6 February 2009 | ackstasis
"The only undefended frontier in the world"
You'd be tempted to think that there's no way '49th Parallel (1941)' could have turned out anything less than excellent. Not only do Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger perform their famous double-act, but there's also the equally-enviable partnership of David Lean (here working as editor) and cinematographer Freddie Young. But we must remember that in the realm of WWII propaganda there lie dangerous waters, and only the most talented filmmakers (so far, I count Hitchcock, Wilder, Renoir, Curtiz and Reed) can navigate their war-themed picture towards any degree of lasting respectability. We can certainly add Michael Powell to that list of famous names. '49th Parallel' is different from most of its contemporaries because it presents the film solely from the German point-of-view. The portrayal is not favourable, of course, and at least their commander reeks of pure evil, but the German characters are nonetheless humanised to no small extent. These aren't cold, immoral monsters, but ordinary people, swept up in euphoric Nazi ideology and pining for the simpler life they can barely remember.
When a German submarine is destroyed in Hudson Bay, Canada, the surviving Nazi soldiers led by the fiercely patriotic Kommandant Bernsdorff (Richard George) must navigate their way across the country into the then-neutral United States of America. The native citizens they meet along the way are largely jovial and laid-back, many hardly aware of the war raging across the Atlantic, and the Germans haughtily deem them foes unworthy of the Fuhrer's might. But these Canadians, as placid as they first seem, can surely recognise fascism when they see it, and each of the soldiers is picked off one by one, like the characters from a war-themed version of Agatha Christie's "And Then There Were None." Among the unwitting local patriots is French-Canadian trapper Laurence Olivier a caricature but an entertaining one anthropologist/author Leslie Howard, and grinning deserter Raymond Massey, each of whom shows the Nazis that they're dealing with an enemy whose sheer spirit overshadows all of Hitler's armies combined.
The film was apparently intended as a tribute to Canada's involvement in the war, and perhaps as was Hitchcock's 'Foreign Correspondent (1940)' a call-to-arms for the then-isolationist United States, who would hold back until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941. Many of the film's characters remark upon the sheer remoteness of the war relative to their own lives, unaware that it is actually standing before them; this idea was almost certainly aimed at American audiences. After the brilliantly suspenseful first act at Hudson Bay, I initially felt that the film was going off track by continuing to follow the Germans after their aerial departure from the remote village. However, as time wore on, I began to appreciate what the film was aiming for. Though the snow-swept slopes around Hudson Bay may seem leagues away from the Canadian/American border, Kommandant Bernsdorff and his ever-dwindling band gradually progress their way south, until, not only does he reach the border, but he physically crosses into the United States. The War had never been closer.