49th Parallel (film)

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.[4] 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 opinion in the then neutral United States. Said Powell, "I hoped it might scare the pants off the Americans [and thus bring them into the war]".[5] 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.

49th Parallel
Original Belgian film poster
Directed byMichael Powell
Produced byMichael Powell
John Sutro (Managing director of An Ortus Film Production)
Written byOriginal Story and Screenplay by Emeric Pressburger
Scenario by Rodney Ackland and Emeric Pressburger
StarringLeslie Howard
Laurence Olivier
Raymond Massey
Anton Walbrook
Eric Portman
Music byRalph Vaughan Williams
Musical Director Muir Mathieson
with The London Symphony Orchestra
CinematographyFrederick Young, F.R.P.S.
Edited byDavid Lean
Distributed byGeneral Film Distributors LTD. (UK)
Columbia Pictures (US)
Release date
8 October 1941 (United Kingdom; London premiere)
24 November 1941 (United Kingdom)
5 March 1942 (United States; New York City premiere)
15 April 1942 (United States)
Running time
123 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom
Box office£250,000 (in Britain)[2]
$5 million (US/Canada)[3]

The original choice to play the German officer, Lieutenant Hirth, was Archers' stalwart Esmond Knight but he had joined the Royal Navy on the outbreak of war.[6] Anton Walbrook as "Peter" donated half his fee to the International Red Cross.[7] 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.[8] This is the only time that Canadian-born Massey played a Canadian on screen.


Early in World War II, U-37, a German U-boat, makes its way to Canadian waters and participates in fictional anti-shipping activities similar to those of the later Battle of the St. Lawrence. The U-boat evades the RCN and RCAF patrols by moving north. A raiding party of six Kriegsmarine sailors are put ashore to obtain supplies but soon after, the U-boat is sunk in Hudson Bay by RCAF bombers. The six attempt to evade capture by travelling across Canada to reach the neutral United States and return to Germany.

Led by Lieutenants Hirth (Eric Portman) and Kuhnecke (Raymond Lovell), the small band of sailors encounter and sometimes brutalise a wide range of people. The band steadily diminishes as one by one they are killed or captured. Initial victims of the Kriegsmarine sailors are the Eskimo Nick (Ley On) and a French-Canadian trapper (Laurence Olivier). When a floatplane is dispatched to investigate the reports of their arrival at a Hudson's Bay Company trading post, the Germans open fire, gunning down the pilot and some of the local Inuit. The Kriegsmarine sailors steal the aircraft and take off to fly south, but can't achieve takeoff because of being overloaded, the crew is told to get rid of all their rifles. One sailor exits and stands on a float to throw out the guns and in so doing, is shot and killed by an Inuk (a member of the Inuit) thereby unloading a sufficient amount of weight to takeoff.[9]

The floatplane runs out of fuel and crashes in a lake in Manitoba, killing Kuhnecke. The Germans encounter and are welcomed by a nearby Hutterite farming community. The Kriegsmarine sailors assume them to be sympathetic to the German cause, but Hirth's fanatical speech is rejected by Peter (Anton Walbrook), the community's leader, and even by one of the fugitives, Vogel (Niall MacGinnis), who comes to the aid of Anna (Glynis Johns), a teenage girl. Vogel, who would rather join the community and ply his trade of baker, is tried by Hirth and summarily executed for desertion.

The dwindling band arrive in Winnipeg and sell some field glasses for food. Hearing that the police are watching the border, Hirth decides they will travel to Vancouver to catch a steamship for neutral Japan. Knocking out or murdering a motorist for his car, Hirth, Lohrmann and Kranz flee west, having killed eleven civilians in all. Kranz is arrested by Canadian Mounties at a parade at Banff, Alberta. The two remaining men try to walk across the Rockies. They are welcomed at a camp by a writer named Philip Armstrong Scott (Leslie Howard) who takes them for lost tourists, but they turn on him, destroying his books and his very valuable paintings before fleeing. Scott and his men pursue them. Lohrmann finally rebels against Hirth's leadership, knocks him out and takes off by himself. Lohrmann is cornered in a cave. Scott is shot, but enters the cave and beats him up, counting out loud the individual blows, each one in recompense for the loss of his two paintings, a Matisse and a Picasso; three books, including his own widely researched but as yet unpublished manuscript; and finally for his own wounds and temporary imprisonment. One of the other men in his party comments, as they all drag his body from the cave, "The boss has knocked him clear out!"

Hirth is the last fugitive. The story comes to a head with a confrontation between him and Andy Brock (Raymond Massey), a Canadian soldier who is absent without leave, aboard the baggage and express car of a Canadian National Railways train near the Canadian-American border. When Hirth learns that the train has crossed into the United States at Niagara Falls, he surrenders his gun to a U.S. Customs official and demands to be taken to the German embassy. Brock explains that Hirth is wanted in Canada for murder, but while the U.S. border guards are sympathetic to Brock's plea, they cannot find any official reason to send Hirth back. When Brock points out that Hirth is not listed on the freight manifest, the Americans are happy to use this pretext to send the car, along with Hirth and Brock, back to Canada for "improperly manifested cargo". The film ends with the train's reversing to Canada, and Brock, who had recently been knocked cold and had his uniform and dog tags stolen off his unconscious body, and donned by Hirth, who was planning on impersonating Brock within Canada, about to pummel Hirth in the baggage car.


