49th Parallel (1941) 

 

 

Director:     Michael Powell. 

Starring:     Richard George (Kommandant Bernsdorff), Eric Portman (Lieutenant Hirth), Raymond Lovell (Lieutenant Kuhnecke), Niall MacGinnis (Vogel), Peter Moore (Kranz), John Chandos (Lohrmann), Basil Appleby (Jahner), Laurence Olivier (Johnnie - the Trapper), Finlay Currie (The Factor), Ley On (Nick - the Eskimo), Anton Walbrook (Peter), Glynis Johns (Anna), Charles Victor (Andreas), Frederick Piper (David), Leslie Howard (Philip Armstrong Scott), Raymond Massey (Andy Brock).

 

a Nazi U-boat crew shipwrecked in Canada try to flee to the neutral United States

 

Spoiler Warning:

The 49th Parallel is the border between Canada and the United States. 

Gulf of St. Lawrence.  A German submarine is in Canadian waters.  Nearby is a damaged ship.  Kommandant Bernsdorff tells Lt. Hirth that was fine work.  He adds:  "So the curtain rises on Canada." 

Word goes out to Halifax, Nova Scotia.  The Halifax Situation Room orders all coastal defense positions to be on alert.  Planes are sent out to try and find the submarine. 

The survivors from the sinking ship row or swim over to the German submarine.  The Captain is dead and the First Officer too.  So the Germans tell the Second Officer to come on board from the life boat.  The Canadian says they were headed to Montreal carrying crude oil.  The Kommandant says that according to his data, the Captain is lying.  A German photographer gets up close to the Second Officer to take pictures, but the Second Officer knocks the camera into the Gulf waters.  So the cameraman pushes the Second Officer into the water and the order is given to submerge the submarine.

The Kommandant decides they must go someplace that is not patrolled so heavily.  Lt. Hirth suggests they go to Hudson Bay. 

The submarine runs into an area with lots of icebergs.  The Kommandant has the submarine come up onto the surface so the Kommandant can get a good look at the icebergs.  They are off the coast of Labrador.  They travel to Ungava Bay and up the Hudson Strait to Salisbury Island and Nottingham Island.

An Eskimo says that he saw what may be a submarine heading up the Hudson Strait.  The station at Churchill on the west coast of the Hudson Bay is alerted. 

The Captain sends out a patrol to find food and fuel for the submarine.  The men will go to the Hudson's Bay Trading Post.  Lt. Hirth and Lt. Kuhnecke will be in charge.

An airplane spots the submarine.  As the airplane approaches, the Germans fire a machine gun at it.  Several bombs hit the submarine and it's smashed for good. 

At the local settlement a French-Canadian trapper named Johnnie makes an appearance.  The first thing he does is take a hot bath.  They call Winnipeg, Canada so that Johnnie can have his message to his family relayed to them. 

The German patrol of two officers and four enlisted men are the only survivors of the submarine sinking.  From the mountains, they look down on the settlement below them.  There's less than ten structures down there. 

Johnnie asks his friend in charge of the settlement where's the ship?  The man says it's over beyond the hill.  Johnnie has been gone for a year so the od man starts telling him that a second world war has started.  The Germans attacked Poland in 1939.  And Canada is already in the war. 

Outside the dogs start making a fuss.  Then they start barking.  The old man looks out the window and says the wind is blowing up.  He leaves the window and Lt. Hirth looks into the building from the window. 

The Germans open the front door and come in.  It takes awhile before Johnnie realizes that these are German troops.  He says to the lieutenant that they gave Germany a good licking before and by gosh they'll do it again.  One of the Germans goes to strike Johnnie with his rifle butt, but he Eskimo with Johnnie intervenes.  The Eskimo gets knocked out and then the German hits the man in the head after he has passed out.

The old man gets a call from an American friend.  The lieutenant asks who is that calling?  The old man says it's his friend from Grand Rapids, Michigan in the United States.  They play chess over the radio three times a week.  So the Germans decide to let the old man play chess over the radio.  While this goes on, Johnnie tries to warn the American about their situation.  The German sailor shoots Johnnie.  Johnnie recovers and tries again, but is shot a second time.  Now the sailor bashes the radio in with his rifle butt. 

