Of Powell and Pressburger’s earlier films, 49th Parallel is not just one of their most enthralling and absorbing pieces of cinema, it is one of the most fascinating war films from the WWII era. At the time, they were commissioned to create an anti-Nazi propaganda film that might have encouraged
49th Parallel involves a fictional story of a German submarine which has invaded Canadian waters and has decided to hunker down in
Hudson Bay in order to allow time to gather food and supplies from a nearby company store. While a search party has left the submarine, the Canadian air force bombs the submarine while it is afloat, thus marooning the Nazi search party on land. These soldiers then embark on an odyssey of sorts to preserve themselves and survive at all costs. Throughout the film, the Nazis encounter many people and situations, all of which highlight various intentions of the Nazi regime, as well as the prevailing argument against the regime, thus allowing the argument against to play out in surprising detail.
There are three key setpieces, each involving a cameo of sorts by a terrific actor. Laurence Olivier plays Scottie, a French Canadian trapper hanging out at the Hudson Bay Company store with an old friend when the Nazis arrive. This sequence, although somewhat undermined by Olivier’s awful accent, highlights not just the swift brutality of the Nazi soldiers as they beat an Eskimo, shoot people in the back including women and children, but this sequence also highlights Nazism’s troublesome attitude toward religion. During his dying breath, Scottie threatens to send missionaries their way when the war is over. The second, and probably best setpiece, and also most compelling portion of the film, is set in a German Hutterite community that the Nazis encounter along their travels through Canada, thinking they may find a kinship with their German brethren. The Nazis give an impassioned speech to the community, calling upon their brotherhood to join in the Nazi purpose, but their words fall on deaf ears. In an even more intense response, Anton Walbrook as Peter, one of the Hutterites, calls them out as the socially constricting and morally reprehensible scourge that they are. His speech is probably the best anti-Nazi propaganda moment in the film and a brilliant monologue from one of the most intense of actors. In the third key setpiece, as the Nazi group is down to 2, they come across Leslie Howard as Phillip Scott, a writer and outdoor aficionado in
. Howard surrounds himself in his tent with art and books, which of course the Nazis debase and burn with pleasure when they turn on him, highlighting the stamping-out of individual expression. Banff National Park who is camping
All of these elements were of course used for propaganda, but it’s thoughtful propaganda woven into a tight, thrilling narrative. Not only is the action suspenseful, a la Hitchcock or Reed, it’s filled with the kind of filmmaking flourishes that Powell and Pressburger are known for, thus making it both a first rate WWII thriller and a thoughtful piece of historical propaganda. By making the Nazis into the protagonists, we must urgently come to grips with their immediacy and reality. They are not faceless enemies in the distance. They’re looking right at you. It’s hard to view this type of film within the proper context in which it was originally shown and to really understand what it might have meant back in 1941. But even today, the film stands as a lasting reminder of how propaganda was used and is also one of the finest WWII films of its era.