Hollywood was far from alone alone in bringing Canadian-set stories to the silver screen in the mid-20th century. Our former colonial parent Great Britain utilized our land from coast to coast as the setting for it’s WWII propaganda effort, 49th Parallel. In the hands of the legendary filmmaking team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the film weaves an epic tale of Nazi soldiers deep in enemy territory and a country forced to confront a fascist presence in it’s own backyard.
It’s one year into the Second World War and a German U-Boat has struck a decisive blow by sinking a freighter in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Wishing to gain a foothold on the continent, the submarine evades the Royal Canadian Navy and Air Force by heading north up the coast. As their supplies dwindle, they set their sights on a Hudsons Bay Company trading post on Cape Wolstenholme on the tip of Northern Quebec. Before they can capture the post, the RCAF catches up and blows the sub to smithereens leaving the landing party of six sailors stranded.
Lead by the cold and calculating Lt. Hirth (Eric Portman), the Nazi crew decide to make a run for the border into the then-neutral United States and secure passage home to the fatherland. Along the way, they encounter Canadians from various walks of life including vivacious Québécois fur trapper Johnnie (Laurence Olivier), pacifist Hutterite farmer Peter (Anton Wolbrook), hedonistic author Phillip (Leslie Howard), and frustrated AWOL soldier Andy (Raymond Massey). It’s these encounters that challenge the views of these men of the Third Reich. Their upheld ideal of a pure Aryan paradise is contrasted by the diverse and democratic land of Canada, causing at least one of their group, Vogel (Nial McGinnis) to seriously contemplate desertion.
The group’s numbers gradually dwindle as they are captured or killed. It all adds up to an epic showdown at the border at Niagara Falls, where the Americans will be forced to confront their own neutrality in this international conflict and play a key role in the fate of the Nazi fugitives.
The film took a risk in 1941 by not only casting Nazi sailors as the protagonists, but by refusing to portray them as straw men. They are still human beings under the uniform who were regrettably taken in by the promises and rhetoric of a maniacal dictator. Their attempts to spread and plant the roots of Nazism on this side of the Atlantic are continually thwarted from Johnnie, who sees right through Lt. Hirth’s attempts to stoke a false sense of nationalism to the mostly German Hutterites who profoundly reject the Nazi’s call to arms and stating plainly that although they share similar roots, they are “not brothers”.
Where Hollywood was often content to portray Canada as a vast, un-spoiled wilderness, Powell and Pressburger render the country as geographically diverse right from the start. Much of the film is shot on location and it shows. From arctic tundra of Northern Quebec, the bustling urban streets of Winnipeg, the sprawling wheat fields of the prairies, to the stunning rockies of Banff National Park, it’s rather refreshing to see so many sides of Canada so exquisitely rendered in a dramatic production. Curiously, the titular border is never actually visited by the film’s characters,nseen only on a map in the film’s opening minutes.
Of course, scenery is of little value without well-rendered characters to populate it and many of Britain’s top stars at the time worked for half-salary to fit the bill. Olivier, Wolbrook, and Massey all perform expertly with their limited screen time with Leslie Howard standing out as author Phillip Armstrong Scott who’s manhood is challenged by Lt. Hirth and must find a courage within himself to face an enemy who’s been a world away until now. Niall McGinnis is also a highlight as baker-turned-Nazi Vogel who begins to question the might of the regime as he falls in with the friendly and generous Hutterite farming community. Eric Portman carries himself well as Hirth who is tasked with the most screen time whose drive and persistence damn near makes you root for him against your better judgement.
The world has changed a great deal since the film was released, but the ideology propagated by the main characters still persists in many parts of the world, rendering films like this ever-relevant. Screenwriter Pressburger decided early on that he wanted to show Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels “a thing or two” with this film and the result is a deeply-affecting thriller that will stay with you long after the closing frame. Highly Recommended.