Wednesday, March 2, 2016

49th Parallel

49th Parallel (aka The Invaders) (Michael Powell, 1941)
Interesting propaganda film to promote the war effort by the British government, made by "The Archers" (Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell) before they became "The Archers" and combining the writer-director credits together. More than anything, it was designed to influence isolationist American minds about the threat of the Nazis, by presenting a story where they arrive on our shores.

It is 1941 and a German sub is prowling Canadian waters, sinking any transport they can. Detected, they make a run for Hudson's Bay and the sub commander orders a landing party to capture an outpost in the area. But, soon after leaving the sub, the men see it attacked and sunk by a bomber, sent by the Canadian air force, alerted to their presence. The Commander, Hirth (Eric Portman) continues to land to complete the mission, hoping that they can make their way eventually to the United States which is (gulp!) famously neutral in order to get back to Germany.

But, first they have to get through Canada.  First stop, a trading post, where Finley Currie and Eskimo guide Ley On are welcoming back French trapper Johnnie (Laurence Olivierwith the wildest accent you've ever heard, eh?) after being up north for eleven months. The Nazi's take over the trading post, hoping to entice and hijack a plane to get them across the border. But, it goes badly leading to a skirmish, which barely has the Nazis escaping with their lives. They then make their way to a German Hutterite community led by Anton Walbrook, who first welcomes the visitors to their peaceful enclave, then when the Nazis' arrogance get the better of them and try to teach the community about their "better" way, Hirth and the community leader engage in a lively debate over the merits of each other's systems. The Germans are kicked out, making their way to the wilderness where they are captured by the RCMP, but make their escape using an eccentric writer (Leslie Howard) as a hostage, but even that plan does not go as planned.  
Each encounter has reduced their numbers, and, at the last, only Hirth remains free and on the run.  He hops a freight to try and make it across the 49th parallel into the States, but riding the car with him is AWOL soldier Andy Brock (Raymond Massey), whose sympathies are still with Canada, despite being reluctant to fight, and he makes things very complicated.
It is a propaganda piece, after all, and if the various episodes seem a bit far-fetched and feel like a tortured demonstration on the length and breadth of Canadian diversity ("Meet the Canadians! Even OUR Germans don't like THEIR Germans"), it is with the intent of contrasting that diversity with the sameness of the Aryan lineage and autocratic group-think of the sub crew. If the thing gets a little pedantic, it was to educate reluctant Americans about Nazi philosophy in a dramatic fashion and inspire a feeling of "It CAN happen to YOU" to the "American Firster's." It's a bit clumsy and the fisticuffs are a might ham-fisted, but it's positively sub-tle when you put it up against the thousand goose-stepping hosers of Triumph des Willens.  And Powell and Pressburger were just getting started.
Eric Portman's Commandant wants things a little
more orderly in 49th Parallel

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