49th Parallel (titled The Invaders in the US) is one of many in a series of WWII propaganda films written by Emeric Pressburger and directed by Michael Powell. It is an extremely effective piece of propaganda, but also a decently entertaining film. The breathtaking landscapes and the expansive cast are the two highlights.
49th Parallel is the story of a subset of a crew of Nazi U-boat sailors that are stranded in Canada. They are led by Lt. Hirth (Eric Portman) and try to make their way across Canada into the US, who is still neutral at this point. On the way, they encounter the diversity of Canada and get picked off one by one. Among those that they encounter are a French Canadian trapper named Johnny (Laurence Olivier), a peaceful religious settlement lead by Peter (Anton Walbrook) and including a young girl named Anna (Glynis Johns), an anthropologist named Philip Armstrong Scott (Leslie Howard), and a disgruntled Canadian soldier named Andy Brock (Raymond Massey). Invariably, Hirth tries to convert them all to Nazism, and invariably he fails.
The film’s propagandistic elements are quite clear. 49th Parallel sets up the contrast between the Nazis and the Canadians very well without compromising the humanity of either group. The Canadians, while responding to the Nazis in a variety of ways, are characterized by diversity, freedom, and their lack of unnecessary violence. There is one Nazi, Vogel (Niall MacGinness), who appears to be good. He falls in with the religious commune but ultimately meets his death anyway at the hands of the other Nazis. This, perhaps more than any of the other situations in the film, illustrates the vileness of the German soldiers. They will stop at nothing, including executing their own man, in order to reach the US. The Nazis’ maniacal devotion only gets more alarming as the film goes on.
Each Nazi and Canadian represent something specific about their respective groups, which works both for and against the film. On one hand, it’s interesting to see the thought that went into crafting this piece of propaganda, but on the other, it feels more manipulative and less authentic that way. I’m more inclined to admire this approach, since nobody was every pretending this film was anything but anti-Nazi propaganda in the first place.
The film is shot fairly regularly, though there are several aerial views of Canada that are pretty spectacular. The film takes the audience through mountains, farmland, and the city. Even though the picture takes a while to warm up (we don’t have much connection with any characters for the first ten or twenty minutes), there is a bombing of a U-boat that I’m pretty sure is real.
49th Parallel may not be the most outstanding effort by Powell and Pressburger, but it was their first major hit and a pretty good film. Its anti-Nazi agenda may be laid on pretty thick, but at least they take the time to develop their characters rather than painting everyone as simply good or evil. The cast is good, particularly Olivier (pretty soon I’m going to have to change my opinion of him), and all in all the film is very worthwhile.
“Nazis? That explains your arrogance, stupidity, and bad manners.”
Long story short: 3/4 stars
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