speech, only to be soundly put in his place by Anton Walbrook's incredibly gentle Hutterite leader. Some of the Hutterites are there because Nazi intolerance drove them from Germany in the first place.
Always seeing conflicts from both sides, Powell and Pressburger stress that the words German and Evil are not interchangeable. Glynis Johns, with her heavenly voice, plays the German orphan Anna, the film's only female character, a victim of Nazi brutality. The script emphasizes that England (and America, if she'll just wake up) are facing not an evil race but an evil ideology.
The best scenes in the film center on Vogel, an ordinary 'Sgt. Schweik' kind of German who follows orders but wishes he could resume his life as a baker. Vogel tries to be a good thug -- he tears down a calendar picture of the Royal family and scratches a swastika in its place -- but his heart opens up when the Hutterites give him the opportunity to bake again. He connects with Anna as well. The future looks happy, even if Vogel will have to sit out the next few years in a detention camp. Of course, Hirth can't abide by that for a moment.
Vogel is played by the unheralded Niall MacGinness, of Powell's earlier The Edge of the World and dozens of excellent later films (Savant's favorite being Jacques Tourneur's Night of the Demon. With nothing but a few disconsolate looks and body mannerisms, MacGuinness' sympathetic Vogel makes a stronger impact than Anton Walbrook's placid Hutterite leader.
One more observation about 49th Parallel: Its effectiveness as propaganda is increased by the fact that it is slightly dumbed-down, not to the point of outright condescencion but certainly enough to become preachy. And it finds a feel-good ending in an audience-baiting bit of macho payback on the main Nazi villain.
Criterion's 49th Parallel is another shining B&W transfer, with an audio track much improved over the earlier laserdisc. Ralph Vaughan Williams' moving music sounds great over Freddie Young's aerial photography of the Canadian wilderness.
Bruce Eder's commentary relates the film's unusual production story, which kicked Michael Powell into a higher bracket of ambition. Powell was certainly a game player willing to shoot the works for his country. Eder also tells the story of German star Elizabeth Bergner, who had already fled Nazi Germany to England. Her name appeared on Nazi death lists, and she apparently used 49th Parallel to escape to the further safety of America. She played Anna for long shots in Canada, but then ran away to her husband in Hollywood instead of returning to London to finish the role. That opened the way for Glynis Johns to take over, and become a star.
A second disc carries The Volunteer, a forty minute recruiting feature that Powell and Pressburger filmed for the Royal Navy. Ralph Richardson plays himself as a slightly pompous actor. His clumsy dresser (Pat McGrath) joins the Navy and serves on an aircraft carrier. Powell shoehorns in a movie-within-a-movie of the carrier engaging in battle, featuring some excellent scenes of carrier-based Spitfires in action. The lesson seems to be that a stage lackey can find dignity, romance and honor toiling for the air arm: He's given a Distinguished Service Medal, and for the finale Richardson asks for his autograph. The music is by Allan Gray, and we hear a tune about halfway through that sounds like a rehearsal for I Know Where I'm Going!
A Pretty British Affair is a 1981 BBC docu about Powell's twenty-year collaboration with Emeric Pressburger. Besides scenes from their film, we see Powell in front of the Cahuenga-Cole Technicolor building in Hollywood and at Francis Coppola's Zoetrope lot (note the set for the McCarran Airport from One From the Heart. That leads me to the eerie observation that I was working in the Technicolor building at the time, at a commercial house, and was using a cutting room on the Zoetrope lot to edit a feature late in 1980, probably around the time that the docu was filmed. I even rode a bicycle to work through the same streets that Powell walked. That's as close as Savant will come in these web pages to fame-by-association.
An extra treat are the original Michael Powell dictation tapes for the sections on 49th Parallel in his autobiography. He tells the uncut story of the making of the film -- it began with government money and then was bought out privately when Columbia picked up the American release rights. Powell takes full personal credit for strategizing the film's propaganda strategy -- a few ministers hear his idea and give immediate approval, which is either evidence of British clear thinking or a very tall tale. Powell's subsequent 'war spirit' movies The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and A Canterbury Tale were much more sophisticated. All in all, this is another superior Powell and Pressburger Criterion disc. The disc producer is Karen Stetler.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
49th Parallel rates:
Supplements: Short feature The Volunteer; 1981 docu A pretty British Affair; Michael Powell dictation audio tapes.
Packaging: Two discs in Keep case
Reviewed: February 7, 2007
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2006 Glenn Erickson
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