The German radio operator tries to use the radio, but it's just dead.  Lt. Hirth calls the sailor who bashed in the radio an "idiot".  The old man is tied to a chair.   The radio operator fixes up the radio and he learns that a plane is being sent out to Hudson Bay to check on the situation.  Lt. Hirth tells his men that they will commandeer the plane and fly out of Canada.

The Germans go into the store and get new clothes, canned food and other things.  The Eskimos come out to greet the plane.  They row the two pilots onto the beach.  The Germans surround the pilots and tell them not to run, but the pilots run anyway.  They are shot down in the back, along with a young Eskimo woman with a baby. 

Lt. Hirth goes back into the cabin.  Johnnie can only whisper but tells the lieutenant that when they win the war, they will send some missionaries to Germany.  Then he dies.

Outside the plane tries to take off, but is too overloaded.  Twice the plane has to stop and jettison some dead weight.  An Eskimo shoots one of the Germans who falls into the Bay.  That really lightens the load and now the plane takes off.

The plan for the Germans is to pick up the bush railway and go down as far as Lake Winnipeg.  The pilot says they have enough gas to cover the 15 hour trip, but he forgot to check the emergency tank which is actually empty.  The pilot makes it to a lake and the plane crashes into the water.  Everyone makes it to shore, except one man has been badly injured.  By the time they get him to shore, the man is dead.  That leaves four men left.  They start walking and come to a huge wheat field.  Lt. Hirth takes out his binoculars to look at a woman repairing a scarecrow.  He sees the newspaper on the face of the scarecrow and realizes it's a German newspaper.  So these are German-Canadians.  He sends Vogel to go speak to her. 

Vogel meets Anna, a 16 year old girl.  She assumes he is looking for work and Vogel plays along.  Now the three other men come up and Vogel says these are "my pals".  Anna greets them.  She is part of a Hutterite settlement.  They all eat together  -- all 111 of them, including the 25 children.  And no one gets paid here.  They all work for all. 

The Germans have dinner with the Hutterites.  They thank the leader Peter for the hospitality of the Hutterites.  Peter then shows them where they can sleep.   The house is empty because a family recently moved out to help establish a new Hutterite community. 

In the morning Hirth finds that Vogel has already gotten up and left the house.  He gets the other two men up and they go looking for Vogel.  They find him with the baker making bread.  The people are all excited about Vogel because he's a damn fine baker.  Someone remarks that they haven't has such a good baker in fifteen years. 

Hirth gets a little reckless and talks to the people in terms of their racial purity and superiority.  He speaks of a new wind blowing from the east that will change the entire world.  He speaks a little like Hitler and scares some of the people in the audience.  He ends with a heil, Hitler, but only the three German sailor jumps up and shout heil, Hitler.

The leader Peter is shocked and he rejects completely the message of Hirth.  He says their children are free here in Canada and not forced into military uniforms to march up and down in the streets singing battle songs.  He says Hitler is trying to spread an evil disease though the entire world until they have destroyed everything healthy in our world.  "No, we are not your brothers!" 

At night Anna comes over to tell the Hitler Germans that they can make their own beds.  She asks:  "You are Nazis, aren't you?"  She says she hates these men.  They killed her father because he said Hitler was the anti-Christ and then they drowned her mother.  Vogel tells Anna that he will take her home.  At Peter's house Vogel stops to speak to Peter and tells him thank you for their hospitality.  And he says he really enjoyed himself living here.  He says it reminds him of Germany before Hitler when life was so much better and calmer. Peter sees the good in Vogel and asks him to stay with the settlement.  So Vogel jumps at the chance to stay with the settlement. 

