When I learned that Speakeasy and Silver Screenings, two classic movie bloggers I enjoy reading, decided to host a blogathon honoring Canada, our kindly neighbor to the North, and its contributions to the film industry, I jumped at the chance to participate. Be sure to visit these two bloggers’ sites to read other fantastic pieces about Canada and her film industry contributions through the years.
After seeing some films made by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, a British director and screenwriter/producer respectively, and being very impressed with their work, I decided to seek out more of their films to view; their greatest amount of film work was in the 1940s-1950s. In 1940, Powell and Pressburger were asked by the British government to make a propaganda film to help Britain’s war efforts and the suggestion was to make a film about mine sweepers. Powell said he’d rather make a propaganda film that would wake up America from it’s neutrality. Pressburger took Powell’s idea and came up with the screenplay; a propaganda film that would scare the Americans and wake them up to the dangers of Nazi Germany being on their doorstep. The film idea was approved by both the British and Canadian governments and the film was shot on location, in Canada.
49th Parallel refers first to the boundary that separates Canada and the United States and the film opens with a large map of the North American Continent, zeroing in on this boundary, showing how far to the West and then how far to the East it stretches, a boundary between two friendly countries. After the short geography lesson, the movie jumps right into its plot and the story moves along fast, with lovely views of the Canadian lands in all of their vast differences.
U-boat 37, with it’s German crew, has been successfully sinking trading ships in Hudson Bay. After one encounter with the surviving crew of a recently sunken ship, the U-boat commander calls up 6 of his crew and tells them that they’ve been selected to be a raiding party, get to the shore, find supplies and information, kill if they have to. After the 6 have made it to shore, they watch in horror, amid the cheers of the surviving crew in a lifeboat, as Royal Canadian Air Force planes arrive on the scene, to rescue the crew, and to bomb U-boat 37. The 6 men are: Lieutenant Hirth(Eric Portman), Kuhnecke(Raymond Lowell), Vogel(Niall MacGinnis),Krantz(Peter Moore), Lohrman(John Chandos), and Jahner(Basil Appleby). Their leader, Lieutenant Hirth, decides that they must make their way across Canada, to evade capture, and then make their way into the neutral United States and ask to be taken to the nearest German Embassy.
The 6 begin their trek and they encounter different groups of Canadians in different parts of the vast country. The first group they savagely take advantage of are three men at a fur trading post: Factor(agent for the fur company-Finlay Currie), Nick, the Eskimo cook and handyman(Ley On), and Johnny, the French Canadian trapper(Laurence Olivier). Tensions rise as the 6 Germans brusquely demand food, weapons, ammunition, and money. Nick is cruelly bludgeoned by a rifle butt and is left on the floor to bleed, Factor and Johnny prevented from helping him. Lt. Hirth states incredibly racist comments about the Eskimos and American Blacks, which he says he read in Mein Kampf. At one point, Johnny, exasperated by all of the info from Mein Kampf, pointedly states that though he and his two friends are from different ethnic groups they are all Canadians! More violence erupts during a radio chess game that occurs nightly between Factor and a friend in Michigan, as Johnny takes a chance and yells for help that the 6 escaped U-boat men are holding them hostage. Vogel shows a sign of human compassion when he gets Johnny his requested rosary to hold as he lays on a bed suffering from a gunshot wound. Lt. Hirth had earlier refused to get the rosary and shares his strong atheist view that there is no God. It is a telling sign that Vogel defies his superior officer by getting that rosary. More deaths occur in the morning as the 6 Germans hijack a supply plane but as they escape into the air, Jahner is shot in the back by an Eskimo. After flying for several hours, the plane is out of fuel and crashes into a lake below. The men make it to shore, but Kuhnecke, who had piloted the plane, dies of a sudden heart attack. Now the group of 6 has shrunk to 4 men.
