Monday, March 26, 2012

A Tribute to The Archers: 49th Parallel

Today it is my pleasure to join devoted film fans by posting a contribution to the Classic Film and TV Tribute to the Archers: A Powell & Pressburger Movie Blogathon.

Although the first film to officially feature The Archers onscreen logo is 1941s One of Our Aircraft is Missing I believe The Archers as a team were destined from birth to create some of film’s most uniquely personal artistic triumphs, and the greatest of these during the upheaval of wartime.

Director Michael Powell was raised in Canterbury with the poetic soul of his ancestors. His love of film led to his working in the industry in the 1920s, learning much from the Dublin born legend Rex Ingram in Hollywood on the classics Mare Nostrum and The Garden of Allah. He returned to England and began a prolific director of what he referred to as “quickie quota” films.

Hungarian born Emeric Pressburger was a writer who plied his craft throughout Europe one step ahead of the rise of Adolph Hitler. He found his home in England and work with producer Alexander Korda. The London Films (Korda) release of 1939 The Spy in Black starring Valerie Hobson and Conrad Veidt brought Pressburger and Powell together for the first time. The movie gods smiled. In 1940 they again joined forces with Hobson and Veidt for Contraband, one of the first movies to feature London during wartime with a timely plot and an Alfred Hitchcock like ambiance. Hitchcock was an admired associate and friend of Michael Powell’s.

It is an undeniable paradox that the movie 49th Parallel aka The Invaders manages to be both government sanctioned propaganda and a deeply personal statement. Emeric Pressburger had experienced the tyranny and oppression of life under Nazi rule and now his adopted countrymen were in the same battle. It was his duty and his privilege to strike a blow in that battle.

The Ministry of Information tasked Powell and Pressburger with creating a film which would not only show Britains what they were up against and what they were fighting for, but would strike a chord with American audiences whose participation in the conflict was considered essential for victory. It was while staring at a map of North America that Emeric was inspired to set the story in Canada. As a member of the Commonwealth, Canada was already at war and American audiences would have no difficulty identifying with their friendly neighbour to the north. Not only did the Ministry approve and provide funding, but Michael Powell was excited about the prospect of exploring and filming in Canada. The Canadian High Commissioner in London (later first Canadian born Governor-General) Vincent Massey provided letters of introduction and recommendation, and the film crew sailed the perilous Atlantic in April of 1940.

Powell and Pressburger traversed the country from New Brunswick to Ontario to Manitoba to British Columbia, interviewing and researching the vast Dominion. Emeric completed the first draft of the script on the boat back to England having decided on the format of four acts with Nazis stranded from a U boat encountering the citizens they plan to conquer while their meager force is steadily depleted.

Upon returning to England, Emeric Pressburger, an alien, was arrested and threatened with deportation. He and his loyal partner Michael Powell spent an uncomfortable night in jail until the Ministry intervened. For the next month while he worked on the script of 49th Parallel, Emeric Pressburger had to report to the police daily until his papers were straightened out. However, because of fear of further red tape, he did not return to Canada with Powell when location shooting began on the picture.

Raymond Lovell, Eric Portman, Niall MacGinnis

Peter Moore, John Chandos, Basil Appleby

49th Parallel begins with the German U Boat 37 sinking a Canadian naval vessel in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. They evade the enemy by heading to Hudson’s Bay where a landing party of 6 is set ashore to secure fuel and supplies. When the Canucks destroy the submarine, the landing party is left on their own to reach neutral territory, the United States.

Our stranded Germans are a mixed bag of characters as Emeric did not want to merely show cardboard villains. Eric Portman is Lt. Hirth, a fully indoctrinated Nazi with a single-minded sense of purpose and unshakeable belief in his Fuhrer and his ideals. Second in command is Kuhnecke played by Raymond Lovell. He chafes at being second and is a bit of a small time bully. Niall MacGinnis plays Vogel, a sympathetic every man at the mercy of politics. Three younger sailors are the sneaky Lohrmann played by John Chandos, the nervous Kranz played by Peter Moore and the over-eager Jahner played by Basil Appleby.

Ley On, Laurence Olivier, Finlay Currie

Johnny the trapper: "He Canadian. He Canadian. I'm Canadian."

The stranded Nazis first encounter with the Canadian character is at a Hudson Bay outpost run by a Scottish Factor played by Finlay Currie, with untimely visitors in a trapper played by Laurence Olivier and his Eskimo partner Nick played by Ley On. Johnny the trapper has been in the wilds for many months and is shocked to learn of the war and Canada’s, particularly French Canada’s participation. Olivier’s performance perfectly embodies the independent spirit and joyously irreverent accent of the rural Quebecois. Johnny’s devil-may-care combative attitude and humour confound his German captors.

Research in Canada unearthed the existence of the Hutterites, a Lutheran sect living in communal settlements throughout the prairies. Emeric Pressburger was determined to use them in the film and created the role of Peter, the leader, for the incomparable Anton Walbrook. The Nazified Germans think that at last they have found their people, but their arguments of the bond of racial superiority are firmly discarded by Peter/Anton’s understated, yet impassioned response.

Anton Walbrook

"Someone has given you, no doubt deliberately, a completely false impression of us. We are only one amongst several foreign settlements in Canada. There are thousands of them in this part of the world. And they have been founded - some recently, some 80 years ago by people who left their homes in Europe because of famine, because of starvation because of racial and political persecution. Some, like ourselves, because of their faith. Some came only to find new land, new boundaries and new worlds. But all have found here in Canada security, peace and tolerance and understanding which in Europe it is your Fuhrer's pride to have stamped out.

You call us Germans – you call us Brothers! Yes, most of us are Germans. Our names are German, our tongue is German, our old hand-written books are in German scripts. But we are not your brothers. Our Germany is dead. However hard this may be for some of us older people, it is a blessing for our children. Our children will grow up against new backgrounds, new horizons and they are free. Free to grow up as children. Free to run and to laugh without being forced into uniforms. Without being forced to march up and down streets singing battle songs!

You talk of the New Order in Europe! A new order where there will not be one corner, not a hole big enough for a mouse, where a decent man can breathe freely. You think we hate you, but we don't. It is against our faith to hate. We only hate the power of evil which is spreading over the world. You and your Hitlerism are like the microbes of some filthy disease filled with the longing to multiply yourselves until you destroy everything healthy in the world. No. We are not your brothers."

Glynis Johns

The Hutterite sequence features a young Glynis Johns in the role of Anna whose parents were killed by Nazis. She replaced the originally cast Elisabeth Bergner who left the production to join her husband in America. Glynis became an immediate audience favourite.

The depleted landing party hits the big town when they land in Winnipeg, giving urban audiences a chance to see a familiar setting and experience the unsettling thought that the fellow next to them in a diner just might be the enemy.

Leslie Howard, Eric Portman

Traveling cross country and taking what they want, the displaced sailors reach Jasper National Park. In the park they are only two remaining when they cross paths with the dilettante author Philip Armstrong Scott played by Leslie Howard. Perceived as the decadent weakling of a morally corrupt society our wandering Nazis once again find themselves up against sterner stuff – and then there was one.

Eric Portman, Raymond Massey

The backtracking and unrepentant Hirth, a hero to his countrymen, makes his way to southern Ontario and a train heading stateside at Niagara Falls. The Hollywood-New York-London actor Raymond Massey, brother of the aforementioned Canadian High Commissioner, plays my favourite character in the movie. Andy Brock is a Canadian I can understand and relate to. Brock is a slightly AWOL soldier sneaking back to camp. He doesn’t think of himself as a criminal, just somebody who is fed up. He gripes about life in general and the army in particular with a sardonic sense of humour and sees the world through his own code. The exchange between Hirth and Brock tickles me greatly as the narrow-minded Nazi has not been able to figure out that individual humour and the freedom to express it is the basis of the Canadian character. A sense of humour is also finely tuned in our American cousins as well and the border inspector’s role in dashing Hirth’s escape is one of the all-time great movie punch lines this side of I Know Where I’m Going!.

In some ways time has taken the edge off of a movie made for a specific audience and purpose at a specific time in history. In other ways, 49th Parallel holds up as entertainment and a window into that other time. It was the only feature film to be funded by Britain’s government. It was an international production with both cast and location under difficult circumstances, and received the Academy Award for Best Writing, Original Story.

49th Parallel was an amazing accomplishment and a fully realized opportunity to contribute something concrete to the war effort. Michael Powell considered the film one of his finest achievements and it held a place of special pride in Emeric Pressburger’s heart.

46 comments:

  1. What a great movie--and to think it's not even the Archers' best (so many great ones still ahead)! I love the Hutterites sequence. It starts as the type of unusual digression you sometimes get with the Archers, but eventually nicely ties into the main plot and themes. And I really appreciate that beautiful closeup of Glynis Johns you caught!

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  2. Thanks, Lee.

    We Canadians get a great kick out of seeing ourselves in the movies, especially from outsider points of view.

    Wasn't Glynis adorable? They must have wondered why they even considered anyone else.

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  3. Oh thank you for this, C.W. I don't think I ever saw this movie or if I did, forgot. But this sounds like a movie I wouldn't have forgotten easily. Thanks for a wonderful post. I enjoyed reading the stirring words uttered by that wonderful actor, Anton Walbrook.

    Loved this post. Can't wait to read what everyone else is writing for the Blogathon.

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  4. Thank you so much, Yvette.

    Rick's blogathon is a wonderful way to highlight the special touch The Archers brought to their varied filmography. I'm having a great time reading the articles.

