49th Parallel: The War Effort

Feb 20, 2007

From Contraband in 1940 to A Matter of Life and Death in 1946, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger applied themselves single-mindedly to making films—eight of them in all—in direct and indirect support of the British war effort and its aftermath. Although they maintained a close and friendly liaison with the Ministry of Infor­mation’s Films Division, under its directors Kenneth Clark and then, for most of the war, Jack Beddington, only two films out of the eight had financial backing from the government, the others being funded in the normal commercial way by British National Films or J. Arthur Rank. These two exceptions, 49th Parallel (1941) and The Volunteer (1943), are brought together on this DVD. They could hardly be more different, in scale or in style.

Few of Powell and Pressburger’s admirers would rate 49th Parallel on a par with the great achievements that were to follow, but it is a key film in several ways: it consolidated their partnership, its bold example showed a way forward for British cinema in terms both of ambition and of funding, and it did a skillful job of topical propaganda.

After years of making B pictures, Powell had transformed his career by taking a film crew north to a distant island to shoot the all-location Edge of the World (1938). This earned him a contract with Alexander Korda, who teamed him with a congenial writer in Pressburger. In early 1940, the pair proposed an equally bold location venture, westward to Canada, to make a big film with big stars, on an international scale and with an international theme—very different from anything that the native industry was then doing or even contemplating. The financing they got from the Treasury turned out to be a one-off; the government quickly called a halt to this form of public funding of propaganda fiction. Extra money was put into the project by the tycoon J. Arthur Rank, and the film’s success set him on the way to becoming a major backer of a wide range of British films. It also cemented the long-term partnership of its makers; this is the last of their long series of collaborations to carry separate credits, rather than the joint one that became so familiar: “written, produced, and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.”

“The English tell us we’ve no sense of humor”: this is an early line spoken by Lieutenant Hirth (Eric Portman), leader of the group of six survivors from a U-boat sunk while on a raid in Canadian waters. Films like Leslie Howard’s Pimpernel Smith, released earlier in 1941, had enjoyed caricaturing their Germans as humorless and incompetent. 49th Parallel breaks with this tradition, reminding its audience, both at home and in North America, that they represent a threat that has to be taken with deadly seriousness. It is bold both in using Nazis as protagonists and in showing them as ruthless, dedicated, and—up to a point—resourceful. The film achieves a neat and crucial balance between their scary strengths and their reassuring flaws. The long set-piece pro-Hitler speech delivered by Portman to the German Hutterite colony they stumble upon in Canada is a chilling tour de force; but he has miscalculated his audience and is answered by an even more impressive anti-Nazi speech by Anton Walbrook, whose quiet but passionate delivery anticipates his great address to the immigration tribunal in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), and who is filmed in beautifully judged long takes of a comparable intensity.

One by one, as they travel across Canada, the Nazis are disposed of through failures of nerve or judgment. The last two become victims of an old-fashioned kind of man-to-man violence that may leave a modern audience uncomfortable. Lohrmann (John Chandos), cornered in a cave, is knocked cold by the seemingly effete English intellectual Philip Armstrong Scott (Leslie Howard). The final survivor, Hirth, is trapped in a railway car on his way to being arrested by the Canadian authorities, but this is not enough: the Canadian soldier, Andy Brock (Raymond Massey), advances gloatingly toward him with fists raised, and on this note the film ends. Even at the time, Rodney Ackland, who has a subsidiary writing credit, protested vainly against this ending, as it seemed to counter fascism in its own spirit of violence, and he had a point. In context, though, the strategy is understandable. Early in 1941, Louis de Rochemont, director of the March of Time series, expressed frustration at the tameness of the first British propaganda films of the war. Writing to a British magazine, he explained that in a crisis Americans “are likely to sock someone on the jaw. This is a definite catharsis for us, and we feel better after it. And we like to see others acting the way we consider normal.” As Powell’s memoirs confirm, 49th Parallel was directed above all at the American market; its robust climax must have gratified de Rochemont and helped to secure the film’s success (as The Invaders) in that market.

