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.
"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."
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.