Reviews

49th Parallel

Michael Hayward

It is impossible, now, to see Powell and Pressburger’s 1941 film 49th Parallel (Criterion DVD) through the eyes of the audience it was intended for. To modern viewers it seems a curious mixture of anti-isolationist propaganda and travelogue, framed within the storyline of a suspense thriller with more found humour in it than its makers had intended. The story centres on a party of six Nazis, off-loaded from their U-boat to an isolated beach somewhere on the shore of Hudson Bay, who watch helplessly as their submarine is bombed and sunk by planes from the Royal Canadian Air Force. The British actor Eric Portman plays the senior Nazi who must lead his band of fugitives through enemy territory and across the eponymous border to asylum and safety in the United States. At that time America was not yet part of the Allied war effort, and one of the film’s aims was to remind Americans of the heritage and values they held in common with Canadians, values that were threatened by the film’s vividly evil Nazis. The action takes us from a lonely outpost of the Hudson’s Bay Company (where Laurence Olivier attempts to play a French-Canadian trapper with the requisite plaid shirt and thick accent); via a Hutterite colony in Manitoba; west across the prairies to a teepee in the Rockies (where an effete writer, played by Leslie Howard, discovers that he does have what it takes to confront the Nazi menace after all); and back. The climactic scene takes place in a locked railway baggage car that slowly makes its way across the Niagara River as the Falls thunder far below. Portman harangues Raymond Massey at gunpoint, stating that “it’s not the Canadian people we’re against; it’s your filthy government, the whole democratic system.” Massey merely sneers at this “Aryan bushwah” and emphasizes his disdain with a heartfelt “Aw, nuts.” In the face of such homespun determination, those nasty Nazis never stood a chance.

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