‘49th Parallel’ or — The Most Exciting Canadian War Movie Ever Made?
When you think of the explosive action of World War II only three words come immediately to mind — baking, fishing, and Canada! The good news is ‘49th Parallel’ (1941) is packed with all these… and more!
The film starts much like ‘The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming’ (an enemy U-boat stranded off the North American coast) before morphing into ‘Witness’ (violent men amidst a commune of farming pacifists) before blowing up into a full on propaganda job to guilt the Americans into joining the War. It all sounds very exciting, and it kinda is, but what stopped ‘49th Parallel’ from really gripping me was its episodic nature and a somewhat excessive running time. It was a bit like hiking from the Hudson Bay to Vancouver with Nazis.
There’s an excellent cast — Laurence Olivier, Leslie Howard, Anton Walbrook, Raymond Massey — but they never share screen time together. This is a bit of a shame, especially as Laurence Olivier’s character (an extremely jovial French-Canadian trapper) is a total blast when he’s on screen only to exit the film about after half an hour or so.
Instead, the main focus of the movie is on the Germans, their attempt to slip into then neutral America and the various disparate people they meet along the way. Each of these Canadians, who welcome these Germans with open arms… at first, has something to teach these Nazis about Democracy, decency and freedom. So what should be an exciting escape/man-hunt movie turns into a series of anti-Nazi lectures, and none of them are subtle.
What stops ‘49th Parallel’ from becoming a slog are the quality of the performances and the technical skill of the film. There’s some gorgeous scenery of the Canadian countryside (a reminder that Powell seemed to love shooting outdoors before becoming so studio bound?) that has an almost Flaherty feel to it and there’s certainly a decent amount of variation going on — both stylistically and technically — to keep things interesting so the movie never becomes completely repetitive. It’s just a shame that the propaganda aspect keeps tripping everything up just when it feels like it’s ready to burst into full speed.
It’s also curious (and this film feels like a curio more than anything else) to have a movie where the main characters are simply going along and being constantly abused. Sure, these Nazis aren’t very secretive, going about seig heiling all over the place and banging on about Hitler, and they’re a pretty mean and nasty lot, ready to kill anyone who gets in their way or even their own who dare to oppose the teachings of the Fuhrer. But it’s still odd following characters we not only aren’t supposed to sympathise with but actively detest. And burning a Matisse in a tee-pee really is the last straw, chaps.
‘49th Parallel’ is an odd film but when you consider when and why it was made — EXPLICITLY to convince America to get into the war effort — it makes sense. It’s not the best war movie ever made, or even the best propaganda film ever made, but there’s enough going on here for anyone interested. It’s worth watching simply for Laurence Olivier’s laugh alone.