A contingent of Nazi naval officers are stranded on the Canadian mainland after their U-boat, on the prowl in Hudson Bay, is destroyed. They resolve to trek across Canada, then either cross the border to still-neutral U.S.A. or find passage on a non-Allied boat back to the Fatherland. Director Michael Powell stages their odyssey as a series of politically charged set-pieces as the disdainful Nazis find their beliefs tested by a cross-section of Canadian clichés, from French-Canadian trappers (among whom is Laurence Olivier attempting a dead-on imitation of Pepe Le Pew), Native Americans, and Eskimos to a WASP-y outdoorsman (Leslie Howard), ordinary Joe's, and the members of a religious commune. Leading the goose-steppers is Lieutenant Hirth (Eric Portman), maniacally loyal to his Führer and whose sneer can't be anything but villainous.
The title of Michael Powell's WWII propaganda actioner refers to the boundary separating the United States and Canada. A suitably righteous narrator tells us it's the world's only undefended national border and, as such, befits the values of peace and democracy shared by the two countries. 49th Parallel isn't a strident call to arms meant to guilt-trip Americans into re-thinking their neutrality, but rather a tribute to the Canadian (and to all free-thinking) people who were already involved in the anti-Nazi effort. By praising democratic values and warning of the Nazi threat looming over the free world, 49th Parallel was director Michael Powell's roundabout exhortation to the American people to join the good fight.
Sixty-five years on, and in the wake of America's wrong-headed involvement in Vietnam and Iraq, Powell's panegyric on democratic (specifically American) values often comes off as simplistic and naïve. In scene after scene, the movie trades in preening moral dialectics that eventually wears thin; a debate early on between Olivier's oafish but pure-hearted trapper and a Nazi stooge over the freedom to worship sets the didactic tone of this whole exercise. And if that didn't hit you hard enough, the heated speechifying between the leader of a religious commune and the fanatical Hirth certainly will. That heavy-handedness weighs downs the performances too: Hirth makes as cartoonish a Nazi as any ever depicted; Glynis Johns, playing a preacher's daughter, is unintentionally creepy with her glazed-over eyes and robotic delivery; and, perhaps worst, is Raymond Massey as a Canadian recruit itching to get to the front. Massey's theatrics are more ridiculous than rousing as he squares off with a Nazi stowaway in his train compartment.
Syrupy political sentiments aside, 49th Parallel is still a worth a look as a niftily crafted action-adventure of the period. Technically, it bears the hallmarks of quality that came to distinguish the Powell-Pressburger brand. Its maritime action sequences, in particular, are exciting, and one can imagine Hitchcock watching them, stroking his chin, then applying whatever lessons he picked up here to his own (superior) war-themed outings from the period (Foreign Correspondent, Lifeboat).
The invisible-border reference of Powell's title also points to the idea that, once our political boundaries are lifted away, we're all human. This is most keenly felt after the Nazi fugitives come across a religious commune founded by Germans who've escaped persecution in their native land. When one of the officers, a former baker (Niall MacGinnis), decides to stay on at the commune, rejecting his Nazi loyalties, we find the lines of dissent separating him from his people completely disappeared.
Where 49th Parallel truly succeeds is in how it humanizes its Nazi protagonists (antagonists?) even while etching out an unequivocal stance against their beliefs. As viewers, we sympathize with all underdogs, and, during the movie's fevered moments of flight and escape, we find ourselves drawn to the camaraderie within this ragtag group. This was a bold strategy on the filmmakers' part, choosing to focus on a group of characters we associate readily with evil and creating a sense of sympathy for them. The heroes of 49th Parallel are the defenders of liberty, in Canada and elsewhere. And, apart from Hirth, the only villain here is the idea of isolationism -- a charge for which Powell has America in his cross-hairs -- which represents the Nazis best chance at victory.