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  5. Have not seen this but it is on my list, like quite a few other Powell/Pressburger films are also. I am delinquent in this area. Great historical background which I love to hear about and I second time vote on the close-up of Glynis Johns. She was very cute. I remember her best from a TV sitcom she had in the early 60's.


    John Greco
    24frames

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  6. Have not seen this but it is on my list, like quite a few other Powell/Pressburger films are also. I am delinquent in this area. Great historical background which I love to hear about and I second time vote on the close-up of Glynis Johns. She was very cute. I remember her best from a TV sitcom she had in the early 60's.


    John Greco
    24frames

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  7. Thanks for reading, John. The logistics of putting "49th Parallel" together would make an interesting movie itself.

    I hadn't thought about "Glynis", the program in many years. Miss Johns is a very appealing actress.

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  8. Fantastic review of a terrific film. I saw it for the first time just a few years ago and want to see it again, as it has that Powell/Pressburger feel to it and has so much in it that I'm sure I missed something. So glad you reviewed this one!

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  9. Thanks for the kind words.

    "49th Parallel" was a hit with critics and audiences when it was released and works well still today. I'm sure it must have influenced thinking on both sides of the pond.

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  10. C.W. ~ thank you for your excellent contribution to The Archer’s tribute blogathon. Although the title is vaguely familiar, I have not seen this one, but after reading your wonderful review, I can’t imagine why I’ve never watched this film. I can hear your love for your country through your description, and it is admirable that P&P thought enough of our neighbors to the north to feature them in this film. The idea to incorporate the Hudderite community in the storyline proves how moving and powerfully P&P could tell a story when including otherwise simple elements. I must admit that I am pleased to learn Glynis Johns replaced Elizabeth Bergner (not a big fan), and the rest of the cast is a great collection of classic film faces.

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  11. I'm glad you enjoyed the review, Whistling Gypsy. The film does have a special place in my heart and the care with which it was made impresses me.

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  12. CW, highly informative and interesting review of an Archers film that doesn't get shown a lot. The production history, as you recounted so well, is a fascinating tale in itself. What I find most intriguing about THE 49TH PARALLEL is its unconventional narrative structure which you described so aptly as different acts. When I first saw it, I was so engrossed in the first act that I was confused when it ended. But then I picked up on the plot structure and recognized its cleverness (perhaps I'm a little slow sometimes). Great contribution to the P&P blogathon.

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  13. CW, I'm speechless -- I feel that I know everything there is to know about this movie, which I haven't seen! How could I have missed this? Olivier, Portman, and Walbrook? I guess I didn't know what it was. Fascinating article all the way around -- Kudos!

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  14. I haven't seen "49th Parallel" and yet it featured Niall MacGinnis from whom I will never accept a piece of paper ("Curse of the Demon") and the lovely Glynis Johns who enchanted king and commoner alike ("The Curse of the Demon"). Very enjoyable blog!

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  15. Sorry! I meant to say "The Court Jester" for Glynis.

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  16. An excellent post, CW. I like this capper here: "In some ways time has taken the edge off of a movie made for a specific audience and purpose at a specific time in history. In other ways, 49th Parallel holds up as entertainment and a window into that other time. It was the only feature film to be funded by Britain’s government."

    I love this movie, and I was saving it for Canada Day. If I still do, I'll link to your post. I didn't know the Powell and Pressburger background and difficulties in making this one. Fascinating.

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  17. Caftan Woman, I have seen this a couple of years ago on TCM. It's a bit too episodic to be completely effective for me, but some parts of it I like very much. It's especially memorable for its use of Canadian locations and landscapes. Powell seemed to have a knack for bringing out the best in his settings. It's also memorable for its great use of so many wonderful actors and actresses.

    Thank you for reminding me of the fascinating backstory of this film with your thorough coverage of how it was conceived and filmed. It was a tremendously ambitious undertaking for Powell and Pressburger, a real assembly project, with bits filmed at different times and in different places. The film was one of ten nominated for the best picture Oscar for 1941 (under its American title "The Invaders"). Do you recall the painting Leslie Howard keeps in his tent, "The Green Pumpkin" by Matisse? I have a print of it in my bedroom and think of the movie every time I look at it!

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  18. Thanks, Rick. I hoped to be informative and interesting, but you never know...

    P&P had to follow government guideline, but went their own way in creating a unique vision.

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  19. Becky, one of these days you'll catch up with those Nazis. "49th Parallel" doesn't appear to be on TCM's schedule any time soon, but there are other places to see movies aren't there?

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  20. toto2, I also think of "Curse of the Demon" when I see Mr. MacGinnis and "The Court Jester" with Miss Johns is a revered film in our family.

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  21. Thanks for the kind words, Jacqueline. "49th Parallel" is the perfect choice for Canada Day. Do you have enough maple syrup on hand?

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  22. I certainly do recall the Matisse, RDF. Isn't it funny how something like that can recall a scene from a movie? The impact of all art on our lives is amazing.

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  23. Ah, the Canadian chose the film set in Canada! Good choice, as you have insights that some other non-Canadians lack. That speech by Walbrock was so inspirational. Good post!

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  24. Ha! Kim, I thought it was a good match. Canadians are rather like the middle child between our older know-it-all British sibling and our younger, more exciting American one. We like any attention we get.

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  25. "Do you have enough maple syrup on hand?"

    I'm a New Englander. I have maple syrup in my veins.

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  26. I thought so. But there's maple syrup and then there's maple syrup.

    I sometimes think the continent should have been divided vertically. What do east coasters need with those other folks (says the gal born in NS)?

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  27. CW,
    Thanks for giving us the background info on Powell. That was an added treat.

    49th Parallel certainly had an all star cast...the most talented actors who made this film with it's electrifying script so memorable in a sea of so many 'propaganda' films during the 1940's.

    Interesting choice in casting Raymond Massey since he was a Canadian. I wonder what he felt about the film, the scenarios given the time.

    You certainly want to root for Coward's character and to me he was the most likable, believable. Parts of the film were weak to me and considering this is another propaganda film, I can imagine the subject matter as frightening at the time it was released.


    A really interesting review and an honest perspective CW. Nicely done!
    Page

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  28. Thanks, Page.

    I don't believe I mentioned in the article that the lead actors all donated at least half of their salary to war charities. The film meant a lot to the people involved.

    I once saw a promo which featured George Stevens with his stars Jean Arthur, Ronald Colman and Cary Grant on the set of "The Talk of the Town" urging audiences to see the wonderful movie known as "The Invaders". It was a big deal.

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  29. Great post. This is a rarity in my world - an Archers film I have not yet seen (there are only three). This is shaping up to be quite an interesting little blogathon. Wish I could have been part of it all.

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  30. I keep kicking myself for not getting a copy of this the last time it was on TCM...I had every intention of doing so, and then I got distracted by...wow! Neat shiny objects.

    This is a simply splendid review, Our Lady of Great Caftan -- I'm glad you grabbed it as your entry in the blogathon because it would have kind of been boring if everybody had went with The Red Shoes.

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  31. Thanks, Kevin. What will your quest be once you have seen all The Archer films?

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  32. Focus, Ivan. You must focus. Actually, I always think if TCM has shown something once they will show it again. I'm not always right about that, but it helps me get by.

    I imagine there was a very real danger of everyone gravitating toward one picture. I ran through the filmography in my mind a couple of times before "D'oh! Of course I should do the Canuck flick."

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  33. My quest once I have seen all of The Archer's films you ask? Well to watch them all again of course. And then again. And then again. And then...do you sense a pattern.

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  35. Kevyn, you spend your time wisely.

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  36. I like this one a lot too, but I have a special fondness for it because it features the first film score by the great British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. His opening stately theme is one of my favorite pieces of music ever. If memory serves, RVW even gets a special credit in the opening credits, a nice testament to how P&P thought about their musical collaborator.

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  37. Kevin, I was remiss in not mentioning the score. Ralph Vaughan Williams music and his treatment of folk melodies means a lot to me.

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  38. Caftan Woman - what a beautifully written and well-researched post. I learned so much. This was really one of your best (and that is saying a lot!).

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  39. FlickChick, I truly appreciate your kind words.

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  40. Just caught up with your post. This is one of a number of Archers films I still look forward to seeing for the first time. Your preview certainly increased my enthusiasm to see it!

    Best wishes,
    Laura

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  41. I'm sure you'll enjoy "49th Parallel" once you catch up with it, Laura. I'd love to hear your thoughts whenever that may be - this year, next...

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  42. Caftan Woman, THE 49th PARALLEL was on TCM fairly recently, but for one reason or another, I didn't give it my undivided attention (story of my life). Now that I've read your outstanding post, I could kick myself for not having recorded it on the ol' TiVo! The silly part is that before I got distracted, I was really getting into it, especially Walbrook's comeback to the Nazis. If/when I come across 49th PARALLEL again, I'll absolutely make time for it! Great post, C.W., as always!

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  43. Thanks, Dorian. There's always next time.

    I missed the screening on TCM and I can't imagine doing that. Maybe it didn't air on TCM Canada. Imagine that!

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  44. This is a very interesting movie with a very unmemorable title. I love Anton in this(or anything he was in).

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  45. The talented Anton is easy to love.

    I suppose American exhibitors felt "49th Parallel" was uninspiring as well when they decided to release the film as "The Invaders" in the States where it enjoyed success.

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  46. You Chester fans are incorrigible!

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