They can’t all be winners.
Michael Powell’s (screenwriter Emeric Pressburger is not co-billed in triplicate on this one) 49th Parallel certainly has its moments–unfortunately, some of them aren’t GOOD moments.
In conception, this thing is truly ingenious: a dark picaresque tale that moves the (Nazi) highwaymen to center stage, beset by all manner of complacent Canadians (most of whom come to Rick Blaine-style epiphanies through their encounters with Fascism in the flesh–a development that the filmmakers hoped to inspire in the minds of American audiences… the film was made and released prior to the events at Pearl Harbor in December 1941).
It’s beautifully shot–and definitely treats the Canadian landscape well (although, as many have complained, it doesn’t exactly convey the most nuanced portrait of the country).
Don’t get me wrong–sure I’ve lived in Montreal, Quebec, Canada almost my entire life, but I have absolutely no investment in Canadian (or any other) national identity, and I don’t judge films set in my country on their mimetic fidelity (if I did, I’d be no better than Leslie Halliwell–whose whining about Hollywood’s Britain never ceases to annoy me)
Besides, how can you stay mad at a film that begins with this earnest message?
You just can’t.
But you can’t ignore its follies either!
To me, one of the most interesting things about the film, in general, is the way it thwarts expectations by stocking its renegade U-Boat crew with recognizably British actors, none of whom affect an accent. This is a stroke of genius that reveals the German nationalist project (and ALL ethnic nationalism) for the vicious delusion that it is. You really don’t understand how insane the Nazi dream was until you hear Eric Portman haranguing an audience of Hutterites with the same voice (albeit in a higher decibel) that he will later use to describe the wonders of the Kentish countryside in A Canterbury Tale.
That’s the kind of propaganda (which makes war on the very idea of ethnic distinctions) that I can get behind.
Unfortunately, the whole enterprise (as I’ve described it) is jeopardized by ONE wacko performance:
Do I look French (Canadian) in this outfit?
Again–this performance (spectacle) might have been fine (well no, let’s face it, it could never have been fine–but at least it might have been a little less out of place), in a movie in which the Germans are all played by Sig Rumann (or even by Joseph Tura in his Teutonic mode). But Olivier’s courreur-de-bois just doesn’t make sense in the grand unaccented scheme that I’ve attributed to the director.
This might be your cue to remind me that Powell probably didn’t even think about this stuff in 1941 (or maybe he did–I think I’m gonna have to read his autobiography soon!)
Anyway, I suppose you can’t really blame Olivier (and you know–I actually love his equally wacko take on a Russian engineer in The Demi-Paradise, because it actually suits that film’s fish-out-of-water narrative)–someone obviously gave him a thumbs up on this “acting choice”–but I do wish they had considered this feeble masquerade’s effect upon the delicate cultural critique proffered by the rest of 49th Parallel. (in some ways, Raymond Massey’s ultra-colloquial–and actually Canadian sounding–turn at the end of the film also dilutes the critique, but not nearly to the same extent)
Still, there’s a lot to like here. The city scenes, in which the German trio (fresh from executing their wayward comrade Vogel) sell their field glasses for diner fare, are very fresh and involving. And all of the Hutterite stuff plays beautifully, I think.
Anton Walbrook contributes a dry run for his extraordinary monologue from The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp:
Glynis Johns is lovable (as always) in a very early part:
And Niall MacGinnis walks off with the film’s top acting honours by somehow putting flesh on the liberal democrat’s wet dream–the fascist who listens to reason. (And who–in the most jarring moment of the drama–is later executed for baking bread)
On the other hand, while I’m a big fan of both Leslie Howard and Raymond Massey, and can appreciate the gusto with which they munch their scenes, I can’t exactly claim that I was moved by anything in their respective sectors of the journey.
Does anyone else see Howard’s transformation as a dry-run for Vincent Price’s extraordinary antics in His Kind of Woman? As he marched boldly into danger, I kept saying to myself–”Mark Cardigan.”
good afternoon friends!