The 49th Parallel is another of The Archers films that are explicitly part of the war effort. What made Powell and Pressburger’s films unique, is that unlike most propaganda there films were not necessarily aimed at their native country and are instead aimed squarely at the foreign market. They either like The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp, and A Cantebury Tale attempt to explain the English character in terms of cinema; or like A Matter Of Life And Death, and The 49 Parallel emphasize that we are all in this together. And not in a fuzzy handholding way either, but as in “We’re all on Germany’s hitlist so best if we stop squabbling before they kill us.”
The 49th Parallel deals with a Nazi invasion of Canada, a small U-Boat crew intended as saboteurs lands on Canadian shores. They’re discovered and have their U-Boat and half their forces killed. They run, trying to make it for The United States (still neutral at the time of filming) and cutting a wide swatch through a cross section of Canadian culture.
The amazing thing about watching The 49th Parallel, is that it’s not treating Nazi’s as serial villains convenient for their scary uniforms and tendency to bellow. Nor are they a ghoulish worst case scenario tucked safely away in history and hindsight. Rather the Nazi’s in The 49th Parrellel are a frightening and very real option.
Like all of The Archer’s films The 49th Parellel is a film only an Englishman could make. Even the best American Propoganda of the era has to it a certain sense of gee whiz remove. A cocky sense of how much fun it’s going to be to kick these guy’s asses. The 49th Parallel is too desperate for that, it could only have been made by people who actually had Nazi’s bombing their country and its civilian population, a film made by people who watched friends, neighbors and family fall to Nazi bombs everyday. There is nothing abstract about them.
This is the first Archer’s film I’ve seen in Black and White rather then their trademark surreal and dreamy color. The work is beautiful, but stark and fits well, giving the film a sense of immediacy, while The Archer’s usually focused more on elegance.
One of Powell and Pressburger’s attributes has always been their ability to create nationalism in their cinema that was never distasteful. They demonstrate the ability to transplant that in The 49th Parrellel. The Nazi’s are not so much repelled by an individual (the way Errol Flynn or John Wayne most certainly would if the film was American made) but by Canada itself. The country’s national character will not allow such a perversion and its people and character acts like antibodies against the foreign intrusion.
As with A Matter Of Life And Death, there are moments where the film just stops so the characters are allowed to state the point of the film. But rather then making the film stagier, it makes it more urgent. It’s a film that has no time for niceties, it’s a polemic only because the stakes are so high.