Perhaps we (as in, yours truly) read too much into the WWII-era drama 49th Parallel.
This 1941 film serves propaganda straight up, courtesy of the British Ministry of Information. It was meant to sell a reluctant American public on joining the war in Europe.
Like any good sales pitch, the film uses fear to close the sale.
The plot centres on the crew of a German U-Boat who enter Canadian waters. The crew send a landing party to a trading post in the Hudson Bay area, making them the first known Nazis on Canadian soil. Their plan is to occupy the trading post and start bossing everyone around.
However, Canadian authorities discover the whereabouts of the U-Boat, and they blow it to smithereens. Now the Nazis are on the run, and are desperate to get to the west coast to meet a Japanese ship.
The 49th parallel is, of course, the Canads-U.S. border. The film says the establishment of the border was “accepted with a handshake”, and is “the only undefended frontier in the world”.
On the surface, this appears to be a compliment – and it is – but really, it’s a warning. An undefended border is a porous border, and what’s to stop crazed Nazis from scurrying into the U.S.? It’s a disquieting thought, intended to freak out Americans. (When the film was released in the U.S., it was ominously entitled The Invaders.)
Throughout the film, we’re shown how easy it is for the Nazis to travel around Canada: Look, they’re stealing a seaplane! Look, they’re taking that man’s car!
49th Parallel was an early film from British filmmakers Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger, before they officially became The Archers. “[Reich Minister of Propaganda] Goebbels considered himself an expert on propaganda,” said screenwriter Pressburger, “but I thought I’d show him a thing or two.”
In our opinion, he succeeded in doing more than that. As much as 49th Parallel is intended for Americans, it’s also addressed to Canadians.
The introduction to the film reads, in part: “This film is dedicated to Canada and to Canadians all over the Dominion who helped us to make it…”
It’s fitting Canada should be thus recognized. Canadian troops were sent to Britain before the end of 1939; they would have been involved in the war effort for well over a year by the time this film was released.
The film is more than a Thank You note to Canada. It’s a full-on love letter.
The fascinating thing about this film, in our opinion, is Powell and Pressburger’s portrayal of a vibrant, diverse country, and their refusal to rely on worn stereotypes.
For example, look at Laurence Olivier as a rugged Quebecois, a man who doesn’t want to be dragged into a European war. Olivier’s francophone accent is pretty good and, more importantly, he captures the humour and charm of the Quebecois.
Now look at Leslie Howard who plays a writer camping in the Canadian Rockies. He’s researching his next book, sure, but he’s also luxuriating in the beauty and crisp air of the mountains – just like Canadians do today.
And here’s Anton Walbrook as the leader of a prairie Hutterite colony, sheltering the Nazi fugitives before he learns who they really are. When pressured to join the Nazi cause, Walbrook rebukes the men by telling them this colony is one of many foreign settlements in Canada that are now enjoying security, peace and tolerance “which in Europe your Furher has tried to stamp out.”
49th Parallel was filmed in England, but numerous scenes were filmed in Canada, specifically in Quebec, Manitoba, Alberta, Ontario and Newfoundland. The film also won an Oscar for Original Motion Picture Story.
If you want to see propaganda filmmaking as its finest, coupled with an unabashed admiration for Canada, you must see 49th Parallel.
49th Parallel: starring Leslie Howard, Raymond Massey, Laurence Olivier. Directed by Michael Powell. Written by Emerick Pressburger. J. Arthur Rank Organisation, 1941, B&W, 117 mins.
This post is part of the O Canada Blogathon hosted by Speakeasy and yours truly. Click HERE to see today’s fab entries.