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21 April 2015

49th Parallel: Fascism Meets Democracy and Loses Big

This is an all-star episodic movie of a kind you just don't see nowadays, with vignettes held together by several characters passing through different situations and meeting different groups. In this case, it's 1940, and these traveling characters happen to be Nazis trying to make their way from Canada, which was already at war with Germany, to the United States, which wasn't. Their effect on the people they meet along the way makes this one of the best propaganda films ever made.

The Nazis themselves include Eric Portman, icy-eyed and merciless, and Niall MacGinnis, an ordinary soldier who develops qualms. Their party escapes from a crippled submarine and, in the first episode, emerges near a far northern Hudson's Bay outpost manned by Finlay Currie and playing host to Laurence Olivier, in one of his brilliant early performances as a jolly French Canadian trapper who -- at first -- doesn't see why the war in Europe should affect him. Eventually the Nazis brutally demonstrate their ruthless contempt for anyone standing in their way.
Johnny the trapper debates with the Nazi leader
Their next encounter is with a community of Hutterite farmers, a religious sect who live communally in Canada's vast, rich wheatlands. Their strong, silent leader is played by Anton Walbrook, and amongst his flock is a young Glynis Johns. The Nazis assume that since the Hutterites were originally German, they will be sympathetic to their cause. As it turns out, they couldn't be more wrong.

The leader addresses the Hutterites
Moving towards the US border, they encounter Leslie Howard, and anthropologist and scholar who is living with and studying the local First Nations people. He lives in a tipi but has brought some of the treasures of a sophisticate, cosmopolitan lifestyle with him, including an original Picasso and an expensive gramophone with recordings by modern composers. The Nazis sneeringly perceive him as a degenerate weakling -- again they find out they're wrong the hard way. 

With each encounter with groups of representative Canadians, the Nazi contingent loses a few soldiers; by the last episode, only one remains -- Eric Portman, the most dedicated and pitiless. He scrambles aboard a boxcar on a train about to cross into the US, and meets a deserting Canadian soldier (Raymond Massey, in a refreshingly non-starchy role). As he has done every time, first Portman tries to convert the disaffected Canadian, insinuating that democracy has failed, and he would be better off under Nazi rule in any event. Unfortunately for the Nazi cause, it turns out that the reason the soldier deserted was that he hasn't been sent overseas to fight soon enough to suit him.

This film is so well thought out, so intelligently structured, that it never really gets old, even though obviously the problem it was intended to solve -- getting the US to join the war against Naziism -- is long gone and forgotten. But the script is so engaging, and the performers uniformly so superb, that it's really endlessly enjoyable. 

49th Parallel is available on Amazon Prime and there's also a beautiful Criterion Collection release.

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