49th Parallel is a film that I had heard mentioned in passing on occasion, but never really had any practical knowledge of until now. Having now seen the film for myself, I find it to be one of those rare productions that only Criterion seems to be able to find. This is something that I would have never dreamed existed. While the idea of war films told from the Axis point of view are almost commonplace today, such a thing was practically unheard of in 1941, with the United States on the brink of entering World…War II themselves.
This is just part of what is notable about this film however. The truth is, the film stands on its own merit in any time frame. This is an epic feat of filmmaking that would qualify as a big budget project even today. The film follows the crew of a German U-boat as they make their way into Canadian waters. When they sink a Canadian tanker ship, the crew becomes the target of a massive manhunt. In an effort to evade capture, the crew take to land and move from hideout to hideout, eventually making their way to the United States.
Amazingly, this film manages to balance a riveting war drama with some serious political commentary on the dangers of being isolated and not adapting a complete world view. While this is a heavy theme to carry, the film does so with ease. I was shocked about how modern the film feels. I would easily have accepted that this was a Tom Clancy story. It seems that contemporary audiences felt the same, as the film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, and won one for Best Original Screenplay.
The audio is clear, but it is certainly nothing particularly noteworthy. Mono is the order of the day here, and while it is a basically clean presentation, it is hardly impressive. Hiss is kept to a minimum, but there is really no dynamic range to speak of. I am sure that Criterion did their best to make this track sound as good as possible, but there is no overcoming the limited quality of the original source soundtrack.
On the whole, this film looks fantastic. There are a fair number of scenes that were taken form stock war footage that look just horrid, but they by no means make up the majority of the film. Criterion undertook a massive restoration project here, and the result is a picture quality that often times looks like it is brand new. There are a fair number of scratches and blemishes scattered throughout the images, but it is much clearer than one would expect from a film of this age.
The impressive collection of extras in this two-disc set start of with a Commentary by film and music historian Bruce Eder. Clearly, Eder has pre-scripted the vast majority of his comments, and I appreciate his efforts. His comments skew a little too much toward the musical content of the film, but taken as a whole, his insight is very much appreciated.
The rest of the extras show up on the title’s second disc. A short film called The Volunteer, released in 1943, shows up here. In fact, the film pushes the boundaries of what could be called “short”, running a full 46-minutes. The film was shot as something of a fictionalized documentary that served as a recruitment film for the British Fleet Air Arm during World War II. It is interesting to note that Lawrence Olivier made a brief cameo in the piece.
Next up is a collection of audio excerpts from a set of recordings taken for Director Michael Powell’s autobiography. In these clips, he discusses the 49th Parallel project in an unscripted form as he recalls it. The quality of these recordings is certainly nothing spectacular, but it is easy enough to decipher what he has to say.
The final major special feature is an episode of a BBC television program called Arena which focused on Director Michael Powell and writer Emeric Pressburger. The program features exclusive footage of the two men, and examines both their careers in film. A theatrical trailer and Criterion’s usual compliment of wonderful essays round out the supplements.
I really can’t say enough great things about this film. It makes so many meaningful comments on politics, as well as racism and international relations. For that, I can overlook the fact that all the Germans speak English. It’s also a little easier to take that glaring error when you are treated to the work of such fine actors as Lawrence Olivier and Raymond Massey. It is said that 49th Parallel is still the biggest grossing British film in the United States. Having finally seen it for myself, I can affirm that this is a most worthy honor.
Special Features List
- Commentary by film and music historian Bruce Eder
- The Volunteer, a 1943 Powell and Pressburger short starring Ralph Richardson
- A Pretty British Affair, a BBC documentary on the careers of Powell and Pressburger
- Original theatrical trailer
- Michael Powell Audio
- Booklet with new essay by film scholar Charles Barr and an excerpt Powell’s 1941 premiere speech