But the leader Hirth sentences Vogel to death.  They execute Vogel for desertion.  Now the three Nazis travel down the road.  They reach Winnipeg.  One of the men sells the German binoculars to get some money to buy some food at a diner.  During their dinner, Hirth says that they are going to Vancouver.  That's about 2,000 km from here.  They go by Portage la Prairie and Brandon, Regina and Moosejaw.  A man in a car has a flat tire and he stops to fix it.  The three Germans help him fix the car, but then they knock the Canadian man out with a large monkey wrench.  

Now the Germans have new clothes and money to afford a train ride on the Canadian Pacific line to Vancouver.   They go past the Three Sisters' Mountains.  In fact, they are in a National Park now.  And it's National Indian Day.  There are thousands of Indians in the park now.  The three Germans get off the train and go to the event.  As they watch the festivities, the conductor is with a Mounted Policeman searching the train for the three Germans.

The Mounted Policeman grabs the microphone to speak to the people at the festivities.  He talks about the three Germans from the German submarine that was in the waters of the Hudson Bay.  He starts describing the leader's appearance to the crowd.  Then he describes the other two men, but in less detail.  One of the men is spotted and he starts to run away.  He is grabbed by two policemen.

The other two Germans get away and run through the woods.  They climb up into the Rocky Mountains.  Later they follow a trail to a big lake.  There a fisherman named Philip befriends them.  Philip is on vacation and has several teepees set up.  He is a writer on the subject of Indians.  He provides showers for the men, dinner, talk, a drink and a place to sleep. 

Hirth just can't keep his mouth shut.  He thinks that Philip is a real wimp.  He says Philip has come up to the Rockies to avoid the war.  Philip tries to calm Hirth, but the man can't help acting like a real jerk.  The other Nazi grabs a pistol and tells Philip to put his hands up.  Then Hirth can't wait to tell Philip that the war is right here in this tent.  He reveals they are two of the six Germans from the German submarine.  They tie Philip up and gag him.  The enlisted man goes to put a saddle on a horse, but the horse jerks away from him.  So in a nearby tent the three workmen with Philip come out of the tent to get the horses calmed down.  The two Germans start running away on foot.  The enlisted man gets mad at the leader and knocks him out cold from behind the leader. 

Meanwhile, the workmen have found Philip tied up.  They release him.  They track down the enlisted man who hides in a cave and shoots at the now five men looking for him.  The guy is down to four shots left.  So Philip just starts walking towards the cave.  The Nazi fires the four shots, but only the last shot winged Philip.  Philip goes into the cave and beats the man down. 

Hirth flies back east on a plane.  48 hours of searching and still they can't find Hirth.  He's back on a train now, but in the baggage car. A conductor lets a man down on his luck into the baggage car.  Brock sees another man (Hirth) hiding in the corner.   Brock is real friendly and he strikes up a conversation with the stranger.  Moreover, he's a real nonstop talker.  Brock went A.W.O.L. from the army and  now is returning to it.  He starts changing into his uniform and Hirth knocks him out with his pistol.  Hirth puts on the army uniform.  Brock finally wakes up. Hirth tells him to put his hands up and stand over there.  The train arrives in Niagara Falls, Canada. 

Two conductors come in and unknowingly lock the two passengers into what becomes a cage for the men.  The conductors leaves.  The train goes over the railroad bridge over the Niagara River. 

The two conductors come back and this time they see Hirth and Brock in the cage.  Hirth tries to bluff his way out, while Brock keeps saying the guy is a Nazi, an escapee from the German submarine that the whole of Canada is looking for.  Brock finally talks some sense into the conductors. They have the train back up out of the USA and back into Canada.  Now Brock tells the Nazi to get his dukes up, because he's taking back his uniform. 

 

Good movie.  There's not a lot of history here, but I did enjoy following the German submariners trek on the Google map around Canada to avoid being captured.  The German captain and Lieutenant Hirth were stereotypical fiendish Nazis but the sailor named Vogel at least was decent.  The tension in the film was kept up throughout the film to the last scene.  Yah never know what these Nazis are going to do.  Laurence Olivier (as Johnnie - the Trapper) was entertaining with his really exaggerated French-Canadian accent.

 

 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

 

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