February 24, 2017


49th Parallel – 1941 | 105 mins | War, Drama | B&W


Plot Synopsis

49th Parallel

Powell and Pressburger were approached by the British Ministry of Information to make a film about minesweeping; ‘That’s First World War stuff. I want to make a film about Canada… being next to the USA, they will help to bring [them] in’ was Michael Powell‘s reply. Heading for the 49th Parallel, the border between Canada and North America, to scout locations, Pressburger came up with the plot of the film en route, and a starring cast was quickly contacted. Laurence Olivier, Leslie Howard, Anton Walbrook, Raymond Massey and Elisabeth Bergner all agreed to appear in the film at a basic minimum fee instead of their usual salaries, although Howard apparently later insisted on a percentage agreement, eventually met by Powell and Pressburger. The role of fanatical Nazi Lieutenant Hirth was to have been taken by Powell’s friend Esmond Knight until the actor enlisted in the Navy. Instead, Hirth was played by Eric Portman. Elisabeth Bergner, ‘defected’ across the border to the United States instead of returning to London after filming her scenes in Canada. Glynis Johns replaced her, although most of the outdoor distance shots featuring Miss Bergner could still be used.

A German submarine is destroyed at Canada’s Hudson Bay during WWII, leaving a five man shore party, led by Lieutenant Kuhnecker (Raymond Lovell), stranded on Canadian soil the attempt to head for the safety of the still neutral U.S. Reaching a trading post, they overpower the Factor and Canadian trapper Johnnie Barras (Laurence Olivier), who attempts to shout a warning over the short wave radio and is shot. A plane sent to investigate is hijacked by the Germans, but crashes into a lake, killing Kuhnecker. Lieutenant Hirth (Eric Portman) takes command, leading the four survivors to a Manitoba Hutterite camp of German refugees led by Peter (Anton Walbrook). Hirth asks his ‘fellow Germans’ for their help in spreading the movement across Canada, but Peter denounces him as a fanatic. When Vogel (Niall MacGinnis) chooses to remain with the community, he is executed by his comrades as a deserter.

At Vancouver Kranz is arrested by the Mounted Police while Hirth and Lohrmann escape to the Rockies. There they encounter English author Philip Armstrong Scott, researching Indian folklore. Taken captive, Scott manages to break free and capture Lohrmann. Alone, Hirth boards a freight train headed for the neutral United States. Also in the car is AWOL Canadian soldier Andy Brock (Raymond Massey). At the border, Hirth surrenders to customs officers and asks to be taken to the German embassy, but Brock persuades them to wheel the carriage back into Canada where he can show the German what he thinks of the Nazi order.

The 49th Parallel is an adventure story, and a bit more. The difficulty is that the natural heroes of its adventure are the campaigning Nazis. The further they get the more you sympathise. An important and effective propaganda film, the strongest possible indictment against Nazism. The 49th Parallel won an Academy Award for Best Original Story (Emeric Pressburger) and was also nominated in the Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay categories. The film was criticised in England for it’s sympathetic portrayal of Nazi’s, Pressburger responded the Hirth’s character was certainly ruthless and that even amongst Nazi’s they had to have a sympathetic sort of fellow. Powell joined in by writing to The Times to defend the film and it’s financial budget. Despite this The 49th Parallel was England’s top-grossing film of 1941.

Production Team

Michael Powell: Director
David Rawnsley: Art Direction
Sydney Streeter: Art Direction
Frederick Pusey: Art Direction
Nugent M Cloucher: Art Direction
Roland Gillett: Associate Producer
George H Brown: Associate Producer
Freddie A Young: Cinematography
David Lean: Editing
Muir Mathieson: Music Direction
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Music Score
Michael Powell: Producer
John Sutro: Production Manager
Emeric Pressburger: Script
Rodney Ackland: Script
CC Stevens: Sound


Laurence Olivier: Johnnie
Eric Portman: Lieutenant Hirth
Leslie Howard: Philip Armstrong Scott
Raymond Massey: Andy Brock
Glynis Johns: Anna
Richard George: Captain Bernsdorff
Anton Walbrook: Peter
Basil Appleby: Jahner
Niall MacGinnis: Vogel
Raymond Lovell: Lieutenant Kuhnecke
Peter Moore: Kranz
John Chandos: Lohrmann
Finlay Currie: Albert

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