Review: Michael Powell’s “49th Parallel,” Starring Leslie Howard and Laurence Olivier

Leslie Howard and Eric Portman in
Leslie Howard and Eric Portman in "49th Parallel"

When pitching his new film to the British Ministry of Information, director Michael Powell was very direct: “I want to make a film in Canada to scare the pants off the Americans, and bring them into the war sooner.”1 After a research trip to Canada with writer—and later directing partner—Emeric Pressburger, they crafted 49th Parallel (known in the U.S. as The Invaders), a suspenseful and effective piece of propaganda.

Six German sailors depart their U-boat into Canada to bring back supplies, only to watch a team of Canadian bombers destroy their ship moments later. Stranded in enemy territory, the invaders have to fight their way across the country and find a way back home—perhaps by escaping to the United States, neutral territory. Along the way they encounter a wide variety of enemies played by top-billed stars. There’s a French-Canadian trapper (Laurence Olivier), a Hutterite community leader (Anton Walbrook), a camping British writer (Leslie Howard), and a Canadian soldier (Raymond Massey), all of whom welcome the men not knowing their identities, and find themselves betrayed. The Nazis are picked off one-by-one until a final showdown at the Canadian-American border. Pressburger’s script is often bogged down in propagandistic speechifying, but there are enough thrilling set pieces and tense confrontations throughout to balance the film out.

Laurence Olivier and Eric Portman in "49th Parallel"
Laurence Olivier and Eric Portman in “49th Parallel”

Powell spent months shooting on location in Canada with the actors playing the Nazis, and then returned to England to shoot most of the sequences with the big stars at Alexander Korda’s Denham Film Studios. To join him on the earlier North American expedition, Powell recruited cinematographer Freddie Young, who previously shot Contraband for him. “I wanted the compositions to look accidental and sometimes almost as if they had been grabbed by a hand camera in the middle of the action,” Powell wrote.2 Young does a good job executing that concept without letting the location footage look too unalike the studio scenes. Powell also enlisted the help of David Lean, who spent a decade working as an editor before his days directing epics like Lawrence of Arabia. “He was the best editor I ever worked with,” Powell wrote.3 Powell explained that Lean, unconventionally, would cut films using a silent editing machine, because “he cut what he wanted to see on the screen, and to hell with the sound. The visual was the essential. David constructs purely in terms of images, using the material the way a composer might use a theme.”4

The performances of the big stars were varied in quality—Olivier’s French-Canadian accent is a bit much, while Howard gives his character a quiet indignation that is quite powerful—but the real standouts in the cast are the actors playing two of the Nazis. Eric Portman is most heavily featured as Lieutenant Ernst Hirth, and has one powerhouse moment where he addresses a crowd with a speech about the greatness of the Nazi cause. Powell recalled filming that scene: “I yelled ‘Cut!’ and started clapping, and everyone on the set and around it joined in a roar of applause. After that, the film’s reputation was made.”5 More touching is Niall MacGinnis’ performance as Vogel, whose humanity sets him apart from his German brothers as he begins to doubt their intentions.

Unfortunately, 49th Parallel was never able to achieve Powell’s desired propagandistic effect—though it was released in England in November 1941, it didn’t reach U.S. screens until March 1942, well after the country had joined up. It was still a large success, and Powell later wrote, “the fact that Emeric got the Oscars [sic] that year for best original story was good enough for us.”6 Powell and Pressburger went straight to a reversal of the same plot for their next film: One of Our Aircraft is Missing.

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References   [ + ]

1. Michael Powell, A Life in Movies (New York: Knopf, 1986), 347
2. Powell 1986, 357
3. Powell 1986, 379
4. Jack Cocks, “Adventures in the Dream Department” in David Lean: Interviews, ed. Steven Organ (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009), 62
5. Powell 1986, 381
6. Powell 1986, 383