The socks on the jaw are delivered by the only two “Anglo” characters in the film, representatives of England and of anglophone Canada, as if to counter American suspicions of Anglo weakness. These last two segments are the crudest in a film whose propa­ganda generally operates more subtly. It counters the racist doctrines articulated by Hirth by demonstrating their fallaciousness in action: an Eskimo is alert and brave enough to seize a gun and shoot one of the Nazis down as their aircraft takes off from the Hudson Bay trading post; and it is Native Americans in Banff who fix their accusing gaze on another Nazi, while others in the crowd are looking away, and cause him to panic and be captured. The French-Canadian trapper, Johnnie (Laurence Olivier), gives a response to Hirth, both in words and action, that is more telling, and braver, than the Anglo soldier’s sock on the jaw—even if the French accent is over-the-top. And this ethnic pattern is reinforced by the artful casting, in sympathetic roles, of the Scot Finlay Currie and the Irishman Niall MacGinnis, an early example of the wartime policy of representing a true national mix on-screen, not just southern England. Indeed, MacGinnis’s part and performance are, along with Portman’s, the most memorable in the film.

As Vogel, one of the six survivors from the submarine, MacGinnis represents not just the “good German,” a figure whom official propaganda of the time nervously discouraged, but a “good Nazi,” that is, a redeemable one. At first just one of the six, he gradually distances himself from their excesses, first at Hudson Bay and then at the Hutterite settlement, where he has a taste of the kinds of human pleasure that otherwise have no place in the film: a return to his vocation of bread making and the love of a woman. Inevitably, when he tries to defect, he is executed. The film’s two most subtle touches center on him. When Hirth ends his speech to the Hutterites with a “Heil Hitler,” Vogel leaps to his feet with the others but does not salute. This detail is not picked out for us; we see it only in a wide shot from behind. And the same internal split has been played out at Hudson Bay. When his colleagues leave Johnnie dying on the floor, Vogel surreptitiously slips him the rosary that he craves, then at once marches across to the picture that we have seen Johnnie pinning to the wall, an image of King George and Queen Elizabeth headed “Le roi et la reine du Canada”—a potent ideological statement in itself. In a panicky gesture of disavowal, he snatches it down and, with his bayonet, scores a swastika into the wall in its place. Moments like this go beyond the topical propaganda project to anticipate the dramatic complexities of later and greater Powell-Pressburger films.

Their other official propaganda project, The Volunteer, is not one of them—though it is a fascinating curiosity. It seems to have been taken on at the suggestion of their friend Ralph Richardson, one of a band of high-profile actors who divided their time between military service and film production. Like Olivier, Richardson was in the Fleet Air Arm and wanted to encourage recruitment with the kind of publicity boost that had been given to the navy by Noël Coward’s In Which We Serve, and to other fields of civilian and military work by a host of more modest documentaries. The result is a curious half-length film, running forty-six minutes, with Richardson himself, in his own star persona, narrating an episodic tale of how his theatrical dresser joins the FAA and makes a success of it, learning new skills and becoming an efficient cog in the war machine. Powell described the film as “a pain in the ass from start to finish,” a distraction from the more committed projects that lay ahead, and he and Pressburger clearly decided to have fun with it, creating a seductively freewheeling narrative.

It ends with the volunteer receiving a medal from the king. Outside Buckingham Palace, a photographer steps forward, and his still picture of the occasion becomes the final image of the film. The photographer is Michael Powell, signing in person a film whose playful self-reflexivity, from start to finish, is its main attraction. In hindsight, in fact, The Volunteer seems more typical, in tone and in style, of the Powell-Pressburger partnership than the intense earnestness of 49th Parallel. But it was the success of 49th Parallel that secured their status in the industry, giving them license for the more subtle and multilayered narratives that were to follow, and it remains one of the most powerful of all documents of anti-Nazi propaganda.

Charles Barr’s many publications on British cinema include books on Ealing Studios and English Hitchcock. After many years teaching in England, he moved in 2006 to Washington University, in St. Louis, as a professor of film and media.