After trudging along a road heading west, with vast fields of wheat on both sides of them, the 4 Germans presently see a barn in the distance. Vogel, Krantz, and Lohrman notice a blonde girl working in the farmyard as they get closer. Lt. Hirth directs Vogel to talk to the girl, Anna,(a very young Glynis Johns) and he discovers that they are in a commune, a Hutterite Community. The Hutterites are a religious group that evolved from the same religious reformation that the Ammish and Mennonites came from in the 1500s. The Hutterites came from Austria, before moving to Russia and then on to Canada and the Northern Great Plains of the United States. You can read more about them here. Lt. Hirth finds their communal way of life utterly ridiculous, as well as their religious beliefs but since Hutterites are descended from Germans, and they speak, read, and write German, he decides at an evening meeting to stir these people up and invite them to unite with he and his 4 men, to join the Reich and add to the great Aryan race. The Hutterite leader, Peter(Anton Walbrook) begins a quiet rebuttal of all things Nazi. It is a masterful scene of good acting, with a quiet yet strong voice that gets louder and more forceful as he lets Hirth know that there is no way the Hutterites would ever join the madness of the Nazi party. Anna has developed a bit of a crush on Vogel, and the news that he is a Nazi greatly upsets her. Vogel, who was a baker in Germany before the war, critiques the new Hutterite baker’s work and shows him how to make better bread. Vogel seeks out Peter and tells him that he is tired of the war and wants out. He tells Peter that he’ll turn himself in to the local law enforcement. Peter tells him that that will mean time in an internment camp but Vogel is ready to accept that if afterwards he can come back to the Hutterites and join their community. Lt. Hirth discovers Vogel’s plans and puts a stop to it. Now the group of U-boaters is only 3.
The 3 Germans keep walking west on long roads and run into a motorist who needs help changing a flat tire. After knocking the man out and stealing his car, they make their way to Winnipeg and a train station, and wind up at a major stop with all of the other train riders who get off to attend a “National Gathering of Tribes”. The helpful conductor tells Lt. Hirth that it is an interesting event and not one to miss. Hirth, Lohrman, and Krantz reluctantly get off the train and split up, trying to blend in with the crowd. Suddenly, a Canadian Mountie makes a special announcement. He tells the crowd(who hush immediately at his request-so polite!) that 3 of the U-boat escapees are thought to be in their area of Canada and could be in the crowd at this moment! He gives out their descriptions, and mentions that one is holding a package wrapped in oilcloth. He encourages all in the crowd to look at all of the people standing near them and a man recognizes Lohrman due to that package! Lohrman tries to run but is caught and arrested by the Mounties and taken away. Now there are only 2 U-boaters.
Vancouver is the destination Hirth wants he and Krantz to head for. Since they ran when Lohrman was arrested, they are soon lost in the woods near the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Luckily for them, they meet British author Philip Armstrong Scott, who happens to be camping nearby and has lots of supplies, horses, and several guides with him. His kindness and love of the arts is rejected by Lt. Hirth as the signs of a wimpy, weak man. As Hirth and Krantz destroy Scott’s writings and other belongings, they tie Scott up, gag him, and try to steal the horses. This is a bad idea as the horses and their noises alert the guides to find out what’s happening and they rescue Scott. Lt. Hirth and Krantz flee and go in different directions. The guides and Scott march into the woods and soon find Krantz and Scott gets some nice revenge. Now Hirth is on his own to try and get to Vancouver.
Hirth is next shown on a plane, flying east. We next see him hiding in a boxcar in Ontario, as Canadian soldier, Andy Brock(Raymond Massey), who is absent without permission, is being allowed to ride in the box car on his way back to his base. Hirth is discovered by Andy and as Andy realizes Hirth is one of the U-boat Nazis, a scuffle happens between the two and Hirth knocks Andy out. When Andy recovers his consciousness, he finds Hirth wearing his uniform and holding a gun on him. The boxcar is soon examined by Canadian Customs Agents before it is sent over the border at Niagara Falls into the US. Hirth’s gun keeps Brock quiet during the check. When the box car reaches the US Custom Agents, Hirth hands his gun over and demands to be taken to the German Embassy. The Customs Officials are flummoxed as they realize that Hirth is from that U-boat, but not to fear! Brock comes up with a brilliant plan. He points out that he and Hirth are locked in a freight hold box car and that they aren’t on the manifest. Therefore, their freight car must be sent back to Canada to get the manifest corrected. The Customs Officials agree and as Hirth shouts at them to send him to the German Embassy, Andy Brock rolls up his sleeves in order to prepare for his punishment of Hirth.
I like this film for it’s views of Canada. Skeets Kelly and Henry Henter-Creer shot the film and they made the most of showing the wintry land around Hudson Bay, the vast prairies of Manitoba, and grandeur of the Canadian Rockies, the various lakes, and the nightlife businesses of Winnipeg, circa 1940.
I like this film for the fast-paced storyline. It doesn’t wander much from the goal of Lieutenant Hirth and it was no surprise to me when I found out that future movie director David Lean edited this film.
I also cheered when I watched the credits and saw that the music was conducted by Muir Mathieson and performed by the London Symphony. Mathieson was a talented musician in his own right and was responsible for the music in many wonderful films.
I liked this film, of course, for the actors and Ms. Johns. Eric Portman is superb as the icy, chillingly evil Lieutenant Hirth. He believes in Nazism, in Hitler, hates God and all who believe in Him. There is a funny scene at Philip Armstrong Scott’s camp where Hirth and Krantz can take a shower. It’s an outdoor shower, but nicely set up with hot water and cold water, in separate buckets, with pull ropes on each bucket. Krantz wisely pulls on both buckets to get warm water for his rinsing off but Hirth scoffs at him and states he’ll only use cold water and despite his stoic toughness act, he lets out a shriek due to the coldness of the water.
Laurence Olivier, as Johnny the French Canadian trapper, gets top billing in this movie, as evidenced by some of the movie posters I saw when researching the movie. Some critics made fun of his attempt to sound French Canadian, but I’m not an expert on that accent so I can’t judge if his effort was truly bad or not. His performance is sincere and touching.
Niall MacGuinnis is good as Vogel. He is physically the largest of the 6 man crew, and at first one assumes he is going to be the somewhat slow, dim, but loyal member of the group. We start to see his character’s doubts about the war and Nazism when he gets Johnny’s rosary, when he folds his hands in prayer after Kuhnecke’s death by heart attack despite getting a hateful glare from Lt. Hirth, and the full change happens to him at the Hutterite Community.
Anton Walbrook, who was Austrian in real life, fled Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s and headed to England. His speech against Nazism is really from his heart and it shines through on the film. By his request to Powell and Pressburger, half of Walbrook’s fee for doing the film was given to the International Red Cross and his costars, Olivier, Leslie Howard, and Raymond Massey all agreed to work for half of what they would normally have been paid since they felt it was an important film to make, to help get America into the war.
Leslie Howard is great as the British writer of books about Native American tribes. He is so consumed with his work he doesn’t pay much attention to news or world events and this air of obliviousness causes Hirth and Krantz to underestimate him as a weakling. It is a tense, yet satisfying scene as author Scott and his guides track Krantz’s hiding spot in a cave and despite Krantz firing shots at Scott, who is unarmed, Scott calmly approaches the cave, counts off the shots fired, and despite getting hit in the leg, manages to grab Krantz and beat the daylights out of him, amazing his guides!
I was able to view 49th Parallel via my Roku box and Amazon Prime. The film is shown periodically on Turner Classic Movies and it is available through their TCM Shop, a Criterion Collection dvd. It is also available for sale through Amazon, or view it through their instant rent program. Also, some kind soul has put the entire film up on Youtube.
Lastly, one of the movie posters used to advertise this movie was somewhat misleading and a bit funny, to me. One poster showed Oliver, Howard, and Massey looking muscle-bound, walking at an upward, front-facing angle, ready to use their physical might to take on the evildoers. In real life, muscle-bound isn’t the word or image that comes to my mind when I think of Leslie Howard, Laurence Oliver, or Raymond Massey! Plus, this poster shows Olivier carrying Glynis Johns in his arms, saving her from something. In the film, their characters never meet! The other movie poster used was a bit more subdued.
Please find 49th Parallel and discover a gem of a film, a love letter to Canada, it’s land and it’s people.