On my native land's 150th birthday, we surely ought to have a film on a Canadian theme. But what to choose? We used Denys Arcand's valentine to socialized health care for St-Jean-Baptiste Day last week. I toyed with David Cronenberg's Crash, a film about, um, auto-eroticism in which everyone gets sexually aroused by multiple-car pile-ups on the QEW, which I've always assumed is some kind of metaphor for multiculturalism. Or perhaps John Greyson's Zero Patience, the first Canadian Aids musical, in which the Quebec air steward credited as the man who spread Aids across North American meets the Victorian explorer Sir Richard Burton and their singing bottoms perform a duet together, which I also assumed was some kind of metaphor for multiculturalism.
But in the end, on a day when, unlike Charles and Justin and Bono and apparently everyone else, I'm in a mood to look back at the past, I thought I'd pick a movie that nicely complements our Song of the Week. Whereas the story of "O Canada" manages to pull in a lot of anglo-franco history from the 19th and early 20th century, this film is a snapshot of the Dominion at a crucial point in its history - the beginning of the Second World War. 49th Parallel takes its title from the very border between Canada and America. The picture opens with a map of North America, and then a voiceover: "I see a long straight line athwart a continent. No chain of ports or deep-flowing river or a mountain range, but a line drawn by men upon a map nearly a century ago, accepted with a handshake and kept ever since. A boundary that divides two nations yet marks their friendly meeting ground: the 49th Parallel, the only undefended frontier in the world."
But in 1941 that "long straight line" represented a real boundary between war and peace. North of the 49th Parallel was a nation fully immersed in a great global conflict, shipping its men overseas to fight alongside Mother England. South of the 49th was a neutral land, where German diplomats strolled the streets of its cities and isolationist Americans argued that European affairs were far away and of no concern. In London, much thought was given as to how the US might be subtly pressured into choosing sides. One day the British Ministry of Information went to the film-making team of Powell & Pressburger and suggested they might like to produce a picture about Canada at war but aimed at the American market. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were then at the beginning of their writing/producing/directing partnership - The Red Shoes, A Matter of Life and Death and the other great works lay ahead - but the idea appealed to them. "Goebbels considered himself an expert on propaganda, but I thought I'd show him a thing or two," said Pressburger.
The film stars, in order of billing, Leslie Howard, Laurence Olivier, Raymond Massey, Anton Walbrook, Eric Portman "and the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams", which gets an above-the-title credit - as well it should. Vaughan Williams' score is an integral part of the picture and, if not especially Canadian (save for a very short evocation of Calixa LavallĂ©e's "O Canada" right at the beginning), accompanies the country's physical landscape beautifully, particularly in the opening travelogue, mostly shot by Freddie Young leaning out of a plane with a hand-held camera and edited back in England by David Lean. (Lean and Young, of course, subsequently worked together on Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and Ryan's Daughter.) And, if you're thinking that (with one exception) none of those actors seems terribly Canuck, well, if it's any consolation, the English also get to play all the Nazis, too. The Canadians are largely relegated to small roles and extras - like the real seamen who play the survivors of the Canadian ship torpedoed in the Gulf of St Lawrence at the opening of the picture. "So," pronounces the German U-boat commander, "the curtain rises on Canada."
U-37 decides to flee to Hudson's Bay to evade the RCAF and RCN patrols looking for it. Six Germans are put ashore to scout for supplies. But, even as they set foot on land, they hear the swoop of planes and look back to see Canadian bombers destroying their submarine. In order to lend verisimilitude to the scene, Michael Powell destroyed a real - or real-ish - sub, built for him in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The RCAF gave him two thousand-pound bombs to make it look good, and he put them on "U-37" and was cunning enough to neglect to tell the actors, lest it made them nervous. The sub was then towed to the Strait of Belle Isle between Labrador and Newfoundland to be blown sky high. That was Powell's only mistake. Notwithstanding that he named the film after Canada's southern border, the director's grip on the country's eastern border was a little hazier. He had forgotten that Newfoundland was not (yet) in Canada but was a British colony in its own right. So HM Customs impounded "U-37" and Powell had to go directly to the Governor to get it back.
Other than that, he and Pressburger didn't put a foot wrong. The location footage was impressive in its day, and still striking in ours; Pressburger's script is subtle and humane; and the episodic structure allows for plenty of variety. Following the loss of U-37, the six Germans are now beached in northern Canada and have to figure out a way to get to safe, neutral America. They make their way to a Hudson's Bay trading post, where the factor (played by the great Scots actor Finlay Currie) is welcoming back an old friend who's spent the last eleven months hunting in the wilds and so has no idea Canada is at war. Johnny is a French-Canadian trapper played by - who else? - Laurence Olivier. We first meet him in the bath tub singing "Alouette", and, as often with Olivier, the attention to detail on the accent is so good that it becomes oddly obtrusive: "Diss is one big country, but verra few pipple. Ever-wan know ever-body. You can't make goosestep trew it widdout da police fine out," he tells the senior German officer (Eric Portman).
