During World War II, many of greatest British directors set about making propaganda for the war effort. David Lean and Noel Coward directed the excellent ‘In Which We Serve’ (1942), Cavalcanti (OK, he’s actually Brazilian) made ‘Went The Day Well?’ (1942) and Alfred Hitchcock (albeit in America) made the very underrated ‘Lifeboat’ (1944).
The results of these and others were often unexpectedly nuanced. Unlike Nazi propaganda – most famously of Leni Riefenstahl’s ‘documentary’-style ‘Triumph Of The Will’ (1934) and Olympia (1936) – which bludgeoningly focused on grand scale and German superiority, many of the equivalent British films actually set about making character dramas (albeit Ministry Of Information-approved ones). And to this list can be added Michael Powell’s ‘49th Parallel’.
It makes the very bold step – for a war-time film at least – of telling a story predominantly from the Nazi side, and in a not entirely unsympathetic way. A U-Boat has travelled to Canada to destroy Allied shipping, and six of its crew have gone aground undercover to recover supplies. But whilst ashore, the U-Boat is sunk in a bombing raid. The film then traces the path of the six, as they covertly try to reach neutral America.
Michael Powell had been a jobbing British director through the 1930s, working mostly on short and low-budget films, without achieving great fame or success. In 1937 however, he announced his talent with the truly remarkable ‘The Edge Of The World’, about the de-population of a remote Scottish island.
But financial success was still elusive. In 1939, for the first time, he teamed up with Emeric Pressburger (who only took a writing credit) on ‘The Spy In Black’, another German U-Boat film. It was the combination of the two of them together that would result in such outstanding work throughout the 1940s.
Pressburger continued to only take a writing credit on the 49th Parallel – the last film before they were officially co-directors. And aside from Powell and Pressburger themselves, the film has a very strong cast and crew. The editor was David Lean – one year before he made his own directorial debut on the aforementioned In Which We Serve – and Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote the excellent score. The film also starred (in supporting roles) Leslie Howard and an ear-grating-French-Canadian-accented Laurence Olivier.
The most interesting element of the film is its depiction of the Nazi soldiers. Instead of the brainwashed, unwavering monsters so commonly depicted in war films (especially for war-time propaganda), here the Nazi U-Boat servicemen are portrayed as human, individuals who have taken an incorrect course in life. The scene of the U-Boat’s destruction is a perfect example of this strange humanising of the ‘other side’. The camera focuses on the surviving soldiers ashore, witnessing their horror at the drowning of the others. The audience now even begins to empathise with these men, stranded in a foreign country, thousands of miles of ocean from safety. Tied to this, the Nazis in the film speak with clipped, proper English accents. By avoiding pastiched German inflections, the film avoids easy stereotypes.
To clarify, the film at no point sympathises with the Nazis and their objectives, and certainly in no way promotes their message. But it does give personalities to its individuals – and a range of personalities at that, many of them vile – and this is the film’s greatest strength.
The film was made as an attempt to scare USA into joining the war by serving as a reminder to audiences that Nazis could enter over the border. On these grounds, the film was pointless as the US had already entered the war by the time of its release there. But 49th Parallel was still successful in the US, going on to win the Academy Award for ‘Best Story’ (the story is one of the weaker elements of the film) and was nominated for Best Picture. However the Oscars that year were overshadowed by William Randolph Hearst’s attempt to distance himself from Citizen Kane. Unfortunately in doing so, his name is now tied inexorably to it forever.
Back to Powell and Pressburger, 49th Parallel was one of many films they made about war through their career. Unlike the vast majority of other war films of the 1930s-50s, theirs very rarely focused on battles and fight scenes. Instead, they were far more interested in character – both individuals’ character and national character, and how these react in the circumstances of war. This can be seen in many of their later films, notably ‘One Of Our Aircraft Is Missing’ which flips the plot of 49th Parallel and puts British airmen in enemy territory, ‘The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp’ (1943) which traces a somewhat-ludicrous British General through multiple wars, and ‘A Canterbury Tale’ (1944), which although set during World War II, overlooks the fighting, to focus instead on the nature of English-ness. What is most present through all of these films is a message of continuity, that war may destroy, but it will not change.
49th Parallel is certainly not one of Powell and Pressburger’s greatest films. It does not demonstrate the same mastery of story as their films, later in the decade, did. But its nuance and study of character means it is a very interesting film. And to do so in a piece of propaganda does make it remarkable.