49th Parallel (1941)


Introduction

49th Parallel is a 1941 British war drama film; it was the third film made by the British writer-director team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

It was released in the United States as The Invaders.

Background

The British Ministry of Information approached Michael Powell to make a propaganda film for them, suggesting he make “a film about mine-sweeping”. Instead, Powell decided to make a different film to help sway opinion in the then neutral United States. Said Powell, “I hoped it might scare the pants off the Americans [and thus bring them into the war]”. Screenwriter Emeric Pressburger remarked, “Goebbels considered himself an expert on propaganda, but I thought I’d show him a thing or two”. After persuading the British and Canadian governments, Powell started location filming in 1940.

The original choice to play the German officer, Lieutenant Hirth, was Archers’ stalwart Esmond Knight but he had joined the Royal Navy on the outbreak of war. Anton Walbrook as “Peter” donated half his fee to the International Red Cross. Raymond Massey, Laurence Olivier and Leslie Howard all agreed to work at half their normal fee, because they felt it was an important propaganda film. This is the only time that Canadian-born Massey played a Canadian on screen.

Outline

Early in World War II, U-37, a German U-boat, makes its way to Canadian waters and participates in fictional anti-shipping activities similar to those of the later Battle of the St. Lawrence. The U-boat evades the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) and Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) patrols by moving north. A raiding party of six Kriegsmarine sailors are put ashore to obtain supplies but soon after, the U-boat is sunk in Hudson Bay by RCAF bombers. The six attempt to evade capture by travelling across Canada to reach the neutral United States and return to Germany.

Led by Lieutenants Hirth (Eric Portman) and Kuhnecke (Raymond Lovell), the small band of sailors encounter and sometimes brutalise a wide range of people. The band steadily diminishes as one by one they are killed or captured. Initial victims of the Kriegsmarine sailors are the Eskimo Nick (Ley On) and a French-Canadian trapper (Laurence Olivier). When a floatplane is dispatched to investigate the reports of their arrival at a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post, the Germans open fire, gunning down the pilot and some of the local Inuit. The Kriegsmarine sailors steal the aircraft and take off to fly south, but can not achieve takeoff because of being overloaded, the crew is told to get rid of all their rifles. One sailor exits and stands on a float to throw out the guns and in so doing, is shot and killed by an Inuk (a member of the Inuit) thereby unloading a sufficient amount of weight to takeoff.

The floatplane runs out of fuel and crashes in a lake in Manitoba, killing Kuhnecke. The Germans encounter and are welcomed by a nearby Hutterite farming community. The Kriegsmarine sailors assume them to be sympathetic to the German cause, but Hirth’s fanatical speech is rejected by Peter (Anton Walbrook), the community’s leader, and even by one of the fugitives, Vogel (Niall MacGinnis), who comes to the aid of Anna (Glynis Johns), a teenage girl. Vogel, who would rather join the community and ply his trade of baker, is tried by Hirth and summarily executed for desertion.

The dwindling band arrive in Winnipeg and sell some field glasses for food. Hearing that the police are watching the border, Hirth decides they will travel to Vancouver to catch a steamship for neutral Japan. Knocking out or murdering a motorist for his car, Hirth, Lohrmann and Kranz flee west, having killed eleven civilians in all. Kranz is arrested by Canadian Mounties at a parade at Banff, Alberta. The two remaining men try to walk across the Rockies. They are welcomed at a camp by a writer named Philip Armstrong Scott (Leslie Howard) who takes them for lost tourists, but they turn on him, destroying his books and his very valuable paintings before fleeing. Scott and his men pursue them. Lohrmann finally rebels against Hirth’s leadership, knocks him out and takes off by himself. Lohrmann is cornered in a cave. Scott is shot, but enters the cave and beats him up, counting out loud the individual blows, each one in recompense for the loss of his two paintings, a Matisse and a Picasso; three books, including his own widely researched but as yet unpublished manuscript; and finally for his own wounds and temporary imprisonment. One of the other men in his party comments, as they all drag his body from the cave, “The boss has knocked him clear out!”

Hirth is the last fugitive. The story comes to a head with a confrontation between him and Andy Brock (Raymond Massey), a Canadian soldier who is absent without leave, aboard the baggage and express car of a Canadian National Railways train near the Canadian-American border. When Hirth learns that the train has crossed into the United States at Niagara Falls, he surrenders his gun to a US Customs official and demands to be taken to the German embassy. Brock explains that Hirth is wanted in Canada for murder, but while the U.S. border guards are sympathetic to Brock’s plea, they cannot find any official reason to send Hirth back. When Brock points out that Hirth is not listed on the freight manifest, the Americans are happy to use this pretext to send the car, along with Hirth and Brock, back to Canada for “improperly manifested cargo”. The film ends with the train’s reversing to Canada, and Brock, who had recently been knocked cold and had his uniform and dog tags stolen off his unconscious body, and donned by Hirth, who was planning on impersonating Brock within Canada, about to pummel Hirth in the baggage car.

Production & Filming Details

  • Directors: Michael Powell.
  • Producers: Michael Powell and John Sutro.
  • Music: Ralph Vaughan Williams.
  • Cinematography: Frederick Young.
  • Editor: David Lean.
  • Distributor: General Film Distributors Ltd (UK) and Columbia Pictures (US).
  • Release Date: 08 October 1941 (UK) and 05 March 1942 (US).
  • Running Time: 123 minutes.
  • Country: UK.
  • Language: English.

YouTube Link

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