Thursday, May 7, 2015

49th Parallel (1941)

Director: Michael Powell


With Europe swallowed up into the conflict of World War II England was looking for any way to help quell the threat of Nazi Germany by attaining an alliance with the then neutral United State of America. What Michael Powell’s 1941 motion picture 49th Parallel was meant to do was create a stir in American audiences, creating a sense of what it would be like for Nazis to come so close to home. Essentially a propaganda picture the film would be a critical success at a time when American soil would be attacked by a foreign enemy for the first time over a century. In the end the film would not be necessary a a propaganda device, due in part of the Empire of Japan, as Americans became paranoid of foreign enemies infiltrating their own country.

49th Parallel is a British war drama about the stranded crew from a sunken German U-boat in Canada attempting to find their way across the border to the neutral United States to avoid Royal Canadian armed forces. Attempting to penetrate the British sympathizing nation of Canada a Nazi U-boat is sunk deep within the heart of Hudson Bay leaving only six crewmen ashore led by Lieutenant Hirth (Eric Portman) to find a way to get home. The men travel throughout the country encountering various Canadian peoples and cultures losing crew members along the way until only Hirth remains at the border of Canada and the United States at Niagara Falls. There Hirth is confronted by a Canadian soldier, Brock (Raymond Massey) who had snuck away from his unit without leave while Hirth was hitching a ride on a freight train that is to cross through customs. Hirth with the cargo is across the border in to the neutral nation believing he is home free, but Brock convinces the American customs inspector to return the freight with them aboard as containing “improperly manifested cargo” allowing Brock to arrest the last remaining Nazi from the sunken U-boat.

It is intriguing to see a motion picture coming from “the greatest generation,” albeit not an American feature, that follows the exploits of German Nazis as the main characters as they attempt to find their way home after being stranded in an enemy nation. It is clear that 49th Parallel is a propaganda film very well dressed up as a drama meant to stir American and perhaps Canadian audiences into joining the war effort. Its drama makes you question throughout how will these Germans be stopped? What you get is a clever episodic film that concludes with a sense of notional pride, but an even greater sense of hatred towards the evil Nazis; thus, an allied propaganda feature film.

The film’s production itself was one large wartime effort to build moral for the British effort along with the attempted encouragement of gaining allies from the North American continent. English director Michael Powell had interest in is this war picture which was inspired by the “ten little Indians” concept where each member is removed one by one. As the production grew from an idea to reality the size and scope of the feature grew along with it. Along with the story the film produces some majestic shots of Canadian wilderness and scenery, as well as a famed cast of which most took significant pay cuts in support of the picture and/or donated their pay to British war efforts.

With the picture’s episodic story as the Germans move from location to location it allowed a few of England’s finest actors to appear in the film. Laurence Olivier appears as Canadian trapper Johnnie. Despite his overly stereotypical performance and outlandish accent he breathes life into a film, even adding short spurts of humor to a subject that was meant to be frightening.

Fellow former Academy Award nominated actor Leslie Howard plays a thoughtful writer who finds himself face to face with the Nazi when they are widdled down to two. His character, Philip Armstrong Scott, gives the Nazis the benefit of fair chance that all are allowed their opinions as long as no one is hurt, but ultimate skirmishes lead to the death of one Nazi.

Featured in a small love interest role is a seventeen year-old Glynis Johns. The South African-born actress whose career would lead her to be best known for her appearance as the mother in Walt Disney’s 1964 feature Mary Poppins appears here as a young religious girl that intrigues one of the Nazi soldiers into life away from war and hatred. With her distinct voice that is low, yet innocent and youthful aids is making her performance stand out as believable at being one that could make a hardened Nazi change his beliefs, but ultimately shot for treason by his commanding officer

Raymond Massey, famous for his work in London, would be the only Canadian-born actor of the primary cast. Ultimately he is the hero, and perhaps is the character that American might find the most in common with. Portraying a Canadian soldier that sees no point in rushing into a war that appears so far away he happens upon the one last remaining German of the crew by accident. Massey’s performance as an unrefined, happy-go-lucky fellow makes him likable and allows audiences to recognize themselves in his role, which is the point of the entire feature.

The film which opened in the United States under the simple yet meant to be frightening title The Invaders released to generally favorable reviews through the cinema world. Noted mostly for its exciting action and suspense, 49th Parallel ultimately found itself to be a strong enough message to earn millions in the North American market. The film would be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards shortly after the events of Pearl Harbor and took home the statue for Best Story for the year 1942 (being the film released later in 1941 in America).
Through the passage of time the film has lost general interest in cinematic history from an American point of view, perhaps because it was a propaganda piece from WWII, but in Britain remains a well praised classic. Historians and critics generally admire the film for its scope and significance to its time in history, as well as the moments of raw, near guerrilla style filmmaking in the Canadian wilderness. Contemporary audiences may not be familiar with the 49th Parallel, but it is a rather good feature film that is surprisingly entertaining from a picture released before the United States joined the war.

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