Where a Decent Man Can Breathe Freely: 49th Parallel (1941)


“We are German!”

“Okay. Why yell about it? Moi, j’ai compris. You German. I’m Canadian, he Canadian and he Canadian.”

Johnnie (Laurence Olivier), a French Canadian trapper confronted by Nazi invaders, is making a simple statement of fact, but it also implies something more profound — something, perhaps, that these Nazis can’t even comprehend. After all, the other two Canadians to whom he’s referring are Albert (Finlay Currie), an older man with a Scottish accent, and Nick (Ley On), an Eskimo. Although the three of them may seem to have little in common on the surface, they’re united by the country in which they all live, and their diversity — their individuality — is a key part of that country’s strength.


The 1941 film 49th Parallel, directed by Michael Powell, focuses on six German sailors stranded in Canada after their U-boat is bombed and sunk, their own lives having been spared because they were on land at the time, sent ashore to collect food and fuel. Because Canada is at war with Germany, their best hope is crossing the border — the titular 49th parallel — into the still-neutral United States. As they travel from east to west and back again, they find themselves in a wide range of settings, including Hudson Bay, the wheat fields of Manitoba, the urban streets of Winnipeg, and the Rocky Mountains, and the people they encounter along the way are just as varied.

Notably, the majority of the Canadians with whom the Germans interact aren’t involved in the war, for one reason or another. Johnnie missed out on the declaration of war because he was on an eleven-month trek in the woods, and he can’t see what it has to do with him anyway; writer Philip Armstrong Scott (Leslie Howard) is on a research expedition in the Rockies, cut off from the world and its problems; and the Hutterites, a religious sect living in an agricultural settlement, are pacifists. The one significant Canadian character who’s a member of the military is an AWOL soldier named Andy Brock (Raymond Massey), and he’s unhappy with the way he’s been treated: “The government said, ‘We want men to fight the Nazis. Join today.’ So I joined. I figured they were in a hurry. That was 387 days ago. Four divisions and a lot of drafts have gone overseas, and what’s Number B-987642 doing? Guardin’ the Chippewa Canal. Who’d wanna steal it anyway?” Lieutenant Hirth (Eric Portman), the fanatical, ruthless leader of the German sextet, views Brock’s dissatisfaction with his government as positive step toward the downfall of democracy; Brock himself sees things differently. “You can’t even begin to understand democracy,” he tells Hirth. “We own the right to be fed up with anything we damn please, and say so out loud when we feel like it.”


This right to dissent, to think and feel for oneself, to be an individual, is vital, and it’s something that the Germans don’t possess under Hitler. They’re bemused, for instance, by the notion that the Hutterites welcome back people who have left their settlement instead of punishing them. (“Don’t you send them to a camp or something?”) In many ways, conforming to Nazism has forced them to sacrifice their very humanity, though their nobler nature hasn’t been stamped out entirely. One man, Vogel (Niall MacGinnis), gives an injured Johnnie his rosary, then “makes up” for this lapse by tearing down a poster of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth and carving a swastika into the wall in its place. (Johnnie regards French Canada as distinct from the rest of the nation to some degree, a view that Hirth tries to exploit by insisting that Johnnie’s country — France — has already surrendered to Germany. However, the poster describes the British monarchs as “Le Roi et la Reine du Canada,” suggesting that the dividing lines aren’t quite as clear as they may seem.) Later, Vogel is deeply troubled when he meets a teenage Hutterite girl named Anna (Glynis Johns) who lost her mother when their ship was torpedoed; as a crew member on a U-boat, he’s helped sink many a ship himself, sometimes with women and children aboard, and he’s committed quite a few other brutal acts as well.

Hirth, in contrast, appears to have abandoned his humanity completely in order to dedicate himself to the Reich. (“He’s a human being,” a character says of him at one point, then equivocates: “At least he’s a Nazi.”) His faith in Hitler and the Nazi cause is unshakable, and he’ll do whatever it takes to further the movement, thinking nothing of killing anyone who gets in his way. He also seizes every opportunity to try to convert the people he meets, telling them anything that will cast their own country in a bad light: Johnnie, as a French Canadian, is a second-class citizen; Brock, still stuck in Canada instead of being shipped out, has a legitimate grievance against the government. Because many of the Hutterites are either German-born or of German descent, Hirth is convinced that they’ll be particularly receptive — they are, in his eyes, fellow members of the master race — so he makes an impassioned speech in their midst, a kind of call to arms. It’s a chilling moment, but at the same time, there’s something almost perversely humorous about his blind confidence, his obliviousness to his audience’s stony silence. German or not, none of the Hutterites have any interest in supporting Hitler, nor do they want Nazis residing among them.

Hirth Speech

In fact, everybody the German sailors encounter in Canada turns out to be opposed to Nazism, even if they’re cut off from the war by geography, lifestyle or lack of interest; when push comes to shove, they’re all willing to take a stand against these invaders and the evils they represent. Hirth and company may be slightly ridiculous figures at times, but they’re never less than dangerous, a threat to life and to the values that citizens of democracies hold dear. Peter (Anton Walbrook), the Hutterite colony’s leader, explains this in an impassioned speech of his own:

We are only one amongst many foreign settlements in Canada. There are thousands of them in this part of the world. And they have been founded — some recently, some eighty years ago — by people who left their homes in Europe because of famine, because of starvation, because of racial and political persecution, and some, like ourselves, because of their faith. Some came only to find new land, new boundaries, a new world. But all have found here in Canada the security, the peace and tolerance and understanding which, in Europe, it is your führer’s pride to have stamped out. You call us Germans. You call us brothers. Yes, most of us are Germans. Our names are German. Our tongue is German. Our old handwritten books are in German script. But we are not your brothers. Our Germany is dead. However hard this may be for some of us older people, it’s a blessing for our children. Our children grew up against new backgrounds, new horizons. And they are free — free to grow up as children, free to run and laugh without being forced into uniforms, without being forced to march up and down