Friday, December 9, 2011

Movie – 49th Parallel (1941)

The movie 49th Parallel was an attempt by the British government to use propaganda in a way to benefit their war effort.  Nazi Germany had shown that it was a very effective tool, and The U.K. hoped to show North America what the Nazis were capable of.  In addition to the government funding the movie, several big stars agreed to work on the film for half of their usual fees.  The result was a movie that has to be evaluated on two levels – how it was received then and how it comes across now.

Prior to seeing this movie I had heard it was made to try to sway public opinion in the U.S. about joining World War II.  After I watched the movie I felt that it was really more about showing Canadians that their country’s support of England and the war effort were the right decision.

The movie opens with a dedication to Canadians and Americans who helped get it made, and to the country of Canada itself.  The movie seems designed to show off the beauty of Canada, with locations as diverse as the upper Hudson Bay, the prairies, the Canadian Rockies, and Niagara Falls.  The diverse cultural makeup of the nation is also well represented in the movie, with not just English descendants, but the Quebec French, the Eskimos, German immigrants, and Indians all making appearances and helping in the effort against the Nazis.  It was obviously designed to show that this was a “Canadian war effort”, not a British one.

A German U-boat is shown having sunk a ship off the coast of Newfoundland.  It then proceeds up past Labrador into the upper Hudson Bay.  Thanks to an Eskimo spotting it, Canadian bombers destroy it, but not before a small landing party had gone ashore for supplies.  This party is led by Lt. Hirth (Eric Portman).  They take over a trading post and that’s where we meet the first big star in the movie – Laurence Olivier. 

He is humorously miscast as a Quebec trapper who has been out of touch for a year and doesn’t even realize that Germany is at war with Canada.  You can tell he’s from Quebec because he speaks with a bad French accent, him.  The Nazis try to convince him that it isn’t his fight; that it’s the English that the Nazis are fighting.  They tell him his government has already surrendered to the Germans.  They are referring to France.  Olivier’s character rejects them, telling them he’s Canadian, not French.  This was the reason they had Olivier playing a French Canadian character.

After this section at the beginning of the film, Olivier’s part is done.  This surprised me.  In fact, it turns out that it’s the Nazi’s, especially Lt. Hirth, who are the protagonists of the movie, not the biggest names in the cast. 

We follow the journey of the Nazis across Canada as they try to avoid capture.  They run into a Hutterite religious commune made up of German immigrants.  After alienating the people there they move on and run into a rich intellectual (Leslie Howard – who would later be killed by the Nazis in 1943).  They end up getting on his bad side, too.  Finally, they run into a Canadian deserter who has second thoughts after meeting an actual Nazi.

All of these things are why I feel the movie was really about getting Canadians fully on board with supporting the war, more than it was to get Americans to join.  Most of the Canadians harmed in the film by the Nazis belong to groups that were likely to not consider it “their” war. 

As it turns out, by the time the movie was released in the U.S. in 1942, they already had been in the war for months anyway.  (Edits were made in the American release to remove the German’s attitudes about minorities and the Canadians saying how wrong those attitudes were, since many people in the southern U.S. held identical views to the Nazis and the filmmakers did not want to alienate them.)

The title of the movie comes from the fact that the majority of the Canada/U.S. border between the Great Lakes and the Pacific Ocean is on the 49th Parallel.  They show you this on a map at the beginning of the movie.  They also superimpose maps over the movie scenes several more times for those people who are not familiar with Canadian geography.  For a movie that emphasizes geography so much, they ended up making a really funny mistake.  At one point they show a border crossing near Niagara Falls.  A train that is supposedly crossing from Canada to the U.S. and vice versa, is shown going the wrong direction each time.

This leads me to how the movie was received then versus how it comes across now.  Back then it won an Oscar for best writing.  When I watched it, though, the propaganda is so heavy handed that it is unintentionally funny in several places.  No, it’s not anywhere near as over the top as Reefer Madness or one of those movies, but it is like being smacked up side the head with a blunt instrument.

The Nazis are shown to be just as stupid as they are evil.  The whole point of a submarine is that it lets you travel by stealth.  Instead, the captain decides to travel on the surface because “it will be quicker”, which leads to them being spotted and destroyed.  Everywhere the Nazis go they almost immediately let people know who they are by their words and actions, even though there is a nationwide manhunt going on for them.  After one day at a German religious commune the Lt. makes an impassioned speech about how wonderful Hitler is….to a collection of people who fled his evil.  They literally walk across two Canadian provinces before it occurs to them to steal a car.  Once they have a car they abandon it for a train, which leaves them little way to escape when they are close to being caught.  At several points they are only a hundred miles from the American border, which would make them safe since the U.S. was not yet in the war, but they decide to cross the entire country to Vancouver to get a ship instead.  I could go on.

And they are not just regular, old evil; they are really evil.  They gleefully shoot women and children.  Anyone who they consider weak is attacked or killed.  They even destroy a man’s artwork.  Why?  Because they’re evil.

The Canadians in the film aren’t shown to be much smarter.  Despite having armed, dangerous men around them, most continue to taunt the Nazis until something bad happens to them.  Just about all of them have their heads buried in the sand when it comes to how evil Nazis can be.  They all are in their own worlds – Quebec trapper, Eskimos, religious pacifists, Indians, a rich intellectual (who is so out of touch he hangs Picassos on the wall of his teepee), a deserter – until the Nazis do something bad to them personally.  Only then do they understand that they have to stand up, band together, and fight off this Nazi evil.  (You do not destroy a rich intellectual’s Picasso and hope to get away with it.)

The fact that the Nazis were the protagonists of the movie led some people to condemn it.  They confused “protagonist” for “hero” and thought that the Nazis were shown to be too sympathetic in the movie.  They do have a token “nice Nazi” in the group.  He hands a rosary to a dying man.  He shows the religious folks how to bake proper bread.  He just wants to go back to the way things were before the war.  Just like the Canadians, he pays for it when he learns that you can’t pretend the Nazi evil isn’t there.  Despite this, the fact that anybody could watch this movie and think that the Nazis are portrayed sympathetically is also funny to me.

Now, all of the things I pointed out as being heavy handed, stupid, or funny were all done for a purpose and that was to generate the greatest effect at the time the movie was released.  Most of these things allowed the filmmakers to show the Nazis indiscriminately hurting all folks, and on North American soil.  It wasn’t just a “European war” or a “British War” anymore.  The walking across Canada was put in, I’m sure, to show how relentless the Nazis could be about marching across land to reach their objective.  The traveling across the country also allowed the filmmakers to show several beautiful locations in Canada, even though they were thousands of miles apart.  The black and white cinematography is especially effective when showing the Rockies.

So, you should see this movie to get a taste of early attempts at propaganda during World War II.  You should also see it to get a view of some of the more beautiful parts of Canada.  Try this movie for these reasons and you may like it.  If you can’t stand heavy handed writing, though, you may want to skip this movie.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

[Note – you can see all the Movies by Numbers, as well as get some hints on what’s to come, at this link.]