To begin with, no, 49th Parallel is not a Canadian film. At least not technically. The Hungarian Emeric Pressburger, who had been working in England for about five years, wrote the 1941 feature, and the Kent-born Michael Powell, who had been making films since the early 1930s, directed it. All but one interior was shot at Denham Studios in Buckinghamshire, and Ortus Films, a British company, produced the picture after the Ministry of Information commissioned it. The cast is a veritable who’s who of prominent British actors, including Laurence Olivier, Anton Walbrook, and Leslie Howard, among others. David Lean, then the preeminent editor in England, cut the picture.
Still, it is a great Canadian film. Locations range from Winnipeg to Quebec to Alberta. Perhaps more than any other film, certainly of the era, it also deals explicitly with Canada’s largely ignored involvement in World War II—as far as the movies are concerned anyway. It is also a film that highlights much of what were unknown aspects of the country’s culture, especially for international audiences at the time.
49th Parallel opens with a dedication, reading in part: “This film is dedicated to Canada and to Canadians all over the Dominion who helped us to make it; to the Governments of the U.S.A., of the Dominion of Canada, and of the United Kingdom, who made it possible…” The Canadian government was fully behind 49th Parallel, and support came from the Royal Canadian Air Force, which provided equipment and assorted vessels, as well as from those inhabitants who just happened to live in the area and did their amateur best to give the picture some local flavor. The film’s introductory narrator (Vincent Massey, the first Canadian born Governor General of Canada and Canadian High Commissioner in London throughout WWII), notes that the 49th parallel is the line that “divides two nations, yet marks their friendly meeting grounds.” It is the “only undefended frontier in the world.” This sets up the amicable relationship between Canada and the United States, but also stresses the border’s vulnerability. “So the curtain rises on Canada…,” and with that, the country’s role in the battle comes to center stage.
The film starts in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, as a German U-Boat attacks a ship carrying oil to Montreal. The German submarine then makes its way to the Hudson Bay in search of supplies and rations. While several of the Nazi crew go ashore, others remain on board and are subsequently bombed by Canadian aircraft. Those on land are the first to set foot on Canadian soil and are seen—by themselves and, they hope, by others in the fatherland—as something akin to trailblazers, their achievement regarded as a turning point in the furthering of Nazi causes and philosophy. But with their boat destroyed, the men are stranded. They first make their way to a remote, isolated village. It’s a quaint set-up, modest and only just barely this side of an igloo.
Among those encountered by the Germans here is Johnnie (Olivier), a trapper who has been away and didn’t even know war was on. It turns out, as opposed to what he had been told, Hitler wasn’t bluffing after all. As he is updated on the status of the German occupation the world over, his unconcerned ignorance reflects the jeopardy faced by those who, in other parts of the world (*ahem* America), remain neutral to the fighting. Johnnie is surprised to find that even Canada is in the war; he doesn’t see why it should get involved with something “over there.” The suggestion that, “I wouldn’t worry about it out here…” becomes a recurring refrain throughout the film.
While Johnnie gives early voice to some of the primary themes of 49th Parallel, he is, as a character, an absurdly exaggerated French-Canadian, with clichéd mannerisms and an over-the-top French accent. Initially, the Germans are likewise shown to be one-dimensional, classically cruel and callous with no qualms about shooting down innocents. Once their presence is known, the Germans secure a plane and flee the post. Their ruthlessness in doing so is made more frightening by the relative ease of their mobility. From this, audiences are clearly led to infer that these evil men will do whatever they need to do to achieve their aims—and look how easily they can do it. As the film progresses, however, and the Germans embark on their malevolent road trip throughout Canada, Powell and Pressburger spend a good deal of time with the Nazis, imbuing in them distinct and fleshed-out personalities (much to the chagrin of certain viewers, particularly those back in England). They are marked by a humanity, humor, and earnestness that was to be a staple of the duo’s work to come, and not always just with the good guys.
