Monday, May 11, 2009

49th Parallel (1941) - #376

The chronicle of the Nazi invasion of Canada. Wait, you never heard about that one?

Of course, we're talking about the movies here, and 49th Parallel doesn't fit the category of "documentary." But it does effectively put an attentive viewer (well, me anyway) into the scary predicament facing English and North American audiences of 1940-41, when they realized the magnitude of the German military and cultural threat and had no clear idea how history would see the conflict resolved.

Before I get into the synopsis of the film, let me just take a moment to admire the poster on the left. It's a great illustration of the heroes in the story, even though they never appear together and really don't strike the classic 40's man-of-action poses depicted here. And I definitely don't recall a scene of anyone carrying a bare-shouldered blonde dame over the course of the film's two-hour running time! But I still dig the essence of the message that the poster delivers concisely, and that the film delivers in a more extended and indirect way: the way to beat the Nazis is to stand tough, band together and don't back down in response to fear tactics, bluster or intimidation.

There's no getting away from the fact that 49th Parallel was created for propagandistic purposes, but that doesn't stop it from being an entertaining and illuminating thriller. The film was produced by the English studio system, quite small compared to the Hollywood machine, with government financing and a bold vision to cast major stars in a foreign location with big-time budget and production values. The director, Michael Powell, was one of the team who produced The Thief of Bagdad, and his talent was clearly worthy of the task entrusted to him: put Laurence Olivier and a few other prominent leading men of the time in roles that would help stiffen the spine and strengthen the nerve of British subjects whose way of life required dramatic alterations, and persuade Americans, still officially "neutral" in the pre-Pearl Harbor days of 1941, that their common cause with the United Kingdom and Western democracies in general outweighed their isolationist tendencies, not to mention any latent admiration for the strength and might that Hitler and his minions had accumulated for themselves on the European continent.

So rather than create a portrait of the hardships that England was already beginning to face in the early years of a new decade, the story placed its characters almost entirely in Canada, north of the latitudinal mark for which the film is titled. The actual 49th parallel is, of course, the line which marks the boundary between Canada and the United States, along the western half of the continent, at least. (The Great Lakes and assorted rivers help set the U.S./Canadian boundaries on a more topographical basis.) Over the course of the film, we get to see what amounts to a pretty decent active travelog of Canada, without the corny narration or goofy set pieces. From the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where the action starts, across wide prairie wheatfields and the majestic mountains surrounding Banff, Alberta, there's no shortage of pleasant scenery to enjoy. Canada's numerous subcultures are well represented too. Olivier plays Johnnie, a French-Canadian trapper - probably not one of Olivier's greatest roles per se (that accent is just a bit much - I couldn't help but think of the French castle guard in Monty Python and the Holy Grail when watching his performance) but he does a nice job of hamming it up anyway. We also visit a Hutterite colony, an Eskimo settlement (which brought to mind the first film I watched in this series, Nanook of the North) and native Americans whose look and dress reminded me of the Sioux/Lakota tribes living in the upper midwestern USA. The various non-Anglo groups are occasionally portrayed as "quaint" in the unconsciously presumptive way that white cultures took for granted at the time, but kept it dignified and respectful in any case. In fact, I think it's fair to say that the film genuinely sought to give each segment of society depicted a stake in the overall struggle against fascism. They didn't all get to strike a blow against the Nazi invaders, but they all featured resilient examples of how to stand one's ground in the fight.

Still, for the producers and the British government that subsidized the film, it was clear that their main audience, the people whose opinions mattered most in swaying the American government of the time, were white men. In 1941, Canada was very closely allied with England and declared war on Germany three days after the British did. Still, it's easy to imagine that there was widespread resentment in both countries about being dragged into what seemed like another futile and dreadfully destructive European conflict. This apathy had to be addressed, and 49th Parallel took on the task.

