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One of the most unusual films to come out of the World War II era, 49th Parallel (1941) was unabashed propaganda, yet no less gripping for that. A recounting of the plot would likely sound preposterous and give no indication of the quality of this British-made film. To put it briefly, the story follows a crew of Germans whose U-boat (submarine) is sunk by Royal Canadian Air Force bombers in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, stranding the small group that has gone ashore searching for much-needed supplies. The Germans realize their only hope is to make their way out of the country, preferably to the then-neutral U.S. Along the way, they imprison and kill a French-Canadian trapper, steal a plane but are shot down by Eskimos, hide out in a remote community of Hutterites (a German Christian sect similar to the Amish), and encounter a writer on a fishing vacation whose contemplative nature gives way to fierce patriotism. One by one, the number of Germans is reduced until only the most vicious, evil Nazi among them is left, stowing away on a railroad car with a drunken AWOL Canadian soldier to the United States...and safety.
One of the reasons for the movie's high quality is the superb ensemble cast, most of them major British stars working for drastically reduced wages because they believed in the film. Leslie Howard as the writer and Laurence Olivier as the trapper were then perhaps the biggest stars to come out of the U.K., highly sought after on both sides of the Atlantic. When shooting began, Howard was still basking in his successes in Gone with the Wind (1939) and Intermezzo: A Love Story (1939), the movie that introduced Ingrid Bergman to American audiences. Olivier was the hottest new star from England, having recently enjoyed commercial and critical acclaim in Pride and Prejudice (1940), Rebecca (1940) and Wuthering Heights (1939), with Best Actor Oscar® nods for the latter two. Yet, the two actors were more than eager to take on small roles in this picture (although Olivier's part almost went to Charles Boyer). Canadian Raymond Massey, having just scored in the title role of Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940) and as the abolitionist John Brown in Santa Fe Trail (1940), took the brief but plum role of the runaway Canadian soldier. Massey was persuaded to make the film by his brother, who was then the Canadian High Commissioner in London.
Other cast members, among them Finlay Currie, Anton Walbrook and Niall MacGinnis, were relatively unknown to American audiences but had long, successful careers in Europe. The cast member who received the most acclaim for his work here, however, was Eric Portman, a noted Shakespearian actor whose career dated back to the mid 1920s. Despite a heavy Yorkshire accent, Portman is utterly compelling as the brutal but determined German officer who lets nothing stop his flight to safety. Also in the cast was 18-year-old Glynis Johns, a newcomer to movies whose work in film, television and theater peaked in the sixties with her own TV series and high profile films such as The Chapman Report (1962) and Mary Poppins (1964). Johns was brought in to replace famed German stage actress Elisabeth Bergner, who agreed to play a Hutterite villager but quit before filming was completed. She then quickly relocated to California, bringing much criticism down on herself for using the production as a way of escaping Germany and establishing herself in Hollywood. Bergner can still be seen in some long shots.
Even with this noteworthy cast, however, the lion's share of the attention lavished on 49th Parallel focused on Michael Powell, already an established director in England and well on his way to becoming one of the top film artists in his country over the next two decades. He worked tirelessly to get the picture made on the meager $100,000 budget supplied by his government's Ministry of Information. The film took 18 months to complete as Powell dragged his cast and crew across the vast expanses of Canada to get the impressive footage. The stunning opening montage was shot with a hand-held camera by Freddie Young, whose career extended from 1928 to 1985, including Academy Awards for his cinematography on Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965) and Ryan's Daughter (1970), all of them directed by David Lean. The editor on this picture, Lean would direct his first film (along with author-star Noel Coward) the following year: the Royal Navy action drama In Which We Serve (1942). By the late 1950s, Lean would take Powell's place as Britain's pre-eminent director.
The film's uniquely structured story was fashioned by writer Emeric Pressburger as a piece of propaganda specifically intended to stir the U.S., still officially neutral at the time of production, into joining the allied war effort against Germany. A Jew born in Hungary, educated in Czechoslovakia and Germany, with a background in journalism and film writing from Berlin and Paris, Pressburger fled the volatile European political upheaval and relocated to London. Despite his lack of command in the language, he became the scriptwriter of some of the most English of all English films. 49th Parallel was only his second time working with Michael Powell, but on this picture they initiated a collaboration that would last more than 20 years and produce such notable films as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948). It was Pressburger's intention on this project to show German master propagandist Joseph Goebbels "a thing or two," and many agreed he did, including the U.S. Motion Picture Academy, which gave Pressburger an Oscar® for Best Writing, Original Story. Ironically, his status in Britain in these early days of the war was as an "enemy alien," and upon returning from production in Canada, he was imprisoned and threatened with deportation until Powell and the Ministry of Information intervened.
49th Parallel was a big hit on both sides of the Atlantic. It also received Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and Best Screenplay (Pressburger and Rodney Ackland). Powell was nominated for Best Director by the New York Film Critics Circle. Whether it was an effective propaganda tool for involving the U.S. will never be known; by the time it premiered here, in March 1942, America had already been in the war more than three months.
Director: Michael Powell
Producer: John Sutro, Michael Powell
Screenplay: Emeric Pressburger, Rodney Ackland
Cinematography: Freddie Young
Editing: David Lean
Art Direction: David Rawnsley
Original Music: Ralph Vaughn Williams
Cast: Eric Portman (Hirth), Leslie Howard (Philip Scott), Laurence Olivier (Johnnie), Anton Walbrook (Peter), Glynis Johns (Anna).
by Rob Nixon