In the early 1940s, everyone was expected to pitch in for the war effort, and that included film actors and behind-the-scenes personnel. No longer could entertainment simply be a diversion, but the best creative minds put their talents toward rousing the populace for the mission at hand.
49th Parallel was released in 1941 to show the moviegoing public that the war was something that could touch people from all walks of life. The title refers to the border between the United States and Canada, which the voiceover claims is the last border in the world that doesn't require the line to be defended. That is, until a German U-boat gets sunk in Canadian waters while a search party of six Nazi soldiers is looking for fuel and supplies on land. Stranded in a country hostile to their point of view, these soldiers must find a way to get out of North America and back to the Motherland.
Twice before their collaboration on 49th Parallel, Emeric Pressburger had written scripts that Michael Powell directed. It would be with this and their next wartime effort, One of Our Aircraft is Missing, that the pair would solidify their partnership as the Archers, writing, directing, and producing some of Britain's best films together. Aircraft actually has a similar central plot to 49th Parallel, though in that film British troops shot down in Europe would have to work their way out of enemy territory to rejoin the fight of the righteous. The Archers were hoping to inspire their audience to root for our side, while in 49th Parallel, they were encouraging us to root against the others.
As the renegade Nazis trek across Canada, they will succumb one by one under the nationalism of the Canadian citizenry. Pushed on by the ruthless and cold Lieutenant Hirth (Eric Portman, an Archers regular appearing in both Aircraft and A Canterbury Tale), the Germans are taken down by bullets, swayed by the wholesomeness of a quiet life, and betrayed by their own inability to maintain their stoic goose-stepping. From one town to the other, they encounter religion, native pride, culture, and the promise of democracy--all things Hitler encourages them to stamp out, and all things that are too strong to bow under heel. The final blow is struck in the name of good, old-fashioned North America spirit, with Raymond Massey delivering the knock-out punch. The year before, the Canadian-born Massey had played Abraham Lincoln in Abe Lincoln in Illinois. You can't get more American than that.
49th Parallel is propaganda of the first order, and no one will mistake it for a sophisticated war-time thriller. It's not that the movie isn't well done. On the contrary, the story is expertly structured and the journey of the Nazi sailors compelling. The Archers even give the Germans some sympathetic elements, most obviously in Vogel (Niall MacGinness, Powell's The Edge of the World), whose dormant Christian tendencies get the better of him. Funnily enough, it's this element that is oddly lopsided, with the Nazis being more complex than the patriotic Canadians they encounter. It's hard to forget the misdeeds of the bad guys, such as pounding a man with a rifle when he's already been knocked down and shooting unarmed citizens in the back, but for some reason, Pressburger avoided making them sinister through and through.
So, the real propaganda comes through in how the common Canadian folk are unbending in their opposition to the foreign invaders and how the travels of the Nazis fomented the hatred amongst those they wished to rally and conquer, supporting the movie's central message that no one could assume they were out of range to be affected by the war. The underlying message seems to be that the Allies of 49th Parallel have the indomitable will and that the Axis army was populated with men who didn't have the courage of their convictions and were prone to bend. Lending a hand to show what the good guys were made of were top actors Laurence Olivier (here playing a French Canadian with a somewhat amusing accent), Anton Walbrook (The Red Shoes), Glynis Johns (The Sundowners), and Leslie Howard (Of Human Bondage) as an intellectual who Lt. Hirth accuses of cowardice and who naturally proves the Nazi wrong. (Another famous name in the credits: David Lean was the editor of 49th Parallel.) When the film is at its most rah-rah, it can come off as a little stiff now that over sixty years have passed, but with the right historical perspective, it's easy to see past where the participants were excessively encumbered by their good intentions.
And, of course, there are certainly plenty of other wartime cinematic efforts that have aged far more poorly than 49th Parallel. What this movie has going for it that the others don't are the burgeoning talents of two master storytellers who were finally gravitating toward each other's orbits. Their natural way with the fabric of film was already in evidence, and it's what keeps 49th Parallel crackling even after its necessity has long passed.
In addition to the film, DVD 1 has the original theatrical trailer and a commentary by historian Bruce Eder, a regular Criterion contributor. Recorded in 1990 for the old laser disc edition, it's Eder's usual mix of historical evidence, anecdotes, and critical analysis. For 49th Parallel, the best elements end up being the revelations of what is true and what is false in the film, where facts are exaggerated in order to try to make the Axis think the Allies were stronger than they were and where the story takes accurate turns. It's also strange to hear how the U.S. version, retitled The Invaders, defanged the Nazis by removing any racial rhetoric. Given the movie's message that the hand of war could grasp you regardless of who you were or where you were, the fact that Americans decided to remove some of the bile almost seems to confirm that the expression of that idea was necessary.
DVD 2 leads off with The Volunteer, a 46-minute propaganda short made by the Archers and starring Ralph Richardson (The Fallen Idol) as himself. The actor tracks the military blossoming of an eager but incompetent dresser he worked with on a production of Othello just prior to both men entering the services. The film has its charms, but it's largely worth watching for Richardson, who is always good. Olivier also makes a brief cameo. The main selling point at the time was probably the footage of various planes and aircraft carriers, an extended collection of which sits in the center of the program.
This is followed by about an hour of audio of Michael Powell dictating portions of his autobiography that are pertinent to the production of 49th Parallel.
Finally, A Pretty British Affair is a 51-minute documentary made for the BBC that focuses on the filmmaking partnership from its initial steps to their eventual parting, and at the time, the launch of a stage version of The Red Shoes. Shot in 1981, it was made when both men were still alive and is a rare instance when they appeared together on film. It was made when Powell and Pressburger received their honorary BAFTA, and film buffs will appreciate seeing Powell on the Zoetrope lot with Francis Ford Coppola and visiting Martin Scorsese on the set of King of Comedy. Unfortunately, though some of the WWII films are touched on, the program skips from The Spy in Black and The Lion Has Wings to The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, bypassing 49th Parallel entirely.
Criterion, as always, includes an interior booklet with illuminating text pieces about the film in question. Author Charles Barr offers a critical essay about 49th Parallel, and portions of a speech given by Michael Powell at the movie's premiere are also reprinted.