Category: films with numbers in the title / In category: 2 of 10 / Overall: 22 of 100
‘49th Parallel’ was the third of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s collaborations, and the last on which they would take separate screen credits. For their next film, ‘One of Our Aircraft is Missing’, they formed their own production company, The Archers, and bequeathed to the history of cinema that idiosyncratic and still inspirational credit “written, produced and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger”.
‘49th Parallel’, in short, was the film that sealed the deal. It was epic in its conception and execution, and just a teensy bit controversial as well. And while I chose ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ and ‘I Know Where I’m Going!’ to represent Powell and Pressburger on my personal faves list, ‘49th Parallel’ remains a film that I wholeheartedly love: definitely a standout even among so prestigious a body of work as theirs.
The first eight films P&P made together were all produced during the war years and were all, ostensibly, propaganda films. Each was designed to communicate a specific message and/or celebrate an aspect of Britishness (ie. to reinforce the values under threat from Nazi-ism). Thus, ‘Contraband’ warned against Fifth Columnists, ‘I Know Where I’m Going!’ celebrated national values (a “why we are fighting” movie) and ‘A Canterbury Tale’ focused on Home Front activities.
‘49th Parallel’ was a plea for American involvement. Ian Christie, in his book ‘Arrows of Desire’, recounts the film’s genesis:
“Powell had read an article about how Canada had come into the war on Britain’s side despite internal French-Canadian hostility, and he understood how the forceful presentation of this issue could help win the most important propaganda battle of all: to bring America into the war quickly. With £5,000 from the Ministry of Information [this in 1940, by the way!] Powell and Pressburger embarked for Canada immediately … Back home, Treasury opposition to the idea of financing a film nearly killed the project. France was crumbling and the Luftwaffe threatened, yet ‘some bastard wants £50,000 or £60,000 to go and make a film in Canada’. But … the project proceed[ed] and within six weeks shooting had started in Canada.”
The basic plot, extrapolated by Pressburger from a scenario he and Rodney Ackland cooked up, has a German u-boat bothering shipping off the Canadian coast; when a successful aerial attack destroys it, a small group of survivors led by the borderline fanatical Lieutenant Hirth (Eric Portman) find themselves the sole Nazi invaders of Canada. Setting out from Hudson Bay, they attempt to traverse the country and cross into still-neutral America from where they hope to gain passage back to Germany. En route they encounter a French-Canadian trapper (a bizarrely-cast but enjoying himself Laurence Olivier), a holidaying and potentially draft-dodging Englishman (Leslie Howard) who responds to Hirth’s vituperative accusations of cowardice by staging a one-man resistance campaign, and a soldier gone AWOL (Raymond Massey) who beautifully outwits one of the Germans in a finale, played out above the Niagara Falls, that undercuts its tub-thumping propagandist sentiments with the quirky humour so typical of P&P.
The idea was to film the progress of Hirth and his crew through Canada on location, then wheel in the big-name guest stars (some of them released from military service in order to appear) for some studio work. One of the many achievements of ‘49th Parallel’ is how seamlessly location shooting, studio work and stock footage are cut together. The editor was a guy called David Lean. Dude made a few movies himself.
P&P’s plan was greeted with circumspection in some quarters, their critics suggesting they were whooping it up on a tax-payer-funded lark in Canada while our boys were dying valiantly etc etc etc, but when ‘49th Parallel’ opened the response was almost unanimously positive; it was, again to quote Christie, “greeted as the first considerable fiction film of the war: good propaganda and good entertainment”.
And it’s certainly entertaining. The structure – six vignettes in which Hirth’s crew progress (or devolve, since their numbers are gradually whittled down) through Canada – accounts for a brevity of mise-en-scene that paces the two-hour film faster than most movies of the time. The star names acquit themselves generally well. Olivier chews the scenery like a starving man who’s just been seated in a restaurant and reassured that he doesn’t have to worry about the bill. Howard is lumbered with the most literal bit of proselytising in Pressburger’s otherwise well-crafted script, but his affable charisma sells it. Raymond Massey, rubbery faced and having a whale of a time, steals his last-minute section.
But it’s the actors playing the Germans – and it’s worth pausing to reflect on the quirkiness of a British propaganda film made released in 1941 boasting six Nazi u-boat survivors as its protagonists – who take the honours. Particularly Eric Portman, appearing in the first of three films for P&P. Eric Portman in ‘49th Parallel’ is simply magnificent. A Yorkshireman by birth, you’d swear the man was a Prussian aristocrat. His portrayal of Hirth lays the groundwork for Paul Scofield’s von Waldheim in Frankenheimer’s ‘The Train’, Maximillan von Schell’s Stransky in Peckinpah’s ‘Cross of Iron’ and Christoph Waltz’s Hans Landa in Tarantino’s ‘Inglourious Basterds’.
Daringly, P&P also incorporate the idea of the “good German”, an archetype they would revisit in the character of Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (played by Anton Walbrook) in ‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’. I won’t give anything away, but there’s an almost unbearably poignant scene, ending in a moment as chillingly inevitable as the outcome of Landa’s interrogation at the start of ‘Inglourious Basterds’, in which one of the group reveals himself as an honest and decent working man, a man of no political affiliations, a conscript purely because he was drafted, who comes close to embracing a new and gentler life in a foreign place … before the full force of brainwashed, unblinkered, hate-fuelled, jack-booted Nazi doctrine comes crashing down on him. It’s this scene that gives ‘49th Parallel’ its power, that imbues rhetoric with humanitarianism. It’s in this scene that P&P – as they would succeed in doing so many times during those first eight films – take the basest motivation for film-making (propagandism) and turn it into art.