One stop along the way is a Hutterite settlement, where the Nazis meet fellow Germans who are in sharp contrast to their newly arrived countrymen. These simple folk barter instead of buy and work for nothing more than their own necessity. During these sequences, we see the most profound shift in some of the Nazis. They are baffled by the lack of dictatorial rule, and at least one, the potentially redemptive Vogel (Niall MacGinnis), has a pronounced change of heart, stating his regret at having killed women and children and sinking lifeboats. It is he, far more than the others, who finds the rustic pastoral setting appealing and does his best to assimilate, which he does to his ultimate detriment. In general, though, the others remain keen to spread their propaganda, and thus betray their secretive identity. But for their part, the Hutterites make their own case, proclaiming Canada to be a peaceful land where they were able to find security, tolerance, and understanding.
This is one of several instances where 49th Parallel devotes attention to Canada’s assorted regional inhabitants, the locals given vibrancy yet also a sense of foreign oddity. See, for example, the bucolic existence of these Hutterite farmers, or the resilient, naturally pleasant Eskimo population who dare fight back against the Germans. Curiously, the Nazis’ prejudice, which obviously extended to Jews and African-Americans among others, is brought home, so to speak, when it’s revealed they carry a similar bias toward Eskimos. Who knew?
It’s not just the people of Canada that Powell and Pressburger highlight, however, but also the diverse environment. Like Powell’s The Edge of the World (1937) made prior, and A Canterbury Tale (1944) and I Know Where I’m Going! (1945) released later—two of the films produced when the writer-director team became collectively known as the Archers—49th Parallel provides a scenic tour of the region. Under Powell’s instinctual guidance, the photography by three-time Oscar winner Freddie Young accentuates the vastness of the Canadian landscape, befitting a natural pictorial style for the director. As the Germans continue their trek, images reflecting their progress on a map are superimposed with shots of their actual movement, setting up something of a Canadian travelogue along the way. As Powell recalls it, “It was good to be rolling through this rich and unhurried land, across Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, through Montreal to Ottawa…. We were beginning to appreciate the majestic simplicity and enormous size of Canada.” It’s probably also to Lean that one can credit the film’s briskness as it rapidly and smoothly covers a good deal of territory, locating the Germans’ roaming throughout the country but also, again, stressing their generally unimpeded movement.
As the Germans make their way closer to America, the potential threat of a Nazi invasion into Canada’s southern neighbor becomes frighteningly apparent … and that’s exactly what the filmmakers hoped for. 49th Parallel was in many ways intended to be a warning of just how easily Nazis could infiltrate a generally subdued populace, blending right in and slipping their subversive and dangerous ideology into an unaware citizenry. As the search continues for the Nazis amongst the Canadians, residents are alerted that these enemy combatants could be standing right next to them. In the urban locale of Winnipeg, where the increased population lends itself to trouble-free mingling, the threat of Nazi assimilation is particularly well underscored. The film rallies against a false sense of safety and emerges as a strong case against neutrality. Nazis and their deranged principles could be anywhere, could go anywhere, even right next door, something made most apparent when the last remaining German arrives at Niagara Falls with his sights set on entering the now very near United States.
49th Parallel was one of eight films made by Powell and Pressburger from 1940 to 1946, all of which were primarily concerned with the British war effort and the conflict’s aftermath. And there is no denying this is one effective bit of wartime propaganda, aimed more than anything at bringing isolationist nations and individuals to the battlefront. The writer Philip Armstrong Scott (Howard), who prefers a seclusion that renders the war almost “unimportant,” embodies such isolationism, yet he is also the one who sums up the pro-Canada premise of the film, which, by his point in the story, pits “two brave Nazis against 11 million Canadians.”
Neither Powell nor Pressburger had been to North America, let alone the Western Hemisphere, so they did their best to brush up on their knowledge of Canada before production began. According to Powell, when asked why he wanted to make a wartime film about Canada, he responded: “Because sooner or later, America will be at war. And we have to prepare the people over there for war. So, we are going to launch an attack on Canada with a submarine, so we’ll be able to have the propaganda you like!” If a great film happened to come out of this political purpose, which it did, so much the better.