49th Parallel is one of the first great World War II movies. It’s also probably the only one in which the Nazis are, if not the heroes, certainly the protagonists.
American film studios from 1939-41 were wary of making films about the war that was raging in Europe. The European market was still an extremely lucrative one and, apart from Warner Brothers, most of the studios preferred their product not to allude to a situation in which the United States wouldn’t get involved until near the end of 1941. The best of the handful of exceptions – Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, a 1940 thriller which ends with the hero broadcasting “Hello, America, hang on to your lights: they’re the only lights left in the world!” while the city of London is being bombed around him; and Charles Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1941), which featured the great comedian playing two roles: Hitler and a Jewish barber who looks just like him – were both directed by Englishmen.
In 1940, the British Ministry of Information approached director Michael Powell with the request that he make a propaganda film, primarily for English consumption. Powell countered with the idea of a propaganda film whose aim was to convince (“scare” was Powell’s word) the United States into entering the war, and he and his frequent collaborator, writer Emeric Pressburger – a Hungarian-born refugee from Germany – devised a plot in which the United States is in imminent danger of being invaded by the Nazis.
A German U-boat off the coast of Canada destroys a Canadian ship and leave the survivors to the mercies of the sea. A raiding party of six Nazi sailors, led by Lieutenant Hirth (played by Eric Portman), is sent ashore to get supplies just before Canadian bombers destroy the U-boat and everyone aboard it. The six sailors spend the rest of the film crossing Canada in an attempt to reach the United States, a neutral country. Along the way, they meet a number of various people (some played by then-famous “guest stars”) and, when not attacking or being attacked by them, engage in debates about the virtues of democracy vs. the tyranny of Nazism. By the end of the film, there is only one Nazi left, hiding in a train headed toward the United States, and the conclusion involves an exceptionally simple and satisfying plot twist.
One of the most intriguing things about 49th Parallel is the fact that only one of the sailors, Lt. Hirth, is a fanatical Nazi. The others are basically enlisted men, committed to the cause, but nowhere near as intellectually enslaved by the Hitlerian doctrine. Each has his own personality – not deeply developed, but enough so that they can be distinguished as individuals. Most of them aren’t particularly sympathetic – they kill innocent people, after all – but this may be the last time, at least for the war’s duration, that a Nazi character was allowed to be depicted as a human being with human needs and emotions. Hirth does most of the talking for them when he engages, as he does often throughout the film, in discussions (usually, on his side, harangues) with the people they encounter, some of whom are intellectuals, some not, but all of them comfortably eloquent in their defense of democratic values.
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger will, I hope, show up frequently in subsequent installments of this blog. 49th Parallel was the last film they made together under separate billing. As The Archers, they made an unusually large number of the greatest British films of all time, including The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (which I consider the greatest little-known epic film ever made), A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, and their most famous film, The Red Shoes.
Much of the film was shot on location in Canada by Frederick Young, later hailed as one of the great cinematographers, especially in the films he shot with director David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, Ryan’s Daughter), and it was edited by David Lean, who was already considered one of the great film editors, and who only made one more film in that capacity before becoming, within a few years, one of the great film directors.
Of the “guest stars”, the most famous today is probably Laurence Olivier, and even his reputation has begun to dwindle since his death in 1989. When 49th Parallel was made, he was one of the biggest film stars in the world; his films in the previous two years had included Wuthering Heights, Rebecca and Pride and Prejudice, and he was married to another of the biggest film stars in the world, Vivien Leigh, forever to be known as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. Olivier was to remain a major film star until his death, but his real importance in artistic history is probably as a stage actor, director, and the first artistic director of London’s National Theatre. His performance as a French-Canadian hunter in 49th Parallel is wildly over-the-top, really a caricature, and he delivers all his lines in a bizarre French accent never used by anyone else in recorded history. The first time I saw the film, I wondered how he got away with it; subsequently, I simply wondered why.
The other superstar in the film is Leslie Howard, who had also co-starred in Gone with the Wind, as well as The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Petrified Forest and Pygmalion. An English actor who shuttled back and forth between Hollywood and London, Howard was best known during his career as a romantic leading man, often an intellectual and frequently slightly effete. He fought in World War I and possibly served as a British spy in the early years of World War II, before dying in 1943 at the age of 50 when the airplane he was aboard was shot down by German aircraft over the Bay of Biscay. His performance in 49th Parallel is the polar opposite of Olivier’s: restrained, amused, he plays a writer living in a tent in the Canadian wilds (furnished with a Matisse and a Picasso) and trying to avoid the outside world until the Nazis confront him with it.
The best performance in the film is probably given by the Austrian actor Anton Walbrook. As the leader of the Hutterite commune of German refugees into which the Nazis stumble, he delivers a retort to Hirth’s fanatical rant in a powerful, brilliantly delivered speech that may have given director Michael Powell an inspiration when he cast Walbrook a couple of years later in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.
Playing a young German woman whose parents were killed by Nazis, Glynis Johns (the only actor from the film still alive, as of this writing) was eighteen years old but already a fairly well-known actress in England; she would become a star in 1948 in Miranda, playing a mermaid, and again in 1964 as the suffragette mother in Mary Poppins.
The last “guest star” is Raymond Massey, who was a much bigger name in the 1930s and 1940s than he is now; in fact, he was an even bigger star during my childhood, when he co-starred with Richard Chamberlain in the Dr. Kildare television series. In 49th Parallel he plays a Canadian soldier who’s gone AWOL out of boredom and ends up trapped with the last remaining Nazi in a train heading across the Canadian border at Niagara Falls. This was apparently the only film in which Massey, born in Toronto, got to play a Canadian. (The opening of the film, incidentally, is narrated by Massey’s brother Vincent, who was the first governor general of Canada actually to have been born in Canada.)
The film was released in the United States as The Invaders in March, 1942, by which time the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States had entered the war. Almost 20 minutes were cut out by American censors, sometimes to avoid offending more sensitive American ears (the British were less timid about using such vile obscenities as “damn” or “hell”). In one scene, Hirth casually refers to “sub-apes like Negroes, only one step above the Jews”; this was cut, not to avoid offending blacks or Jews, but to avoid offending filmgoers in the South, who didn’t like the idea that their own bigotry was shared by Nazis.
One unusual thing about this film is that, whether playing a German or a Canadian or an Englishman, every actor (except Olivier) speaks with his or her own natural accent. It’s only mildly disconcerting at the first to hear all the Nazis speaking with German accents – the only German accent heard in the film is that of Anton Walbrook, who’s also playing a German, and his accent is probably Austrian anyway – but you get used to it pretty quickly.
This is also, as far as I know, one of the very rare non-musical films to give the composer billing above the title. That composer was Ralph Vaughan Williams, one of the towering figures of British music throughout the first half of the twentieth century (and one of my all-time favorites), and it was the first of a dozen film scores that he was to compose, the most famous of which being the one he wrote for Scott of the Antarctic in 1948. His music for 49th Parallel is largely functional, with some interesting use of unusual-sounding instruments, and supports the action without impinging too much on the consciousness. Except the music underneath the opening and closing credits. It’s one of his typically long, gorgeously harmonized melodies, broad, yearning, mystical, and possibly the two most beautiful minutes’ worth of music ever written for a film.
One other tidbit of information: When this was first released in the United States, it was assumed (pretty soundly, I would say) that most Americans would have no idea what the 49th parallel is, so the film was renamed The Invaders. As it happens, the short-lived American title is more accurate than the original, since none of the film actually takes place along the 49th parallel.