49th Parallel: Criterion Collection
March 10, 2007
In 1940, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger proposed to make a film on a grand scale with movie stars and filming to predominantly take place in Canada. Set during the early years of World War II before the United States became involved, 49th Parallel (1941) is about the crew of a German U-boat who find themselves stranded in Canada after being relentlessly pursued by Allied forces for sinking a supply ship. A small landing party of six men sets out for supplies shortly before their submarine is completely destroyed by Canadian bombers, killing all of their comrades.
They cross paths with a rugged French Canadian trapper, Johnnie Harris (Olivier). He isn’t that interested in the war and is content to do his job. The Nazis take refuge in his house and plot their next move. Laurence Olivier attacks his role with his usual gusto adopting an exaggerated accent and a playful glint in his eye as he stands up to the Germans. The film quickly establishes their ruthlessness in a scene where they shoot into a group of unarmed Inuit to kill two pilots bringing supplies. There is a shot of a mother laying dead on the ground, her small child sitting helpless nearby.
The Nazis commandeer the supply plane and make their way deeper into Canada disguised as civilians in an attempt to blend in. Director Michael Powell does a nice job of conveying the beautiful Canadian countryside in an almost documentary style. It’s amusing to see how colourfully the Canadian people are depicted in this movie, including the stereotypical images of Inuit, French Canadians and Mounties. The people are depicted as hard-working and down-to-earth, living mostly in a rural setting – this is the northern part of the country after all.
49th Parallel does an excellent job in showing the cunning nature of the Nazis and balances this with their fatal mistakes as their situation gets more and more desperate. Looking back at the film now, it was a pretty ballsy move on Powell and Pressburger’s part to have evil Nazis as the film’s protagonists and cast big name stars like Olivier and Leslie Howard in supporting roles. However, at the time, the general public did not know much about them or their beliefs and this film’s intention was to educate people on cruel doctrines and practices.
The first disc features an audio commentary by film and music historian Bruce Eder. He splits things up between background information on the film and an analysis of what we are watching. He explains how the film was a bridge between Powell’s low budget thrillers and the art films he made with Pressburger. Eder gives us a brief rundown of how Powell and Pressburger met and formed a partnership as well as the films Powell made previously to this one. He points out that the big stars worked for half their normal fees to insure that the film would get a major release. Eder clearly did his homework and it shows on this highly informative track.
Also included is a theatrical trailer.
The second disc features a 46 minute short film entitled, “The Volunteer.” Actor Ralph Richardson suggested that Powell and Pressburger make a recruitment film for the Fleet Air Arm on which both Richardson and Olivier were members of. This “semidocumentary” (as Pressburger called it) was made with cooperation with the Royal Navy and starts off comically as Richardson’s bumbling assistant tries to help the actor get ready. He gets everything wrong and eventually expresses an interest in joining the armed forces and doing his part.
“Michael Powell Audio” features excerpts from his original dictation recordings for the first volume of his autobiography, A Life in Movies, which pertain to 49th Parallel. He mentions how he and Pressburger spent three weeks traveling through Canada conducting research using trains, planes, automobiles and even horseback to get around. He touches upon the story, casting choices and the submarine that was constructed for the film among other topics.
Finally, there is “A Pretty British Affair,” a 1981 BBC documentary tracing the life and career of both Powell and Pressburger complete with rare interview footage. It takes us through many of their signature films in this excellent primer.