Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.
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Original review at TVGuide
TV Guide review
49th Parallel (1941)
akas The Invaders
Made in Montreal and in Denham, England, with second units providing awesome footage of the vast Canadian landscape, this is one of the few episodic films to prove highly effective. This tense WW II drama unfolds when the U-37, a German submarine, surfaces in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. One of its officers, Portman, leads six crew members ashore to search for supplies and, from a hilltop, they witness two RCAF bombers attack the submarine and sink it. The stranded men then march to a trading outpost on Hudson Bay run by Currie. There they take a French-Canadian trapper, Olivier, prisoner along with Currie. Olivier taunts them jocularly, telling the Germans that his father and others beat them in WW I and that the same will happen again. Meanwhile, a ham operator in the US keeps calling the station to play his regular long distance chess game with Currie, and Portman and Lovell decide that the chess game must go on to prevent the American from becoming suspicious. During the tense game, Olivier makes a break for the radio, tries to get out a message, and is shot. He lies dying as the Germans attack and kill two company officers who arrive by seaplane the next day. Currie, bound in a chair, asks one of the young German seamen, MacGinnis, to give the dying Olivier his rosary and, after making sure he is not seen by the other Germans, the kind-hearted seaman presses the rosary into Olivier's hands. The six Germans climb into the small seaplane and begin to take off. One of them hanging on the outside of the plane is shot by an Eskimo and falls dead into the water, thus allowing the overweight plane to take off. The plane runs out of gas, however, and crash-lands in a lake, killing the inept pilot, Lovell. Portman and his three followers doggedly trek on, crossing vast stretches of Canada until coming to a German Hutterite encampment in Manitoba, a religious, peaceful farming community. Here a young girl, Johns, befriends them and takes them to the leader of the commune, Walbrook. Playing upon the German bloodlines of the group, Portman delivers a hortatory lecture to them about joining the Third Reich. The quiet, reserved Walbrook responds by telling Portman that "our Germany is dead." When Portman later believes that Johns may spread the news of their arrival, he orders her killed, but MacGinnis disobeys and escorts the girl to her home. Before the thoroughly rejected Nazis leave the farming settlement, Portman has MacGinnis, the only decent man in the lot, executed.
Now numbering three, the Germans come across a businessman changing a tire on his car, offer to help, then kill him and take his clothes and car instead. [The killing of the motorist was one of the many cuts made in the original (wartime) US release] Next they appear in Banff, Alberta, during the Indian celebrations. When authorities make public announcements describing the wanted Germans, one of them is grabbed. However, Portman and Chandos proceed on foot to a beautiful lake and find successful writer Howard leisurely enjoying a fishing vacation while working on a book about Indian history and customs. Howard extends great hospitality, but the Germans destroy the Picasso painting and Indian manuscript the writer has brought with him, tie him up, and escape once more. Later, Howard tracks Chandos to a cave and is wounded in the process of coldcocking the German. "One armed superman against one unarmed decadent Democrat," says Howard. "I wonder how Dr. Goebbels will explain that?" Meanwhile, Portman, alone, tries to make it to the American border while German propagandists applaud his ability to escape capture, heralding him as a great Nazi superior to the Canadian forces tracking him. In southern Ontario, Portman stows away on board a train going into the US. Also in the freight car where he is hiding is Massey, a Canadian soldier gone AWOL who is trying to return to his post. Knocking Massey out, Portman appropriates the Canadian's uniform, and holds a gun on him as they cross the border. Once in the then-neutral US, Portman gloats over his successful escape, certain he will be taken to the German embassy. However, Massey reminds the American customs officials that stowaway Portman isn't on the shipping manifest, and they send the car, Portman, and Massey back across the border. As the train chugs back into Canada, Massey, wearing a big grin, advances upon the terrified German, demands Portman return his uniform, and knocks him out.
Expertly crafted and tautly directed by Powell, The Invaders took 18 months to complete, its meager $100,000 budget supplied by England's Ministry of Information. All the members of the outstanding cast worked on half salary as part of the war effort, and, even though they are only seen briefly, Olivier, Walbrook, and Howard, along with Portman, are electrifying. The script by Pressburger and Ackland is bright and intelligent and eschews overt patriotic antics. With the exception of MacGinnis, the Germans are portrayed as insidious creatures who will ruthlessly destroy anyone in their path and without the slightest traces of humanity. Two-thirds of the film was shot in Canada, and the crew and many cast members had to travel great distances to get the footage, all of which is impressive. Though the Canadian government assisted the production greatly, lending servicemen and policemen whenever necessary for shooting, it refused to lend the film company one of its few submarines for the opening shots. The tiny submarine force was then fully committed to patrolling Canadian waters. As a result the U-37 shown in the opening scenes was an ingenious replica exclusively constructed for the movie in the Halifax, Nova Scotia, shipyards.
The film was a great success, earning back its investment within three months of initial release, with American viewers, sympathetic to the Allied war effort, endorsing the film and its powerful message. This story was probably inspired by the sensational escape of a German air force officer, Lt. Franz von Werra, from a Canadian prison camp. [Unlikely as Franz von Werra escaped in Canada on Jan 22nd 1941 and Pressburger wrote the story in 1940 - just another case of P&P anticipating world events] The fine German actress Elizabeth Bergner signed with Powell to play the Hutterite girl. She left England just as Hitler's armies were massing across the Channel to invade the home isles, but once in Canada, after a few weeks shooting, she defected from the film company and crossed the border, using her acting assignment as a pretext to reach safe haven in the US, an act for which she was later criticized severely. She was replaced by the talented British actress Johns, but Bergner can still be seen in long shots. The original running time for this film when released in England was 123 minutes, but several scenes, mostly those of a travelog nature, were cut from the film before its American release. Sixty-nine-year-old Ralph Vaughan Williams was persuaded to compose the score, his first for films, and it is brief but stirring. The film won an Academy Award for Best Original Story, and was nominated for Best Picture (losing to Mrs. Miniver), and Best Screenplay.
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