I have a real soft spot for The 49th Parallel. It’s certainly not held up by many as the best of Powell and Pressburger but it’s one of those films I find myself drawn to again and again – P&P’s warm and involving characterisation, the landscapes of Canada, Vaughn Williams’ evocative score (given its due reverence as an ‘honorary’ character in the title sequence) are all scrumptious trimmings to a thoroughly exciting story.
Along with Hitchcock’s WWII propaganda films ‘Lifeboat’ and ‘Foreign Correspondent’ and Cavalcanti’s ‘Went the Day Well?’, it is the very best of its type – a call to arms that also happens to be cracking good cinema.
The cast list reads like a roll-call of all the great (mostly) British character actors of the day and, excepting the misfire of Olivier’s phony accent, no-one puts a foot wrong. And how marvelous that Powell & Pressburger made such a successful piece of anti-Nazi propaganda and still managed to sneak in not just one of their trademark ‘good’ Germans but two – Anton Walbrook as Peter, the ‘leader’ of the (German!) Hutterite commune [his blistering speech is deeply moving and is certainly the heart of the film’s message] and Niall McGinnis as Vogal, the German soldier who finds his conscience just a little too late – his demise being the quiet tragedy of a man who wanted a return to a simple life baking bread, instead of being an unthinking killer!