Calling a movie “propaganda” is usually an insult. But making quality propaganda is a skill, and one well worth deploying when you are fighting the Nazis. In 1941, the British War Ministry approached Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger for support of the then-failing war effort. Wanting to tempt the neutral U.S. into the fight, the emerging superstar duo of British cinema set the story of a deadly team of Nazi invaders in Canada (The film’s US title was “Invasion”). As it happened, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor before the film opened in The States, so whether it would have helped tipped the balance will never be known. But there’s no doubt that 49th Parallel is a brilliant illustration of how wartime films can persuade even as they entertain.
Plot: After sinking defenseless cargo ships, a German U-Boat tries to hide in Hudson Bay. But the Canadian military closes in, forcing its resourceful, ruthless, true-believing Lieutenant Ernst Hirth (Eric Portman, convincing as usual) to lead his crew in a desperate dash across Canada. Thrills and human drama ensue, as does effective illustration of what precisely Nazism entailed and why all free peoples had to resist it.
Pressburger’s story is reminiscent of the legendary western Winchester ’73 with the overarching narrative arc being a cross-country chase involving core characters, but the underlying structure being episodic. In each episode, new characters and settings provide an opportunity for the audience to see some of their favorite stars (e.g., Laurence Olivier, Leslie Howard, Raymond Massey) and to comprehend a different aspect of Nazism, be it racism, religious intolerance, imperialism, contempt for the vulnerable, and even hatred of “decadent” art. It could easily have been heavy-handed but with this filmmaking team and cast, it’s supremely credible and stirring.
My favorite episode is the Nazis hiding out with a German Hutterite community. Its very much to the filmmakers’ credit that in 1941, when German immigrants were objects of suspicion and hostility in North America, the Hutterites are portrayed entirely positively. The scene where Lt. Hirth attempts to rally them to the cause of the Fatherland and the Hutterites reject him is particularly powerful. Subplots about a German crew member (Niall MacGinnis) who is taken by the Hutterite way of life and is punished for it by Hirth, and a Hutterite youth (Glynis Johns) whose faith is tested to the breaking point, are also powerful. The episode involving Howard as (what else?) an eccentric English scholar is nearly as fine. Kudos are also in order for multiple episodes showing First Nations people in a more positive light than was the norm in this era.
I’m not sure any country has had as much cinematic talent as densely packed as did Britain in the 1930s and 1940s. So much so that even after all this writing, I am just now getting around to mentioning how beautifully shot and perfectly edited the movie is, courtesy of Freddie Young and David Lean respectively. Five well-earned lifetime Academy Awards between those chaps; you can see why again here.
All in all, 49th Parallel is both crackerjack entertainment, affecting drama, and a compelling reason to stand up and sing O Canada!
p.s. Leslie Howard, whom the Nazis would murder in 1943, also did excellent work in my recommendation The Scarlet Pimpernel and Pygmalion, as did Niall MacGinnis in another of my recommended movies, Curse of the Demon.