Cast & Crew
A damaged U-boat is stranded in a Canadian bay in the early years of World War II. The Fanatical Nazi captain and his crew must reach the neutral United States or be captured. Along the way they meet a variety of characters each with their own views on the war and nationalism. In this film 'Michael Powell' and Emeric Pressburger show their ideas of why the United States should join the Allied fight against the Nazis.
Nugent M Clougher
England) D&p Studios (denham
C. C. Stevens
Sydney S Streeter
A. W. Watkins
Ralph Vaughan Williams
F. A. Young
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
49th Parallel - 49TH PARALLEL - Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger's 1941 World War II Thriller on DVD
49th Parallel wastes little time setting up the situation. It opens with a German U-boat attacking ships off Canada's Atlantic coast. A successful raid by the Canadian air force leaves a group of the German sailors stranded on a sparsely populated coast though fortunately for them near a trading outpost. That's the start of the Germans' plan to escape using a contact on the Pacific coast but first, of course, they have to get there. Along the way the Germans encounter Laurence Olivier as a French-Canadian trapper in full Pepe Le Pew accent, Leslie Howard playing a nature-loving writer who reads Thomas Mann, Anton Walbrook (The Red Shoes) as a charismatic Hutterite leader and even Raymond Massey as an AWOL Canadian soldier. This type of cross-section of Canada is filled out with travelling salesmen, shop clerks, sightseers, farm hands and others that the sailors meet. Whatever sympathy the Germans may have-and remember this was 1941 when there was still some lingering sentiment that the Nazis weren't really as bad as all that-such sympathy evaporates as they become more desperate and brutal. The film consistently contrasts the Nazis' single approach to problems with all the variety of a liberal democracy.
Powell and Pressburger frequently shift the setting or the pacing so that 49th Parallel isn't quite predictable even as you probably know where it's going in the end. Action sequences towards the beginning and end balance the long, almost meditative section set at the Hutterite village where questions of immigrant assimilation and self-creation are discussed naturally and not as some screenwriter's forced ideas. The filmmakers also bring a lot of little touches that keep the film grounded, elements such as the bravery of an Eskimo hunter, Leslie Howard's off-hand comments about an Indian festival being for tourists, an almost-comic argument about whether an airplane has enough fuel and the daily routines in the Hutterite community. Helping on the film are an array of talent including the great composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, three-time Oscar® winner cinematographer Freddie Young and future director David Lean as editor.
One of the more interesting aspects of the film is that the Nazis aren't treated monolithically. The ranking officer is a true believer in Hitler, at one point even delivering a speech in praise of his hero (misjudging his audience as it turns out). He allows for no gray areas but the rest of the crew isn't quite so sure and comes in varying degrees, such as the young sailor who is the tiniest bit hesitant about his guarding duties to others who become even more doubtful of their mission. An indication of Powell and Pressburger's artistic temperament rising over their intentions for propaganda is that they made perhaps the most fully realized character in the film as a Nazi, Vogel ( played by Niall MacGinnis, who was the devil worshipper in Night of the Demon). At first he's just one of the group but you can see a crack when he surreptitiously passes along a rosary to a wounded enemy. Later he becomes less and less interested in their escape and more in a regular life, convinced that somewhere he made a mistake in telling himself that he had no choice in siding with the Nazis. Apart from the characterization, it raises a political issue that may not have been entirely intentional at the time. The portrayal of Vogel as a regular person caught up in the Nazi movement could be laying the groundwork for the time after the war when Germany would need to be rehabilitated while also portraying the damages that Nazis caused on Germany itself, a reminder that not all Germans were Nazis.
As a bonus on the DVD is The Volunteer, an hour-long 1943 film that Powell and Pressburger made to promote the Fleet Air Arm. Starring Ralph Richardson as a famous actor who watches his former dresser rise through the service, The Volunteer has to be one of the most peculiar propaganda films ever made (including a brief, goofy cameo by Laurence Olivier again). Apart from small digressions on the nature of acting and of cinema, it's full of strange touches like odd comic relief, frank admission of sailor's fears and even an intimation that Richardson may have his own designs on the former dresser's girlfriend. An extended sequence where the ship's crew watch a film of their trip to the Casbah is an inventive mix of twisted images and self-reflexive dialogue that's all the more remarkable for seeming like something that might actually have happened. The double-disc set of 49th Parallel also includes a solid BBC documentary on Powell & Pressburger with charming footage of the two of them together and of Powell at Francis Ford Coppolla's ill-fated Zoetrope studios. There's also a commentary on the film by historian Bruce Eder and almost an hour of audio material that Powell recorded for his autobiography.
For more information about 49th Parallel, visit Criterion Collection To order 49th Parallel, go to TCM Shopping.
by Lang Thompson
49th Parallel - 49TH PARALLEL - Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger's 1941 World War II Thriller on DVD
The government says, "We want men to fight the Nazis, join today." So I joined. I figured they were in a hurry. That was three hundred and eighty seven days ago. Four divisions and a lot of drafts have gone overseas, and what's number B987642 doing? Guarding the Chippewa Canal. Who'd want to steal it anyway?- Andy Brock
I can grouse about the food, and the C.O. and anything I blamed please. And that's more than you with your Gestapo and your stormtroopers and your Aryan bushwah. Ahhh, nuts. What's the good of talking to you. You can't even begin to understand democracy. We own the right to be fed up with anything we damn please and say so out loud when we feel like it.- Andy Brock
Put 'em up Nazi...No not that way.- Andy Brock
This way. Cuz I'm not askin for those pants...I'm just taking 'em.- Andy Brock
Powell forgot that Newfoundland was a Crown Colony and not a part of Canada and when they moved the full-sized submarine model there it was impounded by Customs & Excise who demanded that import duty be paid. The matter was finally resolved when Powell appealed to the Governor of Newfoundland, citing their work for the war effort. Newfoundland became a Canadian province in 1949.