49th Parallel

49th Parallel

49th Parallel is 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. Despite the title, no scene in the movie is set at the 49th parallel, which forms much of the U.S.-Canadian border. The only border scene is at Niagara Falls, which is located further 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]." 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 .


Early in the Second World War, Nazi survivors of a German U-boat sunk in Hudson Bay attempt to evade capture by travelling across Canada to the still-neutral United States — the title comes from the 49th parallel north which marks part of the border between the two countries. Led by Lieutenants Hirth (Eric Portman) and Kuhnecke (Raymond Lovell), the small band of sailors encounter a wide range of people, including a French-Canadian trapper (Laurence Olivier), pacifistic German Hutterite farmers (led by Anton Walbrook) and an eccentric English academic (Leslie Howard) — who despite being wounded helps capture a Nazi. Finally, it all comes down to a confrontation between the sole remaining fugitive at large, Hirth, and AWOL Canadian soldier Andy Brock (Raymond Massey) on a freight train. In the end, Hirth is sent back to Canada by U.S. customs officials when Brock points out that he isn't listed on the manifest. The film ends with Brock about to pummel Hirth in the boxcar.


Main roles, as appearing in screen credits:
Actor Role
Eric Portman Lieutenant Hirth
Raymond Lovell Lieutenant Kuhnecke
Niall MacGinnis Vogel
Peter Moore Kranz
John Chandos Lohrmann
Basil Appleby Jahner
Laurence Olivier Johnny, the trapper
Finlay Currie the Factor
Anton Walbrook Peter, the Hutterite leader
Glynis Johns Anna, a Hutterite woman
Leslie Howard Philip Armstrong Scott
Raymond Massey Andy Brock

Cast notes:

  • The original choice to play Hirth was Archers stalwart Esmond Knight, but he had decided to join the Royal Navy at the outbreak of war. Anton Walbrook donated half his fee to the International Red Cross. This is the only time that Canadian-born Massey played a Canadian on screen. Massey, Olivier and Howard all agreed to work at half their normal fee as it was such an important propaganda film.


Although only a concept during preproduction, 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. 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.

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 in the Strait of Belle Isle at the beginning of the film. 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.

The "U-37" carried two 1,000 lb bombs supplied by the Canadian Air Force. Powell didn't 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.

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."

The men in the lifeboat at the start of the film were mainly local merchant seamen, many of whom had already been torpedoed. Lovell nearly drowned in the scene where the seaplane crashes. Even those who could swim (which Lovell couldn't) 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.

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. 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. The initial long shots of Anna are of Bergner. When a Hutterite woman saw Bergner painting her nails and smoking, she became so incensed, 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. 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.

Notable crew members include Ralph Vaughan Williams, contributing his first film score, and David Lean as editor. Raymond Massey's brother Vincent Massey, then Canadian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, (future Governor General of Canada) read the prologue.


By modern standards, the depiction of Canadians is stereotypical: brave Mounties; decorated Indians; overwrought French-Canadians, including Olivier's often-criticized accent. However, Pressburger deliberately used the 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 A Canterbury Tale.


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.




  • Aldgate, Anthony and Richards, Jeffrey. 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.
  • Murphy, Robert. British Cinema and the Second World War. London: Continuum, 2000. ISBN 0-82645-139-X.
  • Powell, Michael. A Life in Movies: An Autobiography. London: Heinemann, 1986. ISBN 0-434-59945-X.

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