49th Parallel (1941) 3/5 (1)
3/51

 

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Rating: The Good – 67.6
Genre: War
Duration: 104 mins
Director: Michael Powell
Stars: Leslie Howard, Laurence Olivier, Richard George

Ahh, WWII propaganda films! There’s nothing like them. The partly humorous/partly earnest manner in which the Germans and their “confused” ideologies are dismissed with a moral lesson or two and then a swift kick up the arse by a self-proclaimed champion (or champions) of the free world. Michael Powell’s 49th Parallel counts as one of the more romping and expansive given it follows the trials and tribulations of six U-boat sailors who are left stranded on the north east Canadian coast and have to work their way across the country in an attempt to secure passage to the then neutral USA.

Eric Portman is the Hitler cheering model A nazi who follows the teaching of Mein Kampf to the letter and has nothing but contempt for what he sees as decadent western customs and attitudes. His rabble consists of a couple more true believers and some working men soldiers who find much to admire in the ways of the various settlements they encounter. Each encounter provides the pretext to consider the moral, political, geographical, and economic implications of the war from the Canadian’s perspective and for this reason alone, it’s quite original amongst these types of films. Some of the encounters are dealt with a deft hand like the way in which the Nazi ideals conflict with the community of Hutterites who work for each other and renounce the hatred which has torn Europe apart. Others are a little more ham fisted but eminently enjoyable in a rousing way – like Leslie Howard’s foppish but adventuresome author who hands out a damn good thrashing with the words “that’s for Matisse, that’s for Picasso, and that’s for democracy!”.

The sprawling manhunt (initiated by the Canadian authorities) interleaved with these unique encounters gives this film a high energy which makes it very easy to get lost in. Furthermore, Powell manages to give each of them just the right time to play in and out so that the audience isn’t left feeling short-changed or drained. The actors playing the flowery characters who the Germans bump into (and quite often bump off) are also of top quality with the aforementioned Howard and a very young Lawrence Olivier (as a jaunty French-Canadian trapper) shining in their slightly overcooked roles. Portman plays a relatively difficult role with enough deprecation of his character to allow the audience feel comfortable following a bunch of flag waving Nazis run roughshod through Canadian communities for two hours.

49th Parallel deserves some credit for this last factor too for there are few films from any era (especially that one) daring enough to at least consider how the Nazis rationalised their way to an all out quest for domination. So watch it for the breezy boisterousness of the most outlandish propaganda films, a boisterousness that (like in the best of those films) is tempered by the underlying seriousness of the premise.

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