In 1940, the British government asked director Michael Powell to make a film supporting the ongoing war effort against Nazi Germany. Along with his partner, Emeric Pressburger, Powell wanted to use the sanctioned platform to sway the United States, who remained neutral at the time, into joining the fight alongside Britain. To attempt this complicated feat, Powell and Pressburger set the story for this propaganda film in Canada, a friendly ally of the United States and a country involved in World War II since September 1939. The end result was 49th Parallel (1941), a cautionary tale based on realistic, albeit fictional events. The title is in reference to the latitude at which most of the Canadian-U.S. open border is located. Powell and Pressburger hoped that by showing the German enemies right at America’s doorstep, it would frighten its citizens into demanding their country join the war.
After a German U-boat is bombed by the Royal Canadian Air Force in Hudson Bay, six surviving Nazis from the submarine have to travel undercover through enemy territory to either cross into the U.S. or board a ship bound for neutral Japan. On their journey, the Nazi sailors encounter various Canadians, all from different cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds. These people serve as composites for the diverse population of the country, from French-Canadian, to Inuit, to newly-settled German refugees; they are not unlike the citizens of the United States. This diverse, multi-cultural environment is the antithesis of Hitler’s agenda, provoking the surviving Nazi sailors to engage in brutal violence against those in their path. 49th Parallel takes us along with the Nazi men on their trek across Canada, giving us more than just a glimpse of the enormous depths of their depravity. We see the inner workings of how they think and behave and it’s terrifying. The film places the spotlight on the seriousness of the Nazi threat through a series of vignettes, each one bringing us closer to directly facing evil incarnate on our home soil.
In the wilds that serve as a backdoor to the country, a gregarious French-Canadian trapper, Johnnie, played by Laurence Olivier, returns to a Hudson Bay trading post after a months-long hunting trip. He and the staff of the trading post are the first to encounter the Nazis. Although they are far removed from any densely populated areas, the trading post has access to a radio and can signal for help. Johnnie and the trading post factor (Finlay Currie) realize the importance of notifying the Canadian authorities of the Nazi sailors’ whereabouts and plans, at the risk of their own lives. Despite the efforts of Johnnie and the factor, the Nazis are able to proceed with their mission, but their presence is now known across the country. They attempt to take refuge in a community of German Hutterites, thinking they will find support for their cause. Any hope of rallying sympathizers is destroyed by the Hutterites’ leader, Peter (Anton Walbrook), who gives an impassioned speech about their community’s exile from Germany to the freedom they have in their new country. Peter admonishes the Nazis for their horrific cruelty and narrow-minded view of humanity.
As they continue through the country, the Nazis dwindle one by one, either dying or caught by Canadian authorities. The final two make it to the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains and are welcomed into the campsite of British author, Philip Armstrong Scott (Leslie Howard). Scott is affable, well-dressed and his campsite is the very definition of “glamping.” Original artwork from Picasso and Matisse fill out the decor of his sprawling teepee. Before long the real identities of the Nazis are made known and their disdain for the intellectual Scott and his appreciation of art and literature provokes them to burn all of it. Their disturbing, ruthless destruction extends not only to humanity, but to anything created in conflict of the Nazi ethos. The last remaining Nazi sailor decides to travel back east in an attempt to cross over to the United States via train. He meets face-to-face with a Canadian soldier (Raymond Massey) as they cross the border at Niagara Falls.
49th Parallel is an interesting and bizarre film. For those looking for signature Powell and Pressburger, fair warning: you might be disappointed. Black Narcissus (1947) and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) it is not. 49th Parallel lacks the iconic visual storytelling The Archers are known for, but it serves as an important time capsule of the culture surrounding the early events of World War II. Despite the well-written, Academy Award winning original story, 49th Parallel collapses under the weight of its overt propaganda. Also, Laurence Olivier is unfortunately miscast as the French-Canadian Johnnie, and Raymond Massey’s portrayal of a Canadian solider is far too sentimental. The saving grace of the film is in the performances of the top-billed Leslie Howard and the delightful, mysterious Anton Walbrook, who provides an interesting perspective as the exiled anti-Nazi German. Howard perfectly captures the effusive personality of the patriotic Philip Armstrong Scott, without ever wearing the character’s feelings on his sleeve. His performance is subtle, charming and quite humorous at times, which provides a much needed break from the overall seriousness of the film. Howard also makes the most ridiculous ideas, like taking priceless artwork on a camping trip, seem completely reasonable. Although Olivier is miscast and Massey a bit hammy, their participation in the film was a labor of love. Both actors, along with Howard, took a salary cut as part of their contribution to the war effort, while Walbrook donated a large portion of his salary to the Red Cross. The film was deeply personal for Massey, who was Canadian. His brother, Vincent Massey, the Canadian High Commissioner, provided the narration at the beginning of the film. It’s these behind the scene efforts that, along with Howard and Walbrook’s excellent performances, make 49th Parallel an important film in World War II history.
I’ve been covering films starring Leslie Howard that are currently streaming in the FilmStruck catalog, with 49th Parallel available on The Criterion Channel. You can find my posts on Howard’s performances in The Scarlet Pimpernel(1934) here and Pygmalion (1938) here. My hope is to build the case that he is one of the most misunderstood and under-appreciated actors of his generation.
This piece was originally published at StreamLine, the official blog of FilmStruck on December 3, 2016 and can be found archived here.