49th Parallel is a propaganda film that doesn’t feel like one, though it is as potent as any persuasive film could be. (It was called The Invaders when first released in the U.S.) It’s also an unusual combination of star vehicle, travelogue, documentary, war movie and international intrigue. It’s an early World War II entry, made before U.S. involvement and determined to help bring that involvement about.
The story is fascinating: A German submarine makes its way into Canadian waters. The Germans send out a scouting party to the mainland when the submarine gets bombed into oblivion, leaving the group stranded and eager to head to the then-neutral U.S., located south of the—you guessed it—49th Parallel. Along the way, they kill, abuse, hide, and connect with various representatives of the free world. The film was clearly designed with a persuasive purpose, but never gets distracted from a riveting story. In fact, the various connections they make along the way not only highlight the differences between the ideologies of the Free World and the Third Reich, but they seem as close to organic as this kind of a film can get.
Along the way, the meet a lot of different kinds of Canadians, from Hutterites (a lovely and at times powerful sequence featuring a teenage Glynis Johns (who pulls off a convincing rebuke to the Germans) to French-Canadian trappers to festival-goers to campers enjoying the supposed safety of the Canadian wilderness. There’s a little speechifying along the way, but one by the inimitable Anton Walbrook as the Hutterite leader refusing to call the invading Germans “brother” in spite of their common nationality is a masterpiece of declaration and powerful acting. A lesser actor might have been undone by the length and complexity of the speech, but Walbrook makes his many words seem as if he’s both speaking extemporaneously while also drawing from a deep well of conviction. Its power is only increased by the fact that this dramatic rebuttal of the Nazi leader’s attempt at connection stays completely within the bounds of the story.
The film is gorgeous to look at—no surprise when it’s the work of David Lean’s most celebrated cinematographer Freddie Young (Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago, Ryan’s Daughter). Lean himself was the editor, explaining how a film that was a long two hours for its time keeps moving without haste or sluggishness. The music is by first-timer (to a feature film) legendary composer Ralph Vaughn Williams.
Though British-but-playing-German-really-well Eric Portman’s Lieutenant Hirth is the real lead in terms of narrative, the film features three big names right at the beginning: Leslie Howard, Laurence Olivier, and Raymond Massey. Olivier shows up in the beginning with an unusual performance as French-Canadian Johnnie, a trapper just returning to base after a year and finding out that Canada was indeed engaged in the war. His French accent is somewhere between eye-rolling and laughable, and he’s often over the top in his performance. But he may well have the best lines in the film, and he throws them about with at times hilarious abandon.
IMDB states that first-billed Leslie Howard doesn’t arrive until nearly an hour and a half into the film, and third-billed Raymond Massey doesn’t arrive until even later. Howard plays the apparently weak art enthusiast/intellectual who doesn’t take the war seriously because he thinks he’s somewhat above it and geographically far from it. It’s one of the film’s particular strengths that folks who think that the enemy couldn’t possible reach them end up finding them, shockingly and dangerously, right in their midst. Howard, of course, eventually proves his bravery.
Massey, a Canadian actor playing a Canadian for his only time, is also a bit over the top, but at least that is a reprieve from the stolid, grave style he developed later.
The film is more amusing at times than its plot makes it sound, and is more moving than intellectually ideological. As one who is partly Canadian and is familiar with Canada near the St. Lawrence River and Niagara Falls, it was enjoyable to see a film that begins and ends at those spots. (Spoiler alert—they never make it to the 49th Parallel.) Combining a variety of acting styles, a solid and intriguing story, occasionally breathtaking scenery, an occasional documentary feel, and boiling with passionate conviction mostly held below the narrative surface, 49th Parallel is a film unlike any other. Elements, themes, and actors may be compared with other films; this film combines them uniquely, and for those interested in war films, is a must-see.