Friday, January 7, 2011

49th Parallel

Fabulous propaganda/adventure film! Filmed in 1941 and released before the U.S.A. entered World War 2, 49th Parallel tells the story of the crew of a German U-boat sunk off the coast of Canada. 6 members of the crew escape the sub and attempt to flee to neutral America. All the while Canadian authorities and citizens are hot on their trail. Eric Portman is strong as the leader of the Germans, while British stars like Laurence Olivier and Leslie Howard portray the Canadians.

This film is a good adventure film. The German crew, on the run, attempt a harrowing journey across a hostile continent. They meet Eskimos in the north, French-Canadian trappers, local business men, hutterite farmers and a slew of officials as they traverse the second largest country on Earth. From the shores of Hudson Bay to the peaks of the Rocky Mountains the vast wilderness that is Canada is a major player in this fine thriller.

Also, this film is fantastic propaganda. Filmed by acclaimed British-born director Michael Powell, 49th Parallel tells this story to not only thrill the viewer, but to convince us of the strength of Democracy and the weakness of Fascism/Germany. All, but one, of the Germans are arrogant, Hitler-worshipping, group-thinking hate-mongers. They eventually kill the one member of the crew that feels any compassion/attraction to Canada and its peoples. On the other hand, all the Canadians are individuals, able to think, react and succeed on their own. One scene has the German crew amazed that the leader of a local religious community does not "punish" people who disagree with him. On several occasions the officer in charge of the German crew gives a passionate speech about the strengths of the Aryan/Nordic peoples and expects the local citizenry to join him in fighting the "weak" Canadian government. Much to his surprise, but not to ours, no one wants to join the Nazis. Canadians may complain about their government, but they sure don't want to be Nazis.

Director Powell and Oscar-winning screenwriter Emeric Pressburger do a fantastic job of using film and story to present a political view while still entertaining the audience. This film is terrific as an adventure thriller, but excels when looked at as propaganda. After viewing compare this movie with the films produced by the German film maker Leni Riefenstahl, particularly 'Triumph of the Will'. Her Nazi propaganda features lots of powerful music, marching soldiers and speeches by Hitler and Party leaders. Contrast that with 49th Parallel. No marching soldiers, just ordinary citizens. No bombastic score, just strong story-telling. No speeches by dictators, just speeches by the common person who loves their country and their freedom. If you ever want to explain the differences between Western democracy and Fascist dictatorships you can show these two films. No better statement could be made.

Filmed in 1941, directed by Michael Powell, written by Emeric Pressburger, starring Laurence Olivier, Leslie Howard, Eric Portman, Glynis Johns and Anton Walbrook.

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