Some of the sites describing this video describe it as a propaganda film. It is that, in the sense that it was produced by a wartime combatant (Britain) and meant to stir emotions in the citizens of a noncombatant (the USA, at that time). Accordingly, the movie shows some of the things you’d expect an American to believe about Canada and Canadians — the happy Inuit, the voluble French trappers.
But it’s more than just propaganda. Because “propaganda film” brings to mind the mindless paeans to various dictators over the years, and has a connotation (often deserved) of dreadful quality. This movie does not deserve to be tarred with that same brush.
Fortunately, you do not need to take our word for it; you can decide for yourself, because the copyright for has lapsed. Therefore, we have the opportunity to embed the whole movie for you here.
The story is essentially this: a German submarine, U-37, is operating off Newfoundland. Hunted by Canadian planes and ships after sinking a merchantman, the Germans choose to take refuge in Hudson’s Bay, where they are found and sunk by Canadian planes that are Lockheed Hudsons in some shots and ancient Douglas types in others (the RCAF did operate these aircraft during the war). But before U-37 went the way of all flesh, her skipper landed a foraging party of two officers and four men, who were supposed to raid a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post for food and fuel. Now, they must survive, a situation for which their preparation is inadequate. And they must try to evade their way from the Canadian near-arctic to neutral territory — presumably, across the border into the neutral USA.
In true Hollywood Nazi fashion, the Germans blow every chance to make friends and influence people.
Johnny, a trapper (played with verve and over-the-top Acadian diction by a young Laurence Olivier), doesn’t believe a word of the stories he’s told — after a year running his trapline, unaware there was a war on — about Germans having strafed Polish civilians.
“The German, he’s an ordinary man like us. I wouldn’t do that. You wouldn’t do that. So I’m not going to believe they would do that.” The Germans, of course, make him a believer before they’re done.
But the Germans move on, their ranks thinned by mishap and enemy action, trying to get to the United States, from which they may be able to get back home and back into the war.
Acting and Production
While it absolutely was made as a propaganda film, the movie was made by screen professionals and production values were not compromised for didactic value. 49th Parallel is well-shot and well-acted, and the cast is chockablock with British pros: Laurence Olivier, Leslie Howard and Raymond Massey (actually a Canadian; this is the only movie in which he ever played a Canadian character!). The Hutterite leader Peter is played by Anton Walbrook; Walbrook donated half his fee to the IRC, and the three big-name stars simply worked for half pay, because they believed in the movie’s message — and the creatives’ ability to deliver it.
Arguably the best performance is the forgotten Irish actor Niall MacGinnis as the baker-turned Engine Room Artificer, Vogel.
The director, Michael Powell and the writer Emeric Pressburger would later be known as “The Archers” and make a series of memorable wartime and postwar films.
Pressburger’s Oscar-winning script is devilishly clever, with the Germans, a mixed bag of regular Joes and committed National Socialists, initially seeming a ruck of indistinguishable Nazi uniforms and gradually emerging as individuals, with individual motivations, beliefs — and fates. At one point, a Nazi officer regales a Christian religious community with parables of praise for his Savior — Adolf Hitler. The blasphemous parallel is done, but done subtly; it would have been much easier to overdo it, and neither Pressburger nor Eric Portman as the German lieutenant fall into that trap. Still, as you might imagine, the political harangue lays an Operation Barbarossa-size egg.
The Germans get their share of clever lines. At one point, one tells an expert on Indian tribes that the Nazis “choose to rely on ‘primitive, savage folkways,'” or words to that effect, mocking a passage in the author’s own manuscript — which the Nazis then destroy, along with his modern art. In case the message was lost on you, then they burn a Thomas Mann novel (Mann was proscribed in the Third Reich).
One thing that deserves some notice is the orchestral score, which is magnificent. The composer Ralph Vaughn Williams is responsible. The rest of the sound effects are variable in quality — one scene in a plummeting airplane is all wrong, but the sound of a plane running a fuel tank dry is all too correct (don’t ask us how we know that).
Accuracy and Weapons
For a wartime picture, guns are not as emphasized as you might think. The sailors go ashore with WWI vintage long Mausers with long bayonets, not entirely unbelievable for 1940 or so. By the time they go clandestine, the Mausers are a memory. The officers have Lugers (although in one scene, we swore we saw a Lahti!) in wrong holsters, but one assumes British prop houses weren’t flush with German WWII kit by that time. The Kriegsmarine uniforms are all wrong.
Conversely, the Canadians are armed with sporting arms and dressed in the outdoor clothing of the mid-20th Century. While the Canadians normally have their guns put away, the Nazis are very quick to use theirs.
One Eskimo gives the plot a nudge with a Savage Model 99, one of the most beautiful lever actions ever made:
And later, another lever action falls into the hands of the Nazi evaders — another classic, a Winchester Model 1895.
The German sub features one prominent anti-aircraft gun — a water-cooled Vickers. Nice try, but… it’s almost as funny as the bombing attack on the sub, in which all bombs either hit or strike within a couple of feet of the sub. Had Allied bombing been that good, the U-boats would have been out of business by January 1940.
The understanding of Nazi beliefs and politics is uneven, compared to that developed by postwar scholarship.
In one extremely effective scene, the gunshot you know is coming takes place off screen. What you see is, instead, the heartless German officer making the Nazi salute as bloody murder is done off stage.
The bottom line
49th Parallel is a period piece, a fossil from the mid-20th Century preserved in amber and now available to everyone through the magic of the Internet and the good fortune (albeit perhaps not for the Archers’ heirs) of the film’s copyright lapsing. Yes, it was made to sway minds, but it was made with a light hand by people who were very, very good at their job. It does not conform to the Save The Cat! template perfectly, and it runs just about 2 hours long — a modern audience wouldn’t sit still for it, perhaps. But if you sit still for it, you will be glad you did. It has the abovementioned great script, with a truly fiendish (and satisfying) twist at the end.
For more information
These sites relate to this particular film.
- Amazon.com DVD page (also on Prime instant video for free for Prime members. However, the YouTube version above is probably less compressed than the Prime version):
- IMDB page:
- IMFDB page:
- Rotten Tomatoes review page (88% fresh):
- Wikipedia page: