Lately, it’s difficult not to layer the reality-warping lens of our era over the art of earlier ones. This seems especially true of 49th Parallel (1941), director Michael Powell’s Canada-set morale booster for the British war effort during World War II. Conceived as a propaganda film to encourage the then-neutral United States to join the war, it’s a bracing, tense actioner with heart-on-sleeve political themes. But watching it in 2017 America, it’s nearly impossible not to see the glaring metaphor in this tale of belligerent, toxic racism infiltrating and attempting to destroy the decency of a diverse, free democratic society.
A German U-boat lurking off the coast of Canada flees north to escape patrols, ultimately ending up trapped in Hudson Bay, desperately low on supplies. A six-man unit is dispatched to shore, their mission to raid a nearby trading post in northern Manitoba. Shortly after landing, however, the Royal Canadian Air Force arrives and destroys the submarine, stranding the party on enemy soil. Led by the ruthless Lieutenant Hirth (Eric Portman), the Nazi soldiers undertake a desperate journey of survival. Their goal: escape to the United States, where political asylum will ensure their return to the Fatherland.
49th Parallel is a visually impressive travelogue, benefitting from the breathtaking vistas of its Canadian location work. It’s also a uniquely inverted suspenser in which the villains are the protagonists, and the tension comes from watching them encounter and jeopardize the kind civilians they encounter along the way. But first and foremost it’s an effective work of anti-Nazi propaganda, its unique strategy to gradually dismantle the hollow, hateful ideology of its point-of-view characters by introducing them to the welcoming, open-minded viewpoints of the citizens of a free and democratic society. The Nazi opposition takes many forms: the sarcastic (Laurence Olivier, as an outrageous French-Canadian fur trapper), the inherently decent (a religious farm commune full of German immigrants, lead by Anton Walbrook, who powerfully rebuffs them in the video below), and the rebelliously down-to-earth (Raymond Massey, as a disgruntled Canadian soldier). My favorite may be the effete, liberal intellectual named Philip Armstrong Scott (Leslie Howard), whose above-it-all disconnection from the war is challenged by his own care-free, good-natured hospitality. As these encounters pile up, the moral bankruptcy of the Nazi position is rendered more and more obvious, while the society the Nazis are hellbent on destroying is revealed to be all the stronger for its diversity of opinion. It’s not a subtle message, but its a streamlined one that drives the point home powerfully — an effective, encoded message to American audience-goers to resist the rising tide of fascism. It’s a message we need to hear again, now that eighty years later, that threat, impossibly, is coming from within.