Drama · War

49th Parallel: Britain’s Love Letter to Canada

Bossy Nazis get ready to show Canadians a thing or two. Image: FIlms Worth Watching
Nazis are gonna show Canadians a thing or two. Image: Films Worth Watching

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!

Eric Portman scowls at Canadian scenery. Image:
Eric Portman (left) scowls at Canadians – and the scenery. Image: The Art of Memory

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.

Anton Walbrook (centre) defends Canadian values. Image: YouTube
Anton Walbrook (centre) defends Canadian values. Image: YouTube

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.

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19 thoughts on “49th Parallel: Britain’s Love Letter to Canada

  1. I love this one too, and this was a great choice, since our contributions in that war and others were big and important, it’s nice to see in the movies and in this blogathon. Thanks for being such a fun co-host, this event is amazing and I learn a ton from all the great writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I remember this movie… it is one of the very few that recognized the role of Canadians during the 2nd world war. Thanks for including it in your series! Camp X was declassified in 1995 and was recently dramatized in a movie by the same name.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Just yesterday I was reading about Powell and Pressburger and I thought “uhm, I should watch 49th Parallel”. And then today I thought “I MUST watch 49th Parallel!”. You won me at propaganda filmmaking as its finest!
    Thanks for hosting this blogathon!
    Kisses!
    Le

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I normally have massive issues with war propaganda films, but you know you had me at Leslie Howard. I love that this film acknowledges Canada’s part in the war effort, that important fact is often overlooked. Great pick, lovely pos, the film sounds like great fun! 😉🇨🇦👍

    Like

  5. I vaguely remember this film, Ruth. I watched it with my Uncle, Zia’s husband, whose family had immigrated to Canada from Italy. He was very proud of his Canadian ties and often spoke of Canada’s contributions before and during WWII. I happened to be visiting them one weekend and this movie was the night’s late movie. (Remember those?) It was must-see TV in his home. I really should see it again. Thanks for the heads-up.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. John, your comment makes me swell with Canadian pride. Canada gave a lot to the war effort including, sadly, many lives lost. I’m pleased to hear this film was a must-see in your uncle’s home. It’s thrilling (to me) to see all those exteriors shot in Canada.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m going through all of last years blogathons I participated in and make sure I read and comment on all the hosts posts, something I often forget to do.

    Propaganda sometimes ruins a perfectly good movie (a certain John Garfield film comes to mind) but this one definitely sounds interesting!

    Liked by 1 person

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