Solicitor Dylan Charles wonders whether he's the victim of subtle Canadian propaganda.
"The 49th parallel: the only undefended frontier in the world."
Every war has an army of public relations agents working for it. People need to be told why they're fighting that war and they need to be damn sure who the enemy is. That's where propaganda comes in.
It can be base, crude, and obvious. Or it can be subtle, intelligent, and thoroughly well made. 49th Parallel falls into the latter category.
Facts of the Case
World War II has been raging for nigh on a year now and things are about to escalate for the Canadians. A German U-Boat is heading deep into Canadian waters hoping to be the first of many—until the boat is spotted and sunk.
After their U-Boat is sunk in Hudson Bay, a small group of Nazi survivors make their way through enemy territory. Their goal: to reach the United States, which is not currently at war with Germany.
Along the way they meet up with a variety of Canadian archetypes, from the insanely overacted Johnnie the Trapper (Sir Laurence Olivier) to Peter (Anton Walbrook) the leader of a small Hutterite community to Philip Armstrong Scott (Leslie Howard) a Canadian intellectual.
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger have created a propaganda piece. Keep that in mind. It was made with British government funding and by two men known for making movie of a very pro-British slant.
The reason I want you to keep this in mind is because it gives the film a peculiar feel. The characters don't possess any true depth because they're there to serve a specific function. Each of the Nazi submariners represents a different aspect of the German people. There's Vogel (Niall MacGinnis), a reluctant soldier who is there only because he is forced to be, though he longs for a simpler life. There's the youth, uncontrolled and violent. There's Lieutenant Hirth (Eric Portman) who sticks to tradition and to his orders like glue, because he truly believes in Nazi ideals.
They don't change throughout the movie, but remain static until they're killed or captured, one by one. However, 49th Parallel differs from other movies of this nature in the portrayal of the Germans. While each is a one-dimensional impression of a person, together they add up to a full spectrum. Yes, Hirth is zealous and adamant in his beliefs that he is in the right, but he is not the only representative of the Nazi party. Vogel is one of his men and doesn't want anything to do with the war. He's shown to be religious and sensitive, protecting a young girl from the other soldiers.
The Canadians are one-dimensional as well, but once again each character is meant to represent one part of a larger picture. Philip Armstrong Scott (Leslie Howard) is an English intellectual who states that as civilized people, they should not have to resort to violence. But Scott is also not afraid to give one of the Germans a sound thrashing when they attempt to rob from him. Johnnie the Trapper (Laurence Olivier) is the quintessential Quebecois. He may have one of the most outrageous French accents since the French Knights in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but he's damned proud to be Canadian. And Olivier shows this by devouring the scenery, chewing up massive chunks like a beaver on speed.
Aside from Olivier's tendency to kick it up a notch, the acting is powerful stuff. Walbrook's Peter is the leader of a small religious community, a settlement of German expatriates living in the heart of Canada. He's a quiet figure, blending in with the rest of the community, so inconspicuous that he has to be pointed out to Hirth. But when he is needed by his people, he stands tall and rails against the Nazis that have wormed their way into his community. His speech, a rebuttal of sorts to a speech made by Hirth, is powerful, calling upon his religious faith to smash down Hirth and Hirth's fuehrer.
Again and again is the theme of maintaining a peaceful, civilized life until it is absolutely necessary to respond with force.
Leslie Howard's Philip Armstrong Scott is a writer, a collector of Picassos and Matisses and literature. The submariners take his books, his paintings, his work and burn them. And that is when he decides that they need a damned good thrashing. The parallels to actual Nazi book burning are fairly obvious here. Howard is enjoyable, and he delivers his lines dryly to great humorous effect.
Despite its heavy handedness, it works because of these powerful performances and because of the well-structured, continuous allegory. The script is intelligently written, creating a far more complex storyline than most films of this nature. It's no surprise at all that the script won an Oscar.
49th Parallel gets the full Criterion treatment. It in no way shows its age, with everything being purty as can be (which is especially good considering the glorious Canadian vistas shown throughout the film).
The extras nicely fill out the movie and its history. A handy booklet contains an essay by film scholar Charles Barr and a speech made by Michael Powell. The essay is a through analysis of the film and worth reading. The speech also adds a great deal to understanding the movie. However, if reading ain't your thing, then there's a hefty helping of moving pictures and audio.
First up, there's an audio commentary by film and music historian Bruce Eder. His commentary comes off as a bit stiff, as though he's reading from a prepared script. That being said, he's got plenty to say that's definitely worth hearing. He gives the history of the movie and the filmmakers, along with an analysis of the film.
There's The Volunteer, a short film written and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Once again, a propaganda piece that touts the virtues of the British military. Sign up today!
A BBC documentary on Pressburger and Powell helps to define their relationship from the beginning and the movies they've made over the years.
There is a reading from Powell's autobiography read by him. It's extremely thorough, but a bit draggy. I think you'd be better off picking up the book and reading it instead of listening to this track.
49th Parallel goes beyond just being a puff piece meant to praise the British and slam the Germans. If you can get past Olivier's manic French-Canadian and if you can accept the peculiar nature of the movie, then you'll find an enjoyable allegorical war drama.
49th Parallel is found Not Guilty. Except for you Sir Olivier. For wanton destruction of private property (tooth marks all over the scenes) you are found guilty and sentenced to the stockade.
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• Audio Commentary by Film and Music Historian Bruce Eder
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