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49th Parallel (1941)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment

Main image of 49th Parallel (1941)
35mm, black and white, 123 mins.
DirectorsMichael Powell
 Emeric Pressburger
Production CompanyOrtus Films
SponsorMinistry Of Information
ProducersMichael Powell
 Emeric Pressburger
Screenplay & StoryEmeric Pressburger
EditorDavid Lean
MusicRalph Vaughan Williams

Cast: Eric Portman (Lieutenant Ernst Hirth), Niall Macginnis (Vogel), Laurence Olivier (Johnnie Barras), Anton Walbrook (Peter), Glynis Johns (Anna), Leslie Howard (Philip Armstrong Scott), Raymond Massey (Andy Brock)

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A German U-boat is sunk off the coast of Canada. Its crew head across country to try and reach neutral American territory.

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For their third collaboration, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were engaged by the Ministry of Information to make a propaganda film. 49th Parallel (1941; The Invaders in the US), was a concerted attempt to influence opinion in neutral America into supporting their government's entry into the war.

Pressburger proved an enthusiastic propagandist. As he later said, "Goebbels considered himself an expert on propaganda, but I thought I'd show him a thing or two." This is despite the fact that Pressburger's own status in Britain at the time was as an 'enemy alien'. On returning from Canada he found himself imprisoned and threatened with deportation, until Powell and the MOI intervened.

Pressburger's script, which won him an Academy Award for Best Original Story, charts the progress of a German U-boat crew stranded in Canada after the sinking of their craft off Hudson Bay. As the six crew members, led by the unflappable Corporal Hirth (Eric Portman), struggle to reach the neutral territory of the United States, they encounter a series of opponents, who serve to contrast Canada's democracy and ethnic diversity with the Nazis' moral bankruptcy.

The ruthless Hirth is a far cry from the more sympathetically portrayed German officer played by Conrad Veidt in Powell and Pressburger's earlier Spy in Black (1939). Unburdened by doubts in himself or in his philosophy, he has no patience with weakness or sensitivity. But his arrogance is his undoing, for he repeatedly underestimates his opponents. The other Nazis each have their own distinct characters, and there is even a 'good Nazi', which attracted some criticism at the time.

German actress Elisabeth Bergner, the only woman in a leading role, jumped ship after shooting a few scenes in Canada; it became clear she had only signed on to get to America. Fortunately, she was very effectively replaced by the unknown Glynis Johns. Two other stars, Laurence Olivier and Raymond Massey, almost pulled out, and the MOI threatened to pull the plug due to budget overspend. When Hollywood giants David O. Selznick and Samuel Goldwyn showed an interest, however, J. Arthur Rank stepped in and provided the rest of the money. He - and the Treasury - made their money back comfortably: a success at home, the film became the biggest British hit to date in American cinemas.

49th Parallel was the first of two collaborations between Powell and Pressburger and the already highly regarded editor David Lean.

Mark Duguid

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Video Clips
1. A great German (1:24)
2. Opposing visions (5:29)
3. Philip Armstrong Scott (3:56)
4. At the border (2:58)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
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