49th Parallel is sometimes regarded as one of the greatest - if not the greatest - propaganda films ever made. At the request of the British Ministry of Information, producer-director Michael Powell was charged with creating a compelling tale of errant Nazis struggling to make it beneath the titular degree of latitude, all against the stunning backdrop of scenery from across the breadth of Canada.
When production began in 1940, the United States had yet to enter World War II. The Allies were desperate to change this, and so Rodney Ackland and Emeric Pressburger used the USA's neutral status as a key plot point. After the film's opening montage of aerial wilderness photography, a Nazi U-boat surfaces off the Atlantic coast. Inching into Hudson's Bay, a landing party touches down... The first in an army of Teutonic hordes to set foot on North America. However, the Royal Canadian Air Force bombs the u-boat to Davy Jones, stranding the Ubermenschen in a British Dominion. Quickly, out of desperate necessity, they hatch a plan to cross the nation and find refuge in the neutral United States.
In order to help the cause, the big name stars pulled into the production agreed the halve their usual fees. Laurence Olivier chewed up the small Hudson's Bay Company outpost set as French-Canadian trapper Johnny, leaving no stereotype unturned. Leslie Howard stood in for the effete British intellectual in his Rocky Mountain scenes. And Raymond Massey played an AWOL Canadian serviceman in the understated climax over Niagra Falls. None of these scenes were actually filmed on location, however. With real U-boats prowling the Atlantic, they felt it was easier to bring the lesser-name stars to England than to bring the greats to Canada.
Some things didn't help the production. In building their fake U-boat in Nova Scotia and towing it up to Newfoundland, the company forgot that the latter was not a part of Canada by that time. The Crown Colony didn't join Confederation until 1949. The result was that Newfoundland was demanding appropriate import tax. An appeal to the Governor of Newfoundland had the duty waived.
Atypical for a propaganda film of the time, the representation of the characters is surprisingly nuanced. First, the protagonists are the Nazis. Not merely slavering buggo, drooling, frothing charicatures of Nazis, but actually real characters. Perhaps the most touching of the acts is when the Nazis hide out amongst a German Hutterite community in Manitoba. Impassioned speeches from the Nazi commander about the Fatherland are replied to by the Hutterite chief with equally impassioned speeches about peace and freedom, which in turn appeals to the soldier who was conscripted into the war and would like nothing more than to join the Hutterites' simple life.
Excerpts from 49th Parallel.
Second, Canada's ethnic diversity is on proud display. This element does not pass without criticism, considering the English Olivier's protrayal of a French Canadian fur trapper. But to enshrine a Roman Catholic Frenchman as a hero in an English production is a feat. Likewise the unquestioningly positive presence of pacifist Hutterites who were not, strictly speaking, supporting the war effort. On the steps of the mighty Banff Spring Hotel, it is the keen eye of Stoney First Nations elders that pick out one of the Nazis. The implicit message is to cast a clear contrast against the racially homogeneous doctrines of Hitler.
Those First Nations elders in full regalia demonstrate another of the great appeals of 49th Parallel: the amazing, historical footage of Canada. Sometimes it can descend into a joke if you know anything about Canadian geography. The remaining Nazis travel a thousand kilometres across the prairies, on foot, in a few quick fades. Nevertheless, we are treated to scenes from the high Arctic, the farmlands of Saskatchewan and the incomparable Canadian Rockies. Our vile protagonists arrive in Banff just in time for the now-defunct Indian Days festival, and real-life Banff pioneer Norman Luxton even makes a brief cameo.
The only thing that could do justice to the scenic footage is the score by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Soaring, powerful, divine... those are only a few of the adjectives that describe his compositions for this picture. In the opinion of this reviewer, the theme is perhaps the most beautiful of any from the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Theme from 49th Parallel performed at the BBC Proms (0:01-2:20).
Fitting its cinematic value, 49th Parallel has been given the regal treatment in a 2-disk Criterion Collection release.