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49th Parallel

From: Progress of British Films, Part 1
McKenzie, Vincent & Co. Ltd. 1946

Many months of careful planning followed by an arduous location trip that took a full company of players and technicians 20,000 miles over Canada were necessary before the production could be ready for showing.

There is an intriguing story behind the birth of the picture - it owes its very existence to a patriotic speech made by Mr. Ernest Lapointe (now Minister for Justice for the Dominion). Michael Powell read about this peroration and was so impressed he took the trouble to secure a copy.

Right away he realised the moment had come for a spectacular film that would give the British public an idea of the colossal resources of the great Dominion, the many types of people living there, and the superb grandeur of a scenic repertoire including such contrasting backgrounds as the icy wastes of Hudson's Bay and the lush fertility of the rolling wheat belt.

Emeric Pressburger provided a story basis, various high officials gave the project their benediction, and Powell went to Canada to build up the groundwork of the picture at first hand.

Only after exhaustive preparations did Powell commence shooting on the film, which takes place against a highly representative cross-section of Canadian scenic backgrounds, with the studio work being shared between Montreal and Denham.

The story told by the film concerns the adventures of six Nazi U-boat men who land at an out-of-the-way part of the Hudson's Bay Coast to loot supplies from a nearby trading post. When the sextet are foraging, their submarine becomes the "target for to-day" of three Canadian Air Force bombers - so the hapless Germans are faced with the choice of being taken prisoners of war or seeking refuge in neutral U.S. territory, and they decide to adopt the latter course.

The narrative then goes on to show how the six fanatical Nazis leave a trail of unbridled violence in their wake as they dash furtively across the Dominion - their ranks gradually depleting until only one of them is left.

This choice specimen of Nazi Germany manages to inveigle himself into a freight train that crosses the famous Niagara Bridge - but is sent back to Canada by U.S. Customs officials who choose to regard him as "improperly manifested freight". The Mounties then bag him with undiluted enthusiasm.

Starring in this saga of high adventure is a cast well worthy of the greatness of the occasion. Leslie Howard has the part of a kindly man of letters whose gentle outlook is drastically changed by an encounter with the U-boat men who sadistically rip his prized pictures to ribbons and tear up the manuscript of his work on Indian customs. The easy, tolerant writer sees red to such an extent that subsequently, he pays the Nazis back in the language they understand so well - violence.

Raymond Massey's role is that of a care-free Canadian soldier who oversteps his leave, and is glad of it when it gives him a chance to whip the leader of the U-boat fugitives.

Laurence Olivier is seen in the opening phase as a French-Canadian trapper who comes against the sinister sextet, paying with his life for a vain attempt to transmit a wireless S.O.S. after they have taken over his trading post.

Eric Portman essays his biggest screen characterisation to date as the Lieutenant in charge of the Germans. He gives a finely shaded portrayal of a man so hypnotised by the precepts of his ghastly Fuehrer that nothing else matters to him.

Anton Walbrook completes the roster of stars as the leading light of the strange, Puritanical Hutterite Colony, where the Nazis seek shelter hoping the Germanic origin of the settlers will ensure them a sympathetic welcome. All they receive, however, is hospitality underlined with a chilling frigidity - for the Hutterites left Germany centuries back, owing to religious persecution - and found in Canada the freedom they sought.

The feminine side of the cast is in the competent hands of Glynis Johns, seen as a Hutterite maiden, who has such a wholesome effect on one of the Germans that he is shot by his comrades for "treachery and desertion". Niall MacGinnis has the part of this unfortunate Nazi.

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