49th Parallel (film)

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49th Parallel
original Belgian film poster
Directed by Michael Powell
Produced by Michael Powell
John Sutro (Managing director of An Ortus Film Production)
Written by Original Story and Screenplay by Emeric Pressburger
Scenario by Rodney Ackland and Emeric Pressburger
Starring Leslie Howard
Laurence Olivier
Raymond Massey
Anton Walbrook
Eric Portman
Music by Ralph Vaughan Williams
Musical Director Muir Mathieson
with The London Symphony Orchestra
Cinematography Frederick Young, F.R.P.S.
Edited by David Lean
Distributed by General Film Distributors LTD. (UK)
Columbia (US)
Release dates
8 October 1941 (1941-10-08)
Running time
123 minutes
Country UK
Language English
Budget £132,000 (est.)
Box office £250,000 (in Britain)[1]
$5 million (US/Canada)[2]

49th Parallel is a 1941 British war drama film; it was the third film made by the British writer-director team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. It was released in the United States as The Invaders.[3] Despite the title, no scene in the movie is set at the 49th parallel, which forms much of the US-Canadian border.[3] The only border scene is at Niagara Falls, which is located farther south.

The British Ministry of Information approached Michael Powell to make a propaganda film for them, suggesting he make "a film about mine-sweeping." Instead, Powell decided to make a different film to help sway opinions in the still-neutral United States. Said Powell, "I hoped it might scare the pants off the Americans [and thus bring them into the war]."[4] Screenwriter Emeric Pressburger remarked, "Goebbels considered himself an expert on propaganda, but I thought I'd show him a thing or two." After persuading the British and Canadian governments, Powell started location filming in 1940.

The original choice to play the German officer, Lieutenant Hirth, was Archers' stalwart Esmond Knight, but he had decided to join the Royal Navy at the outbreak of war.[5] Anton Walbrook as "Peter" donated half his fee to the International Red Cross.[6] Raymond Massey, Laurence Olivier and Leslie Howard all agreed to work at half their normal fee because they felt it was an important propaganda film.[7] This is the only time that Canadian-born Massey played a Canadian on screen.


Early in the Second World War, U-37, a German U-boat, makes its way to Canadian waters and participates in the Battle of the St. Lawrence. It succeeds in evading an RCAF patrol and moves north. While a raiding party of six Nazi sailors is put ashore in an attempt to obtain supplies, the U-boat is sunk in Hudson Bay. The six attempt to evade capture by traveling across Canada to the neutral United States.

Led by Lieutenants Hirth (Eric Portman) and Kuhnecke (Raymond Lovell), the small band of sailors encounter and sometimes brutalize a wide range of people, including the Eskimo Nick (Ley On), and a French-Canadian trapper (Laurence Olivier). Happening across a floatplane crew and local Eskimo onlookers, the group steals the aircraft and begins flying across Canada.

Outside Winnipeg they attempt to stir up the Hutterite community, believing them to be sympathetic to the German cause. Lieutenant Hirth's stirring speech is rejected by Peter (Anton Walbrook), the community's leader, and even by one of their own, Vogel (Niall MacGinnis), who comes to the aid of Anna (Glynis Johns), a 16-year-old girl. Vogel, who would rather join the community and ply his trade of baker, is tried by Lieutenant Hirth and summarily executed for the greater crime of trying to break away from the Nazi group.

Hijacking an innocent motorist for his automobile, Hirth, Lohrmann and Kranz flee west. With all of Canada searching for them, and having killed eleven civilians along the way, Lohrmann is arrested by Canadian Mounties at a public gathering. Next, Kranz confronts writer Phillip Armstrong-Scott (Leslie Howard) in a cave and despite wounding him is knocked cold.

The story comes to a head with a confrontation on a freight train between Hirth, the sole remaining fugitive and absent-without-leave Canadian soldier Andy Brock (Raymond Massey). When Hirth learns that the train has crossed into the United States at Niagara Falls, he surrenders his gun to a customs official and demands to be taken to the German embassy in the US, that was still neutral.

Brock explains that Hirth is wanted in Canada for murder but while the US border guards are sympathetic to his plea, they cannot find any official reason to send him back to Canada. Brock then points out that Hirth is locked in the freight hold but is not listed on the freight manifest. The US guards are happy to accept this pretext and send the freight car, along with Hirth and Brock, back to Canada as "improperly manifested cargo". The film ends with the train reversing to Canada and Brock about to pummel Hirth in the boxcar.


U-boat crew



  • Theodore Salt and O.W. Fonger as the United States Customs Officers


Powell's interest in making a propaganda film set in Canada to aid the British war effort dovetailed with some of Pressburger's work. Although only a concept during pre-production, a screenplay began to be formulated based on Pressburger's idea to replicate the Ten Little Indians scenario of people being removed from a group, one by one.[8] While Powell and Pressburger developed the screenplay, additional photography was assembled of the scope and breadth of Canada. All the opening "travelogue" footage was shot by Freddie Young with a hand-held camera out the windows of various aircraft, trains and automobiles on an initial trip across Canada.[9]

The U-boat was built by Harry Roper of Halifax, Nova Scotia and towed to Corner Brook Newfoundland, where it was "shot down" by the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Lockheed Hudson bombers in the Strait of Belle Isle at the beginning of the film.[8] Powell forgot that Newfoundland was at the time a Crown Colony, not a part of Canada. As a result, when they moved the full-sized submarine model there, it was impounded by Customs & Excise, which demanded that import duty be paid. Powell had to appeal to the Governor of Newfoundland, citing the film's contribution to the war effort.[10][11]

The "U-37" carried two 1,000 lb bombs supplied by the RCAF. Powell did not tell the actors that they were aboard, as he thought that they might become nervous. The actors were replaced by dummies before the bombs were detonated.[12] Michael Powell's voice can be heard faintly in some of the submarine scenes. Once, when the camera boat almost collides with the submarine, Powell says "Keep rolling."[12] The men in the lifeboat at the start of the film were mainly local merchant seamen, many of whom had already been torpedoed.[12]

One of the camera grips, Canadian teen William Leslie Falardeau, also played an aviator on the rescue floatplane as it arrived at Cape Wolstenholme. In the film, he was shot and apparently killed by the Nazis before they commandeered the aircraft.[13] A second role for him was as a double for Raymond Massey in a few scenes.[14] Before the film was released, Falardeau became an RCAF pilot and was killed at age 19 in an aircraft accident in England.[15]

Lovell nearly drowned in the scene where the commandeered floatplane crashes. Even those who could swim (which Lovell could not) became flustered when the aircraft sank faster than anticipated; the stink bomb that was thrown in to "heighten the turmoil" added greatly to the chaos. A member of the camera crew jumped in and saved the actor.[12]

The Hutterites near Winnipeg allowed the film company into their community. Like the better known Amish, they live in simple, self-sufficient communities, leading an austere, strict lifestyle. Elisabeth Bergner was originally cast in the role of Anna. When a Hutterite woman saw Bergner painting her nails and smoking, she became so incensed that she rushed up, knocked the cigarette from the actress's mouth and slapped her in the face. Powell had to make peace with the community and with the outraged star. Bergner later deserted the film, refusing to come back to England for the studio scenes. It is believed that, as an ex-German national, she feared for her life if the Nazis were to invade. Glynis Johns stepped in to replace Bergner, a rare instance of an established star standing in for a lesser-known actress.[16] The initial long shots of Anna are of Bergner. For the scene where the Hutterites listen to Eric Portman's impassioned pro-Nazi speech, the actors were all "hand picked faces". Over half were refugees from Hitler.[8]

Notable crew members included David Lean as editor. Raymond Massey's brother Vincent Massey, then Canadian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom and future Governor General, read the prologue.

Arthur Horman did a week's uncredited work on the script in Montreal, writing the Laurence Olivier-Raymond Massey sequences. He later wrote Desperate Journey, which has a similar story.[2]

Ralph Vaughan Williams provided the stirring music, his first film score. It was directed by Muir Mathieson and performed by the London Symphony Orchestra.

American release

The film was picked up by Columbia Pictures for a 1942 American release and retitled The Invaders. On the set of The Talk of the Town the American film trailer was made under the title It Happened One Noon. with stars Cary Grant, Jean Arthur and Ronald Colman telling director George Stevens about their seeing the exciting film during a two hour lunch break.

Continuity problems

During the film's attack sequence in the Hudson Bay, the attacking RCAF bombers inexplicably change from Lockheed Hudsons to Douglas Digby aircraft in mid-scene.

A Western Canada Airways Fairchild 71 "CF-BJE" configured as a floatplane, is featured prominently in the Hudson Bay sequence.[17] However, the commandeered floatplane that crashes into the lake bears the visible letters "CF-A".[18]

At the conclusion of 49th Parallel, while trying to escape east to the United States at Niagara Falls, the train is supposedly traveling east, crossing the border bridge from Canada into the U.S, over the Niagara River, which flows from south to north. The bridge seen in the film resembles the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge. In actuality the train is shown traveling from the east to the west, from the US to Canada, as the camera (filming to the south) shows the river flowing from left (south) to right (north). Later, as the credits roll, the train is supposedly reversing west to Canada, yet the camera (again filming to the south) shows the train actually going from the west to the east, from Canada to the US, as the river again flows from left (south) to right (north).


By modern standards, the depiction of Canadians in 49th Parallel is stereotypical: brave Mounties; decorated Indians; Scottish-accented Hudson's Bay Company men; overwrought French-Canadians, including Olivier's often-criticized accent. However, Pressburger deliberately used the peaceful diversity of Canada to contrast with the fanatical world view of the Nazis. This world view was also played up to frighten American audiences in an attempt to bring America into the war. However, its inclusion of Nazis as leading characters at all, and its criticism of them in spiritual terms rather than straightforward demonisation, are highly unusual for a British Second World War propaganda film. Powell and Pressburger would return to similar themes in the more controversial The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and to Anglo-American relations in A Matter of Life and Death and A Canterbury Tale.

Critical reviews of 49th Parallel were generally favourable, with The New York Times reviewer effusing, "Tense action... excellent performances. An absorbing and exciting film!" and Variety concluding: "This is an important and effective film. Opening scenes promise much, and it lives up to expectations. Every part, to the smallest bits, is magnificently played...."[19] 49th Parallel holds a 77% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 855 reviews.[20]

In the US, Universal turned the film down but it was bought by Columbia for distribution in North America for a reported $200,000. The movie earned $5 million at the North American box office.[2]


The film won Pressburger an Academy Award for Best Story and was nominated for Best Picture and Best Screenplay (including Rodney Ackland for additional dialogue).

The British Film Institute ranked the film the 63rd most popular film with British audiences, based on cinema attendance of 9.3 million in the UK.



  1. MacNab 1994, p. 91.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 "Screen: Hedda Hopper's Hollywood." Los Angeles Times, April 4, 1942, p. 9.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Davenport 2004, p.138.
  4. Price 1986, p. 347.
  5. Price 1986, p. 358.
  6. Price 1986, p. 383.
  7. Price 1986, pp. 382–383.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Price 1986, p. 350.
  9. Price 1986, p. 352.
  10. Price 1986, pp. 371–372.
  11. Davenport 2004, p.137.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 Eder, Bruce. Criterion DVD commentary
  13. "This was Manitoba: Manitoba urban history by the day." thiswaswinnipeg.blogspot.com. Retrieved: 11 November 2012.
  14. "Manitoba's Oscar Winning Past." westenddumplings.blogspot.com. Retrieved: 11 November 2012.
  15. "Casualty Details: Falardeau, William Leslie." Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Retrieved: 11 November 2012.
  16. Price 1986, pp. 352, 377.
  17. Molson 1974, p. 287.
  18. "49th Parallel." Internet Movie Plane Database. Retrieved: 7 October 2012.
  19. Crook, Steve. "What the critics said when it was released." The Powell & Pressburger Pages. Retrieved: 9 July 2011.
  20. "49th Parallel (The Invaders) (1941)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 18 March 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


  • Aldgate, Anthony and Jeffrey Richards. Britain Can Take it: British Cinema in the Second World War. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2nd Edition, 1994. ISBN 0-7486-0508-8.
  • Barr, Charles, ed. All Our Yesterdays: 90 Years of British Cinema. London: British Film Institute, 1986. ISBN 0-85170-179-5.
  • Davenport, Robert. The Encyclopedia of War Movies: The Authoritative Guide to Movies about Wars of the Twentieth Century. New York: Checkmark Books, 2004. ISBN 0-8160-4479-1.
  • MacNab, Geoffrey. J. Arthur Rank and the British Film Industry (Cinema and Society). London: Routledge, 1994. ISBN 978-0-41507-272-4.
  • Molson, K.M. Pioneering in Canadian Air Transport. Winnipeg: James Richardson & Sons, Ltd., 1974. ISBN 0-919212-39-5.
  • Murphy, Robert. British Cinema and the Second World War. London: Continuum, 2000. ISBN 0-8264-5139-X.
  • Powell, Michael. A Life in Movies: An Autobiography. London: Heinemann, 1986. ISBN 0-434-59945-X.

External links