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49TH PARALLEL

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Leslie Howard, Laurence Olivier, Raymond Massey, Anton Walbrook, Eric Portman, Niall MacGinnis, Glynis Johns
Director:  Michael Powell
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  123 Minutes
Release Date:  February 20, 2007

“The curtain rises on Canada.”

Film ***1/2

49th Parallel was the first major international film for Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.  During the first half of the 1940s, the duo would make eight pictures in support of the British war effort in WWII.  Six were standard studio productions, but two actually received government backing.  Both are on this Criterion DVD; the short film The Volunteer and the full-length 49th Parallel.

Released in 1941, 49th Parallel as scripted by Pressburger and directed and produced by Powell was an attempt to turn western eyes toward the brewing conflict in Europe.  Though France and Poland had fallen, and England was firmly in Germany’s sights, many in North America knew very little about the looming Nazi threat.  By crafting a bold propaganda thriller with a cast of stars that would guarantee international exhibition, Powell and Pressburger delivered possibly the first real blow of reality to those across the Atlantic from their native England.

The story involves a German U-Boat that enters Canada through the Hudson Bay.  Though the submarine is sunk, there is an away team of 6 Nazis, who plan to make their way through Canada by any means necessary and into the United States, where they know American political law will favor protecting the rights of enemy combatants more than the safety of her citizens (not a lot has changed in 65 or so years, has it?).

The intriguing take is that the Nazis are more or less the protagonists.  Powell almost dares us at first not to admire them for their efficiency, ruthlessness, and fanatical devotion to their evil cause of racial superiority and world domination.  As led by Hirth (Portman), the Germans know that by making their way through Canada and into American safety, they will set a striking example for the invincible Third Reich.

The movie is divided into four major episodes.  In the first, the Germans take control of an outpost, where a factor and a trapper (Olivier), learn first hand how serious the war in Europe is.  Olivier later claimed trapper Johnnie as one of his favorite roles, even though his outrageous attempt at a French Canadian accent is distracting.  He turns out to be a supremely sympathetic character.

In the second episode, the Nazis take refuge in a collective, let by Peter (Walbrook).  Knowing they are mostly German immigrants, Hirth believes he can bring them into the fold with an impassioned yet frightening speech about the Reich that sounds right out of Triumph of the Will.  But he finds no takers.  Peter’s response is a speech of his own, and his answer to German domination will have you ready to cheer.

It is there that one of the Germans, the more kindly Vogel (MacGinnis), laments that the Germany he once knew no longer exists for him.  Peter offers him a place in the commune, but Vogel learns there is only one way anybody leaves the Nazi regime.

In the third episode, we finally meet Leslie Howard as Philip Armstrong Scott.  He doesn’t show up until the 90 minute mark, essentially pulling a Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, having only a small amount of screen time at the end and taking top billing.  He is a writer and intellectual, and seemingly easy prey for the rampaging Nazi troupe, but he has a few surprises up his sleeve.  And in the final stretch, Hirth tries to escape for the States on a train with Canadian soldier Andy Brock (Massey) as his prisoner.  Will America yawn and ship Hirth along back to his country?  Or will she take a stand before the whole world trembles under the boot of Hitler?

In a sense, that’s not just the question for the finale of the movie, but for the West as well.  Before Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, America was neutral.  Many understood the Nazi threat years ahead of time and clamored for action, but the powers that were yawned and remained isolated.  If only we could have gotten involved earlier, how many millions of lives might have been spared?

Looking back through modern eyes, it’s easy to forget that in 1941, the outcome of WWII was still very much in doubt.  We can watch 49th Parallel with a certain amount of safety knowing the Nazis were eventually vanquished.  But remember that in the day, people had to wonder if what they were seeing on screen actually could, or maybe even HAD happened.  Germans marching through Canada?  Then across the 49th parallel into America?  Had the attack on Pearl Harbor never had happened, who knows what history might have written for us?

One can’t quite count 49th Parallel in the same league as later Powell and Pressburger classics like The Red Shoes or Black Narcissus.  But it’s still a strong, taut, character driven thriller with a message that may not be relevant in it’s exact form today, but still has something to say about what happens when we refuse to recognize a danger before it’s too late.  Hitler came close to dominating the world…and there are those still willing to try.

Video ***

Criterion does a respectable job with this classic film…the black and white photography offers plenty of good contrast and clarity, with only a marginal amount of noticeable aging artifacts.

Audio **

Likewise, the mono audio is fairly clean and well presented, with minor amounts of unavoidable noise owing to the age of the movie.

Features ***1/2

The most notable extra is the inclusion of another Powell and Pressburger short film, The Volunteer.  That’s on disc two, along with excerpts from Michael Powell’s audio dictations for his autobiography (how cool is that?).  There is also a BBC documentary on the indelible career of P & P, focusing on their WWII collaborations.

Disc one features a trailer and a solid, informative commentary track by film and music historian Bruce Eder.

Summary:

49th Parallel served its purpose in helping turn western eyes toward the Nazi onslaught, and also put Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger on the international cinema map.  It’s the film that began to change the movie industry in Britain, and remains an effective if somewhat dated thriller to this day.

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