The Criterion Collection presents
49th Parallel (1941)
"You and your Hitlerism are like microbes of some filthy disease, filled with longing to multiply yourselves until you destroy everything healthy in the world. No, we are not your brothers."- Peter (Anton Walbrook)
Stars: Laurence Olivier, Raymond Massey, Anton Walbrook, Leslie Howard, Eric Portman
Other Stars: Glynis Johns, Finlay Currie
Director: Michael Powell
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 02h:02m:01s
Release Date: 2007-02-20
DVD ReviewAdolf Hitler and Leni Riefenstahl may have created the propaganda film with 1935's Triumph of the Will, but their Allied enemies would soon perfect it. During World War II, England and America cranked out a battalion of patriotic pictures designed to bolster enthusiasm for the war effort and hammer home democratic ideology, and the British-made 49th Parallel was one of the rare productions that directly addressed audiences of both countries. It also led the way in exposing the true nature of the Nazi threat to a largely ignorant American public, urging the Yanks to get their heads out of the sand, abandon their isolationist principles, and jump into the fray. Though its message may not be subtle, in the hands of director Michael Powell and screenwriter Emeric Pressburger (who would later collaborate on such dazzling post-war classics as Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes), 49th Parallel possesses more depth, complexity, and artistry than the garden variety propaganda film, and remains an impressive achievement today.
Episodic in format and unconventional in its point-of-view, the movie follows a small group of stranded Nazi seamen, who must find a way to survive and elude capture after their U-boat is sunk off the Canadian coast. The supercilious Germans—led by the stalwart Lieutenant Hirth (Eric Portman)—are daunted but not deterred by their situation, believing the Canadian people to be "soft and degenerate" and too weak to resist their fascist views. As they cockily traverse the country seeking escape, they encounter a French-Canadian trapper (Laurence Olivier) and his business associate (Finlay Currie); a peace-loving Hutterite colony led by the saintly Peter (Anton Walbrook); an idealistic author (Leslie Howard); and a disgruntled Canadian soldier (Raymond Massey). None of these diverse characters can fathom a faraway European war coming close to their bucolic shores, let alone standing face-to-face with a living, breathing Nazi. Yet once they witness German arrogance and ruthlessness firsthand, and get an earful of the poisonous philosophy the seamen try to peddle, they awake from their slumber and take a courageous stand.
Pressburger borrows his story's structure from Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians, as one by one the German soldiers are either seized or killed during their trans-Canadian journey. Yet along the way, we get under their skin—way under—and such intimate familiarity with a reviled enemy caused some concern when 49th Parallel was first released. Hollywood films of the period almost exclusively depict Nazis as evil incarnate, but Powell and Pressburger dare to humanize them, and even audaciously suggest a few might possess redeeming qualities or, worse still, harbor doubts about the extremist doctrine they've been forced to ingest and spout. Though Olivier, Howard, Walbrook, and Massey receive star billing, each appears in the film for only about 20 minutes; instead, it's the Germans who become the protagonists and sustain the narrative. Such a bold approach rubbed ardent patriots the wrong way, but without it, 49th Parallel wouldn't be nearly as important, involving, or unique.
The film, however, is not without flaws. Because it's first and foremost a propaganda picture, agenda often takes precedence over action. Those expecting a taut wartime thriller will find something more and something less, although a few harrowing scenes of suspense compete with the best of Hitchcock. Accents are also problematic—none of the actors portraying Germans bother to attempt one (which may explain why the Nazis blend in so well among the Canadians), yet Olivier, of all people, overdoes his French accent, and flirts with caricature as a result. Thus, the best performances come from Portman, who etches a chilling portrait of a calm, cool, and calculating Nazi; Niall MacGinnis as the anomalous "good German," who would rather join the pacifistic Hutterites than tow the blasphemous Nazi line; and Massey, who makes a notable impression in the movie's riveting final sequence.
