49th Parallel Review
It was while making propaganda films during the Second World War that the creative partnership of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger found its feet, leading both men to go on and form their now famous Archers production company that would see the creation of some of the most dazzling films of the post-war, or indeed any period in British film history. Even while ostensibly making war propaganda films on commission in their earlier years, Powell and Pressburger would endow the films with their own unique character that reflected the personal outlook of the filmmakers, most notably in the remarkable A Canterbury Tale. Like that film, the earlier 49th Parallel was also an attempt to alert the United States to the danger of the war in Europe spreading further afield and ensure their commitment and necessary participation in bringing the war to an end.
The 49th Parallel of the film’s title is the border between Canada and the United States, described in the film’s introduction as the only undefended frontier in the world, one “accepted with a handshake and kept ever since”. The implication is clear – with Canada already being involved in the war through its status as a Commonwealth country, not only is America also under threat, so are its values of freedom, decency and fair play. That threat takes the form in the film of a German U-Boat which is seen sinking a cargo ship off the coast of Canada, brutally leaving the crew behind when they pluckily stand up against their attackers. The U-37 is however eventually destroyed (quite spectacularly) in Hudson Bay by the Canadian airforce, but not before a small unit of German troops under the command of Lieutenant Hirth (Eric Portman) has made its way onto Canadian soil looking for provisions. With no submarine to return to, they hold captive a small trading post in the small Eskimo community of Wolstenholme, kill the crew of a seaplane and try to make their way across the country, towards the US, hoping to score a propaganda victory by being the first German troops to reach American soil.
49th Parallel was an immense success, not only in achieving its aim of alerting the US of the threat of the spread of the war, but it also did well commercially - the film out-performing Chaplin’s The Dictator in the box-office – and it was critically acclaimed, with Emeric Pressburger winning an Oscar for Best Screenplay. Looking back on it now however, it doesn’t have quite the same magic of the personal touch the filmmakers would apply to their own films, nor even the charm and originality of its follow-up propaganda film, A Canterbury Tale, and is much more clearly the commissioned, Ministry-approved, war-time propaganda film, contributing to the war effort with a very clear and sometimes heavy-handed message.
There’s no denying the talent involved – the film making use of Laurence Olivier, Anton Walbrook, Leslie Howard, Raymond Massey and Eric Portman, all very fine actors who put in strong performances – but with the almost hysterical pitch of the propagandist tone (Germans in our midst!), they are inevitably a little on the melodramatic side, with Olivier in particular hamming it up spectacularly - although amusingly and no doubt with tongue firmly in cheek - as a French-Canadian trapper. Yet despite the often sensationalised tone of a crew of German soldiers infiltrating their way towards America, brutally killing anyone in their way and intolerant of ways of living that don’t conform to the views of the Fuhrer, the film does try to balance things out through an encounter between the Nazis and a small peaceful Hutterite community of German origin. Even some of the Nazis are shown as having a God and a conscience. The filmmakers don’t need to do this – a propaganda film is obviously much more effective if it keeps things simple and paints characters as black or white – but it is clearly a characteristically humanist touch from Emeric Pressburger, who was of Hungarian origin himself, and of Michael Powell. Here however, set against the clear demonising of European Germans, it does feel somewhat tokenistic and formulaic.
But then again, 49th Parallel is a propaganda film, and we shouldn’t expect too much complexity from it, even from Powell and Pressburger. What you can expect and what the film clearly delivers, is a well-made film that achieves everything it sets out to do – showing all the things that the filmmakers believe that North Americans will want to fight to preserve – liberty, freedom of speech, peace, tolerance, a sense of community, culture and heritage, and the ability to forge towards new horizons. Above all the filmmakers delight in showing the spectacular landscapes of this country and its National Parks, filmed by Michael Powell with his characteristic love for areas of natural beauty and the people who live and work in close union with the land – a theme that would come out more clearly in the subsequent films A Canterbury Tale and I Know Where I’m Going! much more artfully than it does here.
49th Parallel is released in France by the Institut Lumière. The DVD is presented as a 2-disc set, in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2. The disc is entirely English friendly, with removable French subtitles from the film, and all extra features either in English, or subtitled in English. It is included in one of two Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger boxsets and is also available separately. The DVD is available from the Institut Lumière website.
The transfer on this French DVD edition is reasonably good, but not quite as strong as some of the other Institut Lumière Pressburger and Powell releases. The quality however is variable from scene to scene. For the larger part, there is excellent clarity and a good range of tones, with good shadow detail. Some sections however show a little bit of flicker in brightness levels and are a little on the soft side. Curiously, some scenes appear perfectly clear towards the centre of the frame, with the sides appearing softer, most noticeable down the right-hand side, which can sometimes look blurred. Some print damage remains, but only the larger problems that are difficult to correct, such as heavy tramline scratches.
The original audio track is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 and it is fine. Relatively clear and well-toned, there are no real problems with background noise, only a slight crackle at the high-end of voices. This is rather good considering the age of the material.
There are no hard of hearing English subtitles here, only optional French subtitles.
Bertrand Tavernier presents an Introduction (6:51) to the film, covering its nature as a propaganda film and how it would bring out themes that would overcome this limitation. He examines how it was filmed, its use of both famous and non-professional actors and its reception on its release.
Disc 2 contains the main extra features, which aren’t quite so plentiful on this release as on other titles in the collection. There is a Preface (3:21) by Martin Scorcese, the same one on the Black Narcissus set that the director recorded for a centenary celebration of Michael Powell’s work at Cannes. He speaks about the connection between the man and his films, the impact they have had on him personally, and how the have finally achieved the recognition they deserve. Memories of Michael (11:53) is the 4th part of a longer interview with Thelma Schoonmaker-Powell spread over the other discs in the collection. 49th Parallel is only briefly alluded to here, the remainder of the interview discussing how demanding Powell could be on his actors and his approach to editing his films. Much of this feels like it is duplicated on other discs, and I’m nearly sure that the one on Black Narcissus also claims to be the 4th part. In The Daring Of An Adventurer (11:24), Bertrand Tavernier takes a more in-depth look at the 49th Parallel, its purpose and how successful it was in achieving its aims. Original Trailers are also included for Black Narcissus (2:27), The Red Shoes (2:22) and The 49th Parallel (3:01).
In his introduction to the film, Bertrand Tavernier says that although made as a propaganda film, he believes 49th Parallel “avoids caricature and over-simplification”. This is not something I would completely agree with, but Powell and Pressburger certainly take an unconventional approach here, unusually relating events almost entirely from the perspective of the German troops. Although it does lend them a certain degree of humanity it more often shows them as brutal and deluded from their encounters with gutsy, down-to-earth, strong-minded Americans and Canadians. As such, it must inevitably resort to simplification in order to make its points, but there is much fun to be had in seeing a fine cast hamming it up to the best of their ability, and the pleasure of seeing how the strong creative filmmaking partnership of Pressburger and Powell was forged here, leading to the creation of The Archers production company. 49th Parallel isn’t the cleanest print in the Institut Lumière’s Powell and Pressburger Collection, and the extra features aren’t the most plentiful, but it is well presented and supported with good analysis and information.