Film 2019: 49th Parallel

49th Parallel is the first Powell & Pressburger film from the big boxset that I’ve not previously discussed. It’s a 1941 release, in B&W, a propaganda film requested of Michael Powell by the British Ministry of Information, yet which was not without opposition from the Government in wartime, and only the third time he and Emeric Pressburger had worked together, and the last before formally partnering as The Archers.

49th Parallel, as most people should realise, takes its name from the longest unguarded border in the world, between the United States and Canada. The film, which takes place almost entirely within Canada, but which was aimed at America, where it was titled The Invaders, pays tribute to what the boundary says aabout American-Canadian relationships, but has a wonderfully ironic aspect to it, as a brief explanation of the story will define.

The film begins with a lone German sumarine, U37, attacking Canadian shipping in the Gulf of St Lawrence before heading north for Hudson Bay to avoid detection by armed forces. A party of six under Leutnant’s Hirth and Kuhnecke are put ashore to raid a nearby trading post for supplies, just before the Canadian RAF locate and destroy U37 with bombers.

The film becomes the story of the six Nazis’ attemptto escape from Canada and return to the Third Reich. In spite of that long, unguarded border, it is the story of their failure.

The Ministry of information had envisaged a film about mine-sweeping, which would have hardly risen abovethe documentary. Instead, Powell wanted to wake up America, show them the face of the Nazis by contrasting them with the Canadian people. The film is episodic: of its four credited stars, only Eric Portman, as the fanatical Hirth appears throughout the whole film, with Laurence Olivier, Leslie Howard and Raymond Massey playing their parts in various successive scenes (Anton Walbrook is omitted from the four star line-up but plays the other opposing figure).

Since filming would involve taking a large cast and crew out of Britain, in a State of War, the film was originally opposed on the basis that it was nothing more than a scheme to allow a bunch of cowardly artistic johnnies to rat out of the privations everyone else at home was facing. Powell was able to persuade the Ministry that he was serious in his aims, and that everybody would return. His case was undermined by actress Elizabeth Bergner, playing the only female role in the picture, doing just that, and refusing to return to Britain.

Powell has written of this incident as if Bergner unashamedly walked out as soon as she reached America, but Wikipedia claims that some long shots of Anna, the young Hutterite girl, are Bergner and that she left after a Hutterite woman became incensed at catching Berger, in costume, painting her nails and smoking, knocked the cigarette from her hands and slapped her. Berner was replaced by Glynis Johns.

The film consists of four major phases. Hirth and his command capture the trading post, run by Mac (Finlay Currie), at which the exciteable French-Canadian, Trapper Johnny has just arrived after eleven months in the wild. Johnny doesn’t know of the war and can’t take it seriously, nor the mentality of the Nazis. He niggles and provoked Hirth and his men, but when he makes a move to attack them, he is shot, and left to die, slowly, over several hours. But he is still defiant.

Several Inuits and twopilots are killed when the Germans escape in the rescue plane, though one German is killed by an Inuit rifle. Kuhnecke, the most practical and realistic of the party (Raymond Lovell), is killed on the plane crash-landing (Lovell, who couldn’t swim, nearly drowned in that scene).

The four survivors arrive at the Hutterite colony, whose inhabitants are primarily German in origin. Hirth cannot understand their religiously inspired community of peace, faith and trust, and makes the mistake of assuming their ethnicity will make them respond to his Nazi rhetoric. Instead, they are put to shame by Peter, the community’s leader who does not give orders, played by Anton Walbrook, giving a monologue almost on a par with the one he delivers in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.

Engineer Vogel (Niall McGuiness), a Baker before Hitler took over, recognises a real life, a home where his skills are of value and his life has meaning. He plans to stay, to hand himself in to internment: Peter welcomes him to return, and it seems that Anna will too. But Hirth accuses him of desertion: he is executed on the ‘battlefield’.

Three men go on, now heading for Vancouver and return view then-neutral Japan. In Banff, one cracks up under scrutiny and is arrested. Hirth and the other fanatic, Lohrman (John Chandos) attempt to cross the Rockies on foot but get lost. Englishman Philip Armstrong Scott (Leslie Howard) gives them shelter at his camp. Scott is a writer, studying tribal customs among the Indians, and the very image of the decadent democratic in the eyes of both Nazis. Scott is effete, art-loving, casually comic about Hitler, uncommitted on every level, until he is attacked and, worse, the art he loves, his German language Thomas Mann Magic Mountain and his own book are smashed and burned.

Howard, who once starred as The Scarlet Pimpernel, then reveals the other side of his character, the character many Britains imagined of themselves, the fearless, implacable, avenging angel, facing down evil (the film does dice with cliche here, but I’m not only old enough to recognise te self-image but to still be moved bywhat once was the reality of it). Scott dices with death over the calculation of exactly how many bullets Lohrman has, and does take a shot to the thigh, but he confronts the Nazi fistto fist, and righteously beats the living crap out of him.

Which leaves Hirth, heading back east. Hirth’s the last Nazi, but more importantly, he’s become a symbol. German propaganda boasts of Hirth, one man against eleven million. His escape will be a massive victory. Hirth’s journey has seen him come up against the French, the German and the English. Now he has stolen aboard the freight car of a trai crossing into the USA at Niagara Falls. Also abroad is Andy Brock (Raymond Massey, a Canadian actor playing the only Canadian role of his life).

Brock’s a soldier, and a grousing one. He’s eight days AWOL. He grumbles about being in the Army for 384 days and not having one chance to punch a Nazi in the nose. Hirth mistakes Brock’s grumbling for genuine disgruntement with his Government, which will be relieved when the Nazis take the world over. Oh, and he’s stolen Brock’s uniform to get into America, making Brock into a deserter along the way.

But, in the mostly directly apposite bit of political propoagandizing in the entire fim, Brock tells Hirth that it is his God-given right to grumble about anything he damned well likes, and it is because he is the citizen of a democratic country that he can do so without ending up in a camp. Hallelujah, brother, and we need more of that thinking right now

However, Hirth’s done it. He’s got to America, he’s won. Until, in a wonderful moment of democratic response to a sitution, Brock persuades the US Customs to treat him and Hirth as freight: they’re in the freight car, right? They’re not on the manifest. The train’s got to be sent back to Canada, for the unlisted freight to be put on the manifest… not taken off.

Hirth, who’s been responsible for eleven deaths during the film, who represents a fascistic, invasing force, is outraged by the otherside not playing by their rules. He’s also travelling back to Canada with Andy Brock, who wants his pants back, and isn’t asking for them, he’s taking them…

On that joyful note, the film ends. Yes, it’s a propaganda film, and in that it is irretrievably dated, or it ought to be except that we are unbelievably once again in an era when warnings against what fascism is and what it does are absolutely necessary. 49th Parallel survives as a film because it is also a film. It brilliantly uses the ‘Ten Little Indians’ structure, it contrasts the multi-ethnicity of the Canadiand, including a strong German element, against the racial purity of the nazis, and even where it directly makes statements, it is not so heavy-handed as to move beyond what human beings say in response to what they discover.

Like many artists, Powell and Pressburger’s next move was to seek inspiration from a reversal of this story. That film’s not in this box set, but it will be part of a final wind-down of the Film series, at the end of the year.

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