Though this early collaboration between Powell and Pressburger (who would hereafter share writing, directing, and producing credits) lacks the vision and ambiguity of their later efforts, it cemented their reputation as formidable filmmakers with both smarts and guts. The remote locations lend the movie an edgy sense of realism, and foster the scary notion that Nazis really are hiding in our own backyard. As the narrator ominously states following the opening credits, the 49th parallel (the boundary between the United States and Canada) is "the only undefended frontier in the world," and Powell's film shows just how easily one could penetrate that line 66 years ago. Of course, in this era of global terrorism, 49th Parallel enjoys renewed relevance, once again giving us pause, and making us wonder whether anything has changed.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A
|Aspect Ratio||1.33:1 - Full Frame|
|Original Aspect Ratio||yes|
Image Transfer Review: Intensive restoration work has produced a wonderful visual rendering of the film. Remastered in high definition, 49th Parallel enjoys a wide gray scale (which adds depth and texture to the image), inky blacks, and bold contrast. The Canadian location work looks a bit rough when compared to the studio sequences, but considering the difficult conditions and rudimentary equipment, that's not surprising. Nevertheless, Powell captures the rugged splendor of Banff National Park and the Newfoundland coast, as well as the pastoral beauty of the plains, all of which add essential realistic elements to the film. Although the print looks very clean, a few nicks and scratches still occasionally crop up, but only rarely distract from the on-screen action. Once again, Criterion does itself proud with a superior effort.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
Audio Transfer Review: The original mono track has also undergone a makeover, and the 24-bit remaster is so good, one can even hear Powell directing in the background during one of the U-boat scenes. The streamlined sound especially benefits Ralph Vaughan Williams' glorious score, which possesses full, lush tones and solid fidelity. Dialogue is always clear and comprehendible, and the bombing sequence early in the film provides a welcome bit of bass. Pops and crackles are altogether absent, but a slight amount of hiss remains, though it's only noticeable during moments of silence.
Audio Transfer Grade: A-
Disc ExtrasAnimated menu with music
Scene Access with 22 cues and remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by film and music historian Bruce Eder
Packaging: Amaray Double
Layers Switch: 01h:42m:00s
- The Volunteer, a 1943 Powell and Pressburger war-effort short, starring Ralph Richardson
- Excerpts from Michael Powell's audio dictations for his autobiography
Disc 2 kicks off with Powell and Pressburger's 1943 recruiting film, The Volunteer. Commissioned by actors Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier to drum up interest in the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy, of which both were members, this semi-documentary chronicles the enlistment, training, and service of Richardson's fictional theatrical dresser, Alfred Davey (Pat McGrath). The cleverly constructed but occasionally sluggish 45-minute "short" begins with some light comedy, as Richardson endures Alfred's backstage bumbling, then shows how the Fleet Air Arm whips the aimless lad into shape and transforms him into a worthwhile citizen. Olivier enjoys a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo, as does Powell, who appears in the final shot as a photographer.
It's always enlightening to hear facts and anecdotes about film from the horse's mouth, which is why an hour-long audio reminiscence about 49th Parallel by Powell himself is such a vital and absorbing document. Powell made the recording in preparation for his 1986 autobiography, and provides frank, colorful observations about his cast, colleagues, and the art of moviemaking. He explains the genesis of 49th Parallel and how it was designed to "scare the pants off the Americans and bring them into the war sooner," discusses the film's various locations, casting, and plot, and acknowledges the contributions of editor David Lean, with whom he shares an "exalted view of our craft." Even casual cinephiles will find much of interest in this rare insider's track.
A Pretty British Affair is a slow-moving yet rewarding documentary from 1981 that celebrates the Powell and Pressburger film canon through clips and contemporary interviews with the duo. The 51-minute profile shows Powell interacting with admirers Francis Ford Coppola (at his now defunct Zoetrope Studios) and Martin Scorsese (on the set of The King of Comedy), and conferring with the producers of a Broadway adaptation of The Red Shoes (which finally opened a dozen years later, then closed after a mere five performances). Narrator Gavin Millar discusses how "P. and P." broke established cinematic rules, criticized Britain's handling of World War II—so much so that the government tried to cancel the release of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp—and eventually drifted apart. Scenes from The Spy in Black, A Matter of Life and Death, A Canterbury Tale, I Know Where I'm Going!, Black Narcissus, and The Red Shoes illustrate the team's boundless creativity and fearless attitude.
As always, Criterion includes handsomely designed production notes, in this case featuring an informative essay on the film by Charles Barr, an excerpt from an eloquent speech Powell gave at the 49th Parallel premiere, and rare stills.
Extras Grade: A-
Final CommentsA stirring, textured work, 49th Parallel put Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger on the cinematic map, and remains an excellent example of propaganda filmmaking during World War II. Its unique perspective adds weight to its anti-isolationist message, while Criterion's superior transfer and enlightening extras enhance our appreciation of this British classic. Highly recommended.
David Krauss 2007-02-21