Before Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Col. Blimp and A Canterbury Tale, there was 49th Parallel. This tale of rogue Nazis roaming the Canadian pastoral countryside after their submarine is bombed to smithereens offers slim to none of the trademark whimsy of the WWII films Powell and Pressburger later made under the Archers banner. Yes, the film is clearly propaganda (though it’s not apparent to whom the propaganda is aimed at: Brits, Canadians, or the U.S., who make a very important cameo at the film’s end), but the strength of Powell and Pressburger’s compassion almost undercuts its worth as a rabble-rousing bugle call.
The stranded Nazis in the film are ruthlessly devoted to their cause (with one notable exception), and they cut a bloody path from the Hudson Bay all the way to Winnipeg, but they are also fully-rounded characters who stay true to their impulses. The Archers cannily cast charismatic stars in roles on both sides of the ideological divide to ensure that, even when the script voices clear opposition to Hitler’s positions (first calmly by Anton Walbrook’s Hutterite commune leader, later with the everyman “sez you” bluntness of Raymond Massey’s put-upon GI), there remains a tenuous dialogue between sides. The powers that be at whichever ministry was in charge of commissioning pro-war no doubt balked at the film’s conceit—Nazis as unscrupulous protagonists are still protagonists. And they especially couldn’t have been too happy with the Niall MacGinnis character’s sympathetic story arc: he alone among the group of Nazis comes to find that the gentle democracy of the once-German Hutterite community makes more sense than the Third Reich’s rampant nationalism. His untimely end at the hands of his fellow soldiers, accused of treason for simply wanting to bake bread instead of murder women and children, registers as the only arguably tragic demise of the film’s entire (rather high) body count. It’s one thing to resist the urge to simply paint the Nazi menace as dark shadows and demagoguery. It’s entirely another to dare your audience to shed a tear for the enemy.
While it might not seem so on the surface to those weaned on Why We Fight and, conversely, The Eternal Jew, 49th Parallel is wholly valid as propaganda. Its rhetorical power stems from its earnest plea for those watching contemporaneously to fight a political movement in order to save all human souls being possessed by it. Incidentally, the film was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar but predictably lost to the one-sided domestic drama Mrs. Miniver.
Criterion continue to letterbox their Academy ratio titles, which is pretty good for those with older TV sets or the 95% of DVD player models that don't allow users to shrink or enlarge the image to compensate for overscan. Bad news, though, for anyone who uses their computer monitor or has a high-end HDTV or some other fancy set up, as you're actually getting less information for your byte. That said, the image is solid, with only some of the film's early (possibly stock) shipwreck shots seemingly littered with artifacts. Sounds good, with much clipped diction.
First and foremost is a companion propaganda film from the Archers called The Volunteer, at about 45 minutes neither a short feature nor a full-length one. It's a fussy little turd of a movie in which Ralph Richardson portrays, completely against type, a crusty ham actor who learns to respect his inept dresser after seeing him put to good mechanical use in the military. While far from a worthwhile film, it's still interesting to hold up against the main feature in that it demonstrates how far the Archers would bend over backward to avoid making straight up "man the battle stations" propaganda. The Archers even poke fun at their own trade when Richardson's character mocks the beefeater speeches he has to deliver in propaganda films, about the only honest work for actors during wartime (aside from military service). Next up is an hour's worth of audio babble from Powell, intended for use in his autobiography. The hour-long BBC documentary A Very British Affair, hosted by Gavin Millar, is professional and entertaining, though doesn't deal too much with 49th Parallel. Finally, the main disc features a theatrical trailer and a commentary track by Bruce Eder that is silent nearly as often as it is not.
While narrowly focused and lacking the flights of fancy that mark the Archers' enduring classics, 49th Parallel is still in tune with the miraculous.