So what happens is this: a German U-boat manages to infiltrate the Gulf of St. Lawrence and then Hudson Bay, sinking Canadian freighters as part of an early wave of Nazi disruption, prior to a full-fledged invasion. A small landing party leaves the submarine to steal supplies from a settlement and winds up escaping a fatal bomber attack that sinks the sub and kills everyone on board. The six surviving soldiers, led by Lt. Hirth, now face the challenge of escaping Canada with nothing more than their wits as resources. Interestingly, by putting them in this predicament, 49th Parallel runs the risk of fostering audience sympathies for the Nazi fugitives - after all, when an escape is shown from the escapee's point of view, we generally tend to want to see them get away!

Their strategy persuades them to head west to Vancouver where they hope to catch a freighter bound for Japan, a German ally at the time but not yet at war with either Canada or the USA. The process of getting their ever-shrinking band across such a vast continent creates the suspense and also gives opportunity for the various representatives of North American subcultures to have their moment of confrontation with the Nazi "supermen." Here's one of the most memorable scenes of the film, featuring a rousing pro-Hitler speech delivered to his German-ancestry "brothers" by Lt. Hirth and an impeccably moral, articulate rebuke from the Hutterite leader Peter, played by Anton Walbrook:

What grips me so firmly in watching this is the realization that Lt. Hirth's arguments had a receptive audience in some parts of the USA - he was not spouting maniacal ravings of purely distilled malevolence, as Nazis are commonly depicted in films of more recent years. He put forth what was easy to see as a "plausible alternative," based on reason and regarded as a highly effective way to get things done. It's easy to assume that North American societies were uniformly repelled by Hitlerism, but I think it took awhile for the ideology to be so thoroughly discredited. Losing the war, and the discovery of the concentration camps, made the big difference.

In addition to the pacifist, agrarian Hutterites and Olivier's near-campy Canuck, two other lead characters figure prominently in the film's effort to connect with its audience. Leslie Howard, star of Pygmalion, remains true to type as the highbrow egghead British aesthete, here playing an ex-pat writer who camps out in the mountains to revive his soul and leave the strife of Europe far behind. However, he's not so detached from civilization that he neglects to bring his favorite Picasso and Matisse original paintings along, as well as a hired manservant and all the other creature comforts a gentleman of his class was entitled to in those times. He spends most of his screen time looking rather effete and daft, oblivious to the danger he's in when the Nazis enter surreptitiously into his wilderness idyll. However, after taking their worst, getting shoved around and mocked ignominiously, he shows what stern stuff he and his set are made of: upper-class uppercrust with a stiff upper lip and all, he gets his moment of vengeance and salvages the dignity of manor-born dandies everywhere.

And the last guy to get his licks in is the mug that the rest of us regular fellas are supposed to relate to: Raymond Massey, as Andy Brock, a train-hopping stowaway Army recruit who gets sick of the apparently pointless drills and marches and humdrum support role that he'd been cast into, when all he really wants to do is sock it to the Krauts. When he and Lt. Hirth find themselves on a train, Brock is easily snookered into thinking that the Nazi-on-the-lam is his pal. His swaggering gullibility serves as a warning to men of his time not to be too quickly taken in by the wily Germans. Nobody wants to look like a jackass when the truth finally comes out. But a last minute twist of fate gives Brock not just the information he needs to understand what's at stake in defending the homefront, but also the opportunity to get personally involved and strike a blow (literally!) for freedom.

So even though the four leading "good guys" never appear together as a group, I kind of enjoy thinking of them as a cinematic version of one of those vintage 1940's comic-book supergroups like The Young Allies - a band of diverse, colorful personalities who rallied together to put a scrappy, bare-knuckle shellackin' on Adolf's goons, one they'd never forget and always regret!

The other significant highlight of this film is that it represents the full launching of the partnership between director Powell and writer Emeric Pressburger, who would henceforth be known as an artistic tandem and release a series of great films as "The Archers." Now to this point, I've only seen one of their films, Black Narcissus, but this DVD features a second disc with an excellent documentary on the Powell & Pressburger legacy which really whetted my appetite for more. And we'll be getting it! The 1940s were prime time for these two and Criterion has a whole load of them waiting for me in the queue!

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