The window shot Powell uses to get the Nazis into the factor's small cabin is cool and clinical and all the more chilling for it. The six Germans enter and announce that they're now in control. When you've just come in off the tundra after eleven months and you want to have a soak in the tub and unwind, the Master Race showing up is a bit of a downer. "Okay, you are German. Why yell about it? I am Canadian," says the Frenchie. "He is Canadian" - he points to the Scots factor - "and he is Canadian" - and to the smiling eskimo lad: French, English and Inuit all with the same unhyphenated label "Canadian"; That's a lot simpler than the fractious diversity at Parliament Hill earlier today.
The Nazi lieutenant attempts to beguile his captives with a copy of Mein Kampf, but Trapper Johnny isn't interested. "What's the matter with Negroes?" he asks. "They're semi-apes," explains the German. "One step above the Jews." This is something of a remote concern at a Hudson's Bay trading post. The Nazis seems as enraged by their prisoners' geniality as by anything else. As they depart, one tears a portrait of the King and Queen off the wall and carves a swastika into the space.
Pressburger's plot follows as you'd expect: There are six Germans, and soon there will be five, and then four, three, two... From Hudson's Bay, they commandeer a seaplane that crashes near a Hutterite community in Manitoba, where a young pre-Mary Poppins Glynis Johns is sweetly trusting of them. They make their way to Indian Day in Banff National Park, for a rather Hitchcockian scene, and thence to a camp in the Rockies, where an arty pacifist (Leslie Howard) is discoursing on Thomas Mann. The tone is set by Olivier's Frenchie coming in from the bush: He may not be interested in war, and nor is Glynis Johns or Leslie Howard. But war is interested in them. This was the purpose of the film, as the British Ministry of Information saw it: That's why they wanted it set in Canada, rather than in, say, England, across the Channel from Occupied Europe. These trappers, Hutterites, pacifists didn't come looking for trouble. But, even five thousand miles from the fighting, trouble came looking for them - in big, empty, peaceable Canada. And the implicit message to America was: In the end, it will come for you, too. There is no 49th Parallel. Whichever side of it you're on, it's the same side.
From our vantage in 2017, after that rain-sodden teepee hogging all the CBC coverage, the most startling moment is when Leslie Howard compares Germans to the Blackfoot tribe he's studying. "I may write about the customs of Red Indians 200 years ago, but I don't have to behave like one, After all we've been given reasoning powers." The Nazi lieutenant does not take kindly to being compared to savages. But he despises these people. As he sneers during a bracing al fresco cold shower, chaps like Howard's art collector - are "soft and degenerate all through": a pushover.
His mistake - as he discovers in the final showdown memorably set on the US/Canadian border. Raymond Massey plays a bored soldier gone somewhat carelessly AWOL but patriotic enough to resent the German's characterization of him. "Deserter, my Royal Canadian foot!" he roars. Massey was a famous Abe Lincoln on stage and screen, but he was in fact Canadian, and the brother of our first native-born Governor General, Vincent Massey. Nevertheless, this brief appearance in 49th Parallel is the only time a great Canadian actor ever played a Canadian on film (and, as Lynann MacDonald notes below, with brother Vincent, then Canadian High Commissioner in London, doing an uncredited turn as the reader of the prologue).
Raymond Massey isn't the only memorable Canuck in the picture. There was a teenage grip who worked on the crew called William Leslie Falardeau. Powell & Pressburger took a shine to him and let him play an RCAF aviator in one scene at Cape Wolstenholme. He's rather good in it, very real. Falardeau subsequently joined the actual RCAF, and quickly made sergeant. Two days after the film's London premiere in 1941, he was killed in a training accident in Britain, aged just 19.
That's how the film plays for me: it seems to swim back and forth between a documentary reality and a mythical idealization. Granted, this is obviously not a statistically representative Canada, even for 1941. The only city we see is Winnipeg, and even that looks good, with its diners winking their neon invitations to Fish & Chips and Chop Suey. For the rest, it's an harmonious land of archetypes, trappers and eskimos and Hutterites and Mounties. If we were making it now, the trapper would be a climate-change activist, and the Inuit would be surly identity-group grievance-mongers, and the Hutterite community in Manitoba would be a madrassah in Brampton.
But then, in that remake, I'm not so sure we'd overcome the bad guy's sneer about our softness and degeneracy. 49th Parallel is "propaganda" in the sense that no one would have made this film had not the Ministry of Information asked them to. "Propaganda" is a reviled term, but every society has its share, as we saw in today's Canada Day commemorations. So we propagandize about refugees and diversity and identity. But we can no longer propagandize about what's worth fighting for, and living for, and dying for. Our loss.
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