The U-Boat Crew
The Canadians


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.[10] 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.[11]

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.[10] 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.[12][13]

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.[14] 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."[14] The men in the lifeboat at the start of the film were mainly local merchant seamen, many of whom had already been torpedoed.[14]

One of the camera grips, Canadian teenager 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.[15] A second role for him was as a double for Raymond Massey in a few scenes.[16] Before the film was released, Falardeau became an RCAF pilot and was killed at age 19 in an aircraft accident in Britain.[17]

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.[14]

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 Britain 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.[18] 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.[10]

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 and Raymond Massey sequences. He later wrote Desperate Journey, which has a similar story.[3]

Ralph Vaughan Williams provided the stirring music, his first film score. It was directed by Muir Mathieson and performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. Along with the credits for the actors before the title at the beginning of the film, there is a credit for 'The music of Ralph Vaughan Williams'.

The film was meant to cost £68,000 but ended up costing £132,000 of which the government provided less than £60,000.[19][1]

American release

The film was picked up by Columbia Pictures for a 1942 American release and retitled The Invaders. American censors cut 19 minutes from the film including the speech by the fanatical Nazi commander who claims that Eskimos are "sub-apes like Negroes, only one step above the Jews", which was removed to avoid offending segregationists in the American South.[20] 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.[21] However, the commandeered floatplane that crashes into the lake bears the visible letters "CF-A".[22]

At the conclusion of 49th Parallel, while trying to escape east to the United States at Niagara Falls, the train is supposedly travelling 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 travelling 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).



Critical reviews of 49th Parallel were generally favorable, 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...."[23] 49th Parallel holds a 90% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 10 reviews with an average rating of 7.1/10.[24]

Box office

It was the most popular film at the British box office in 1941.[25] In the US, Universal turned the film down but it was bought by Columbia for distribution in North America for a reported $200,000. Variety estimated it earned $1.3 million in US rentals in 1942.[26] The film ended up earning $5 million at the North American box office.[3]


The film won Pressburger an Oscar 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. Kevin Macdonald (1994). Emeric Pressburger: The Life and Death of a Screenwriter. Faber and Faber. p. 176. ISBN 978-0-571-16853-8.
  2. MacNab 1994, p. 91.
  3. Hopper, Hedda (4 April 1942). "Screen: Hedda Hopper's Hollywood". Los Angeles Times. p. 9.
  4. Davenport 2004, p. 138.
  5. Powell 1986, p. 347.
  6. Powell 1986, p. 358.
  7. Powell 1986, p. 383.
  8. Powell 1986, pp. 382-383.
  9. "Inuit, Inuk (Linguistic recommendation from the Translation Bureau)". TERMIUM Plus. Public Works and Government Services Canada. 15 October 2010. Retrieved 4 July 2018.
  10. Powell 1986, p. 350.
  11. Powell 1986, p. 352.
  12. Powell 1986, pp. 371-372.
  13. Davenport 2004, p. 137.
  14. Eder, Bruce. 49th Parallel (Audio commentary). The Criterion Collection. Retrieved 4 July 2018.
  15. Cassidy, Christian (14 October 2014). "October 14: Father of the CFL; West End Library; John Pritchard". This Was Manitoba. Blogspot. Retrieved 4 July 2018.
  16. Cassidy, Christian (22 July 2010). "Manitoba's Oscar winning past: 49th Parallel". West End Dumplings. Blogspot. Retrieved 11 November 2012.
  17. "Casualty Details: Falardeau, William Leslie". Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Retrieved 11 November 2012.
  18. Powell 1986, pp. 352, 377.
  19. Murphy 2003, p. 55.
  20. Crook, Steve. "49th Parallel (1941): Cuts to the first American release". The Powell & Pressburger Pages. Retrieved 4 July 2018.
  21. Molson 1974, p. 287.
  22. "49th Parallel". Internet Movie Plane Database. Retrieved 7 October 2012.
  23. Crook, Steve. "What the critics said when it was released". The Powell & Pressburger Pages. Retrieved 9 July 2011.
  24. "49th Parallel (The Invaders) (1941)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved 3 July 2018.
  25. Murphy 2003, p. 204.
  26. Ungar, Arthur (6 January 1943). "101 Pix Gross in Millions". Variety. Penske Business Media. p. 58. Retrieved 4 July 2018.


  • Aldgate, Anthony; Richards, Jeffrey (1994). Britain Can Take it: British Cinema in the Second World War (2nd ed.). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 9780748605088.
  • Barr, Charles, ed. (1986). All Our Yesterdays: 90 Years of British Cinema. London: British Film Institute. ISBN 9780851701790.
  • Davenport, Robert (2004). The Encyclopedia of War Movies: The Authoritative Guide to Movies about Wars of the Twentieth Century. New York: Checkmark Books. ISBN 9780816044788.
  • MacNab, Geoffrey (1994). J. Arthur Rank and the British Film Industry. Cinema and Society. London: Routledge. ISBN 9780415072724.
  • Molson, K.M. (1974). Pioneering in Canadian Air Transport. Winnipeg: James Richardson & Sons. ISBN 9780919212398.
  • Murphy, Robert (2000). British Cinema and the Second World War. London: Continuum. ISBN 9780826451392.
  • Murphy, Robert (2003). Realism and Tinsel: Cinema and Society in Britain 1939-48. London: Routledge. ISBN 9780415076845.
  • Powell, Michael (1986). A Life in Movies: An Autobiography. London: Heinemann. ISBN 9780434599455.
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