The Archers: Introduction and 49th Parallel

British movies are getting the shaft.

The Archers: Introduction and 49th Parallel
Photo: The Criterion Collection

British movies are getting the shaft. The budding movie snob often simply overlooks the output of that island nation, with a few notable exceptions. Everyone sees Lawrence of Arabia, yeah, but might it get more press simply for being (among other things) so damn epic?

More notable is the discrepancy between American and British “greatest-ever” lists. Although the British Film Institute places Carol Reed’s The Third Man, a perennial favorite with American critics, at the top of its list of the best 100 British films ever made, “Total Film” bestows the honor upon 1971’s Get Carter. Carter’s not so feted in the states. It didn’t make either of the American Film Institute’s top 100 lists (which, perplexingly, include some British movies and not others), and it clocked in at a nothing-to-scoff-at 570 on “They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?” (a terrifically maintained site which offers a list of the, that’s right, 1000 greatest films ever made). That Carter is so fawned upon by some and so ignored by others illustrates the ocean dividing British critics from just about everybody else.

Our neophyte snob may, then, miss out on some of the real gems that Britain has to offer until much later in his cinematic education. They don’t top the lists, so they fail to pique the attention.

So why no love for the British?

British film seems to suffer from the “reverse Goldilocks” syndrome—it’s just a little too foreign and yet not quite foreign enough. “They’re speaking English,” the American moviegoer might say when watching certain British movies. “But what the hell are they talking about?” Or maybe even, “What the hell are they saying?”

I experienced the former (with an occasional dash of the latter) when watching Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. They were indeed speaking English, but the movie itself seemed so English. Take the conceit of the film itself—to examine what transformed a normal soldier into this self-important prick:

Not exactly a well-known archetype among us Americans.

But based on the setting (World War II) and the language, we expect, when the film begins, to be familiar with the world we’re about to enter. So when this world turns out to be one we haven’t really seen before (“Why does everyone hang out in Turkish baths?”; “Who the hell is Colonel Blimp?”), it’s particularly jarring.

We Americans seem to be particularly uncomfortable with this gap between intuition and reality. Foreign-language foreign films (those real ones) are so unfamiliar that we throw our preconceptions out the window. France may not really look the way it does in François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, but it also doesn’t look like anything that we’ve seen before.

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (known from 1943 onward as “The Archers”) epitomize this dichotomy. Accordingly, their work seems to have fallen through the cracks for most average moviegoers and even many film snobs.

But if the Archers typify why British films are so overlooked, they also represent how wonderful they can be. They’re so funny, so sweetly optimistic, so quintessentially British that it’s a ruddy shame to ignore them. In process, if not in tone, they recall the Coen brothers, those American iconoclasts. Like the Coens, the Archers maintained a striking degree of creative control, sharing writing, directing, and producing credits (have a look at the five-point “Archers Manifesto” to see how seriously they took their craft). And although almost none of them were contracted, Powell and Pressburger worked with a rotating cast of critically-adored collaborators on nearly all of their films.

I’ve decided to help remedy this criminal under-appreciation. I’ve cherry-picked a (hopefully) representative six selections from the twenty films the pair collaborated on.

It’s a well-worn cliché that we’re all more the same than we are different. I suppose, but the differences are much more interesting. So grow out your handlebar mustache, start dropping the “e” in either, and grab a helping of steak-and-kidney pie as I dive into the unexpectedly unfamiliar world of the Archers.

49th Parallel, and, thankfully, better things are yet to come

There’s a reason why cop movies often follow similar formulas.

Take Ridley Scott’s American Gangster: Denzel Washington’s Frank Lucas gets his Gangster on, and Russell Crowe’s Richie Roberts tries to put him away. The dual main character structure humanizes both predator and prey and serves to raise the stakes on each side. Roberts’ attempts to put Lucas away are enriched because we know Frank. The guy’s a ruthless drug dealer, but the structure affords him at least some humanity. The formula works, even if the movie doesn’t blow us away.

So it’s a bit puzzling as to why Powell and Pressburger decided to buck convention with 49th Parallel. Maybe it wasn’t a convention yet. I hope so for their sakes, because then the solution wasn’t quite so obvious.

The film follows a group of Nazi sailors who are stranded in the Canadian wilderness during World War II after their submarine is torpedoed. They are, to the man, an irredeemable bunch of schmucks. Except for one of them, but we’ll get back to him later.

Their quest to reach the United States (not coincidentally a neutral power at the time) might be called harrowing. But, at least in the film reviewer’s lexicon, “harrowing” typically applies only when you’d like not to see the “protagonists” fail. Not so here.

Lieutenant Hirth, a portrait of Aryan handsomeness and Nazi persistence, played by an admittedly magnificent Eric Portman, is the worst of the lot. When Niall MacGinnis’ Vogel (the one redeemable non-schmuck) determines that he’ll abandon the group to become a baker in a Utopian commune they encounter during their journey, Hirth executes him. To the same Hutterite co-op, Hirth delivers a rabid exhortation to live life based on the tenets of National Socialism.

The scene typifies what a disappointment 49th Parallel is on the whole. There’s so much talent here (Portman’s wild-eyed fervor really makes me physically angry), but it’s so wasted. The script (by Rodney Ackland and Pressburger himself) is simplistic and one-sided. The Nazis, as well as the yokels they encounter along their trip (including Laurence Olivier, who must have been made bad by the badness of the movie itself) are caricatures. Powell and Pressburger set out to make a film that would lure the United States into the war by making it seem downright evil to not want to wipe out the Nazis. And that is all they did.

But while I think the idea of producing a film intended to influence international relations is adorably naïve, I resent having to actually watch what results. Divorced of its historical context, 49th Parallel has little to keep us interested: we’re aware the Nazis are bad, and we don’t much care if they accomplish their goal. In fact, we’d rather if they didn’t.

Character studies of seeming demons can be thrilling (Daniel Day-Lewis has made a cottage industry out of it), but that’s not what Powell and Pressburger wanted to do here. Unfortunately, we hate the characters so much that we’d just as soon turn off the movie they’re starring in.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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