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49th Parallel
UK 1941
Directed by Michael Powell
Running time 104 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars


As a propaganda film 49th Parallel which was scripted by Emeric Pressberger benefits from a top drawer cast and Powell’s direction although from this distance it often strays into the risible.

Set in Canada prior to United States entry into World War II six survivors of a sunken Nazi U-boat,  headed up by their rabid leader (Eric Portman) cut a desperate path on their way back to the glorious Fatherland.  Partly funded by the British government and was intended to inspire Canadians (and Americans) to join the Allied side the film is quite strident in its depiction of the Nazis as psychotic murderers (the only Nazi  with a sense of humanity is duly killed by his own) and the Canadians as their victims and ultimately doughty vanquishers.  

As the point of rallying is around the flag is no longer applicable most audiences will watch the film for its cast: Laurence Olivier’s French-Canadian trapper takes a bullet in order to warn the world of the invaders’ presence;  Leslie Howard's plucky ethnographer, Philip Armstrong Scott, takes down the penultimate Nazi in the best Boys Own Adventure style, as the escapees pig-headedly trudge their way overland (characteristically Powell inserts some attractive scenic photography) to the 49th Parallel, the map coordinate which separates Canada from the USA, their numbers dwindling until the last remaining one,  Portman’s Lt. Hirth is trapped by AWOL soldier Raymond Massey.

Although sporting an English accent, as do all the Nazis, Portman does a commendable job of portraying the deluded leader with the section in which the escapees insinuate themselves into a Hutterite commune (Glynis Johns appears as a teenage member) the high point of the film’s hyperbole as Lt. Hirth tries unsuccessfully to whip its pacifist members into a lather of Germanic nationalism. Mel Brooks eat your heart out (in another scene while heartening his fellow Nazis he actually says: “Today Europe, tomorrow the whole world”)! The scene in which the Nazis burns Scott's collection of "degenerate" art which he just happens to have with him is also a plum moment.

Powell and Pressburger, of course, played the patriotic card for all they were worth so 49th Parallel is really only their already excessive style in the service of overt propaganda.  In this respect the film still offers plenty to enjoy even if the humour wasn’t intended.

 

 

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