Saturday Night Cinema: 49th Parallel (1941)


Tonight’s Saturday Night Cinema classic is one of the era’s most extraordinary and original war films from Geller’s favorite British film-making partnership, the producer-director team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (the Archers). When a Nazi U-boat crew, headed by the ruthless Eric Portman, is stranded in Canada during the thick of World War II, the men evade capture by hiding out in a series of rural communities, before trying to cross the border into the still-neutral United States.

The all-star cast includes Leslie Howard (Ashley Wilkes, Gone With the Wind and real-time war hero who was shot down by Luftwaffe Junkers), Sir Laurence Olivier, Raymond Massey, Anton Walbrook.

This is third collaboration of the supreme British film-making partnership Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger….and their first of two collaborations with the already highly regarded editor David Lean.

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For their third collaboration, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were engaged by the Ministry of Information to make a propaganda film. 49th Parallel (1941; The Invaders in the US), was a concerted attempt to influence opinion in neutral America into supporting their government’s entry into the war.

Pressburger proved an enthusiastic propagandist. As he later said, “Goebbels considered himself an expert on propaganda, but I thought I’d show him a thing or two.” This is despite the fact that Pressburger‘s own status in Britain at the time was as an ‘enemy alien’. On returning from Canada he found himself imprisoned and threatened with deportation, until Powell and the MOI intervened.

Pressburger‘s script, which won him an Academy Award for Best Original Story, charts the progress of a German U-boat crew stranded in Canada after the sinking of their craft off Hudson Bay. As the six crew members, led by the unflappable Corporal Hirth (Eric Portman), struggle to reach the neutral territory of the United States, they encounter a series of opponents, who serve to contrast Canada’s democracy and ethnic diversity with the Nazis’ moral bankruptcy.

The ruthless Hirth is a far cry from the more sympathetically portrayed German officer played by Conrad Veidt in Powell and Pressburger‘s earlier Spy in Black (1939). Unburdened by doubts in himself or in his philosophy, he has no patience with weakness or sensitivity. But his arrogance is his undoing, for he repeatedly underestimates his opponents. The other Nazis each have their own distinct characters, and there is even a ‘good Nazi’, which attracted some criticism at the time.

German actress Elisabeth Bergner, the only woman in a leading role, jumped ship after shooting a few scenes in Canada; it became clear she had only signed on to get to America. Fortunately, she was very effectively replaced by the unknown Glynis Johns. Two other stars, Laurence Olivier and Raymond Massey, almost pulled out, and the MOI threatened to pull the plug due to budget overspend. When Hollywood giants David O. Selznick and Samuel Goldwyn showed an interest, however, J. Arthur Rank stepped in and provided the rest of the money. He – and the Treasury – made their money back comfortably: a success at home, the film became the biggest British hit to date in American cinemas.

49th Parallel was the first of two collaborations between Powell and Pressburger and the already highly regarded editor David Lean.

Mark Duguid

The New York Times in 1984:


September 8, 1984,

The 49th Parallel Starring Eric Portman, Anton Walbrook, Raymond Massey, Laurence Olivier, Leslie Howard; co-written by Emeric Pressburger and directed by Michael Powell
This is a gripping adventure- drama about six survivors of a sunken German submarine desperately crossing Canada toward sanctuary in the pre-Pearl Harbor United States. Beautifully written, directed and played, the story adroitly entangles the cunning fugitives with a variety of democratic types – a gentle religious sect, a remote trapper, an esthetic humanist – against a scenic sweep of the Canadian Rockies. The tale is equally effective as a chase thriller and an anti-Nazi treatise.

”The 49th Parallel” was a British wartime project (originally titled ”The Invaders”), with such stars as Olivier (an excellent doomed trapper) and Howard (in the rather stagey humanist sequence) taking relatively small roles. Portman, as the Nazi U-boat captain, Massey as a Canadian soldier and Walbrook as a Hutterite are all fine.

You may wonder how all six Germans happen to be perfectly fluent in English. Doesn’t matter, in a movie that speaks volumes.


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