I paid a brief visit to Athens yesterday. One highlight was getting upsold from $7 sunglasses to a $10 model at Kum’s Fashions. Another was standing on a streetcorner with my brother, talking about movies. I recommended Their Finest to him, giving him the background that it concerns the making of a British propaganda film during World War II. He lit up and told me about a film of that kind he had just seen, a 1941 production called 49th Parallel. In a veiled attempt to increase pressure on the United States to enter the war, the British Ministry of Information backed this adventure drama about six German U-boat sailors stranded on the coast of Hudson Bay. Disguised as tourists or laborers, the fugitives traverse much of Canada as they try to escape to the still neutral U.S. and get some kind of diplomatic immunity.
Rob said I should watch it. I did. You should, too.
Part of the pleasure of 49th Parallel is that it is sort of a reverse fugitive movie. That is, thanks to films such as North by Northwest, Midnight Run, and The Fugitive, we’re accustomed to seeing the man on the run as the good guy, pursued by the forces of greed or injustice. In this case, however, the fugitives are the villains, cutting a swath of Nazi assholery across the Great White North, shooting Eskimos in the back, laying a master race trip on a commune of kindly Christian pacifists, destroying great modern art, executing one of their own for succumbing to his own sense of decency, and whacking a spirited French-Canadian trapper (played with great joie de vivre and strangely eloquent broken English by Laurence Olivier). The Nazis’ every encounter with the good people of Canada is calculated to make American audiences think, “So why haven’t we declared war on these bastards?”
The propaganda film in Their Finest is called The Nancy Starling, a thriller about twin sisters who aid in the Dunkirk evacuation. The film never actually existed, of course, but the challenge of the filmmakers seems quite real: to create a movie that inspires the British public without choking on its own hokeyness. That is, to create a work of agitprop that is also somehow a work of art. 49th Parallel might be that movie in real life. The dialogue crackles (as they say), the characters seem real (at least by 1940s popular cinema standards), and the story's many ironies are skillfully handled. Commentaries say that the English box-office heavyweights who appear in the film (Olivier, Leslie Howard) did so at a fraction of their usual rates because they believed so strongly in the project. And I admit that I loved the propagandistic parts. After a couple of the Nazis have bayoneted his Picasso and Matisse paintings and burned his copy of The Magic Mountain, the normally mild-mannered Howard gets angry. You wouldn't like him when he's angry. He apprehends one of fleeing Nazis and beats him up, growling as he punches him, “This one’s for Thomas Mann!” In another stirring scene, Lieutenant Hirth, the Germans’ leader and a ruthless true believer, delivers a Hitlerian oration on Nordic racial superiority to the community of peace-loving German farmers who have sheltered them. The leader of the community (played by Anton Walbrook), replies with an inspiring condemnation of Nazism:
We are not your brothers. Our Germany is dead. However hard this may be for some of us older people, it’s a blessing for our children. Our children grew 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 the streets singing battle songs.
That episode, by the way, was somewhat controversial: director Michael Powell took a little heat from his backers for insisting on the inclusion of "good Germans" in this anti-Nazi film. For this viewer, having a German deliver the film's most full-throated condemnation of the Nazis is a master stroke.
In the end (spoiler alert), Hirth, the only one of the fugitives to escape capture or death, finds himself on a train bound for the U.S. border, alone in a boxcar, except for an AWOL Canadian soldier, Brock (played by Raymond Massey - he’s AWOL because he joined the army to fight Nazis and all they let him do is guard a canal). Hirth knocks out the unsuspecting Brock, steals his uniform and waits for the train to cross the border. When it does, he surrenders his gun to the U.S. customs agents and requests to be taken to a German consulate. Between them, Brock and the customs agents cook up a lovely bureaucratic pretense to send the boxcar back into Canada, and the film ends with Brock gleefully preparing to reclaim his uniform from the now unarmed Hirth: “Put ‘em up, Nazi. Cause I’m not asking for those pants. I’m just taking ‘em.”