49th Parallel

"Good"

49th Parallel Review


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.



49th Parallel

Facts and Figures

Run time: 104 mins

In Theaters: Wednesday 15th April 1942

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 88%
Fresh: 7 Rotten: 1

IMDB: 7.5 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director:

Producer: , John Suttro

Starring: as Johnnie - the Trapper, Leslie Howard as Philip Armstrong Scott, Eric Portman as Lieutenant Hirth, Raymond Lovell as Lieutenant Kuhnecke, as Kommandant Bernsdorff, as Vogel, as Kranz, John Chandos as Lohrmann

Contactmusic


Links



Advertisement

New Movies

Colossal Movie Review

Colossal Movie Review

It's rare to find a movie that so defiantly refuses to be put into a...

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword Movie Review

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword Movie Review

It's unlikely that Guy Ritchie could make a boring movie if he wanted to. This...

Snatched Movie Review

Snatched Movie Review

It doesn't really matter that the script for this lively action-comedy is paper thin: teaming...

Jawbone Movie Review

Jawbone Movie Review

Boxing movies aren't usually this thoughtful. Sure, there are plenty of punchy moments in the...

Whisky Galore! Movie Review

Whisky Galore! Movie Review

Scottish filmmaker Gillies MacKinnon (Hideous Kinky) remakes the 1949 Ealing comedy classic, although it's difficult...

Alien: Covenant Movie Review

Alien: Covenant Movie Review

Master filmmaker Ridley Scott is back to continue the story 10 years after the events...

The Journey (2017) Movie Review

The Journey (2017) Movie Review

A fictionalised account of real events, this drama is reminiscent of Peter Morgan's work in...

Advertisement
Sleepless Movie Review

Sleepless Movie Review

In remaking the 2011 French thriller Sleepless Night, the filmmakers have dumbed down both the...

Unlocked Movie Review

Unlocked Movie Review

By injecting a steady sense of fun, this slick but mindless action thriller both holds...

Lady Macbeth Movie Review

Lady Macbeth Movie Review

A seriously impressive feature directing debut with a star-making central performance, this period British drama...

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Movie Review

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Movie Review

It was never going to be easy to match the impact of 2014's Guardians of...

The Promise Movie Review

The Promise Movie Review

The director of Hotel Rwanda, Terry George, turns to another humanitarian horror: the systematic murder...

Their Finest Movie Review

Their Finest Movie Review

Skilfully written, directed and acted, this offbeat British period film tells a story that catches...

Unforgettable Movie Review

Unforgettable Movie Review

With heavy echoes of trashy thrillers like Fatal Attraction, this movie overcomes its painfully simplistic...

Advertisement
Artists
Actors
    Filmmakers
      Artists
      Bands
        Musicians
          Artists
          Celebrities
             
              Artists
              Interviews
                musicians & bands in the news
                  actors & filmmakers in the news
                    celebrities in the news

                      Go Back in Time using our News archive to see what happened on a particular day in the past.