Film Length: 123 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Subtitles: Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
The Film - **** out of *****
After a German U-Boat sinks a supply ship off the coast of Canada, the crew must lay low and choose to do so in the Hudson Bay. After a six man party makes it ashore to get supplies, the ship is sunk by searching allied planes and the 6 crewmen must survive and evade capture as they try to make it to the then neutral United States by crossing the 49th Parallel, the latitudinal boundary that runs along the Canadian/American border.
This outstanding propaganda film, an early work from writer, producer, director team Eric Pressman and Michael Powell, manages to fuse a taught thriller with sharp wit and an anti-isolationist message into a grand display of wartime filmmaking.
This is a clever piece of propaganda filmmaking, choosing to strategically weave the allied viewpoint throughout the film, and using wit and intellect to inform on the Nazi stance, comment on the false sense of safety yielded from the isolationist high tower, and, as film and music historian Brice Eder rightfully points out in his in-depth essayist commentary, this was not the Germany that the world fought in WWI.
The performances in the film start out a little stilted, but round out and liven up once we are introduced to Finlay Curry’s gruff 'Factor', and Laurence Olivier’s French Canadian 'Johnnie, the trapper', who arrives in a Hudson Bay trading post after an 11 month stint trapping, thoroughly unaware of the war just before the 6 Germans show up. Here, Olivier is clearly having fun on screen with his character and while he manages to boil his performance to a spill, it is never so much that he descends into caricature.
The performances of the Nazi’s on the run are all fine, with Eric Portman, as Lieutenant Hirth, the fanatical leader of the six man crew seething with a single-minded arrogance and superiority, and Vogal, played by Niall MacGinnis as the sympathetic German, standing out.
The film also has other notable performances. Leslie Howard has a fine and gratifying appearance as an English intellectual (Philip Armstrong Scott) writing a book in the Canadian mountains and Anton Walbrook, although brief, is very good as Peter, the somewhat reserved and unassuming leader of a German Hutterite colony (with whom the escaping Germans seek refuge by saying they are simply looking for work). It is here, at the Hutterite colony, that we are given one of the films greatest moments. Dueling speeches as Lt. Hirth launches into a fervent and impassioned speech about the glory of the fuehrer and the future of a Germany controlled world, and Peter's counter speech, beginning with a reasoned calm but soon too becoming fuelled into a passionate counter argument to the Nazi ideology.
The film concludes with an entertaining portrayal by Raymond Massey as a Canadian Soldier, providing what can only be described as one of the most gratifying moments of the picture, and one that I am sure would have drawn cheers from any wartime crowd.
The films title, "49th Parallel", was changed to "The Invaders" for its US release under Columbia Pictures.
The Video - *** out of *****
The film is presented in the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio and according to the notes, this Criterion Collection has been “slightly window boxed to ensure that the maximum image is visible”. It has a new, high-definition digital transfer created on a spirit Datacine from a 35mm nitrate fine-grain master positive by the BFI national archive in England. While “thousands of instances of dirt, debris and scratches” have been removed, it is not completely free of them, and despite the occasional and distracting blemishes as well as the expected poor quality of stock footage commonly used then, this is a beautiful black & white transfer. Crisp and sharp scenes throughout are a joy to see and are a welcome treatment of this important film.
The Sound - **** out of *****
"49th Parallel" is presented with a Dolby Digital 1.0 mono soundtrack mastered at a “24-bit from a 35mm optical soundtrack”. Restoration of the soundtrack has reduced clicks, hisses, snaps, crackles and pops, and serves the film very well. While it isn't perfect, it one that can be fully appreciated, allowing the strong and, when needed, stirring score by Ralph Vaughan Williams to be appreciated without any real distraction.
The Extra’s - **** out of *****
Disc one contains the original theatrical trailer and an audio commentary by film and music historian Bruce Eder. Insightful and thorough, it appropriately balances a discussion of both the historical and artistic background of the film.
Disc two continues the solid collection of extras with the inclusion of:
"The Volunteer" – Powell & Pressburger’s 1943 “semi-documentary” recruitment short starring Ralph Richardson (with appearances by Laurence Olivier and others).
Michael Powell Audio – Audio excerpts from Powell’s dictation recordings for the first volume of his autobiography, A Life in Movies. At just over an hour, these recording highlights, split into 7 brief installments, provide a fascinating context around the genesis and shooting of "49th Parallel". Of particular interest here is Powell’s recollection of how he dismissed the idea of a war film focusing on mine sweeping efforts in favor of shooting a picture in Canada, an idea he recalls being inspired by an article he read in a British newspaper about Canada’s existing involvement in the war against Germany.
A Pretty British Affair – A BBC documentary from 1981, on the careers of Powell and Pressburger, focusing mainly on Powell at the time but offering great insight into the strong historical figures of the British Film industry at its height and offering rare footage of the filmmakers.
"49th Parallel" is an impressive film created to serve as a stern word of warning to the US who existed in the questionable safety of neutrality and also a reminder of the global nature of WWII, with a fine recognition of the Canadians that served the call to defend freedom from the Nazi’s.
Overall Score - **** out of ***** Recommended.
Release Date: February 20, 2007