Toeing the Line

Laurence Olivier in 49th Parallel (1941)

A German U-boat has been sinking ships in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and has gone up to Hudson Bay where a group of Nazi soldiers are sent ashore to collect food and supplies. But shortly after coming ashore they witness the u-boat being sunk by the Canadian Air Force who blow it to smithereens. Stranded in Canada the group of Nazis lead by Lieutenant Hirth (Eric Portman) have only one hope, which is to make it across the border in to the still neutral America in hope of then getting back to their homeland. Their journey across Canada brings them in to contact with a variety of characters including Johnnie (Laurence Olivier) a trapper who has just returned home from the wilds too learn that not only has a war started but Canada are involved.

"49th Parallel" on paper sounded good, a movie directed by Michael Powell whilst written by Emeric Pressburger always is a good sign as is the cast which includes Laurence Olivier and Eric Portman. On top of that a storyline about a small group of Nazis in enemy territory trying to traverse Canada to reach America also has potential to be both an unusual and exciting war movie with the bad guys slowly getting picked off. Unfortunately the end result is that "49th Parallel" doesn't quite live up to what I was expecting and at times feels like someone has cobbled together some ideas for various scenes but didn't quite link them as well as they could.

Niall MacGinnis in 49th Parallel (1941)

The thing is that of course with "49th Parallel" being released back in 1941 it is a propaganda movie and as such we see the Canadians defeat the enemy in an almost accident prone sort of way with the Nazis at times being their own worst enemies. But it all seems so forced especially when it comes to Laurence Olivier's performance as a French Canadian trapper which for me is entertaining but excessively over the top and kind of too much of a stereotype. It is the same else where with the only ones who don't come across as stereotypes are the Nazis who end up an inquisitive and at times a friendly bunch.

What all this boils down to is that "49th Parallel" might have been an effective piece of wartime propaganda back in 1941 and maybe those who are fans of Pressburger and Powell will still enjoy it for its cinematography. But for me this is a movie of its time and watched now doesn't have the same power than it might once had and in fact some of it now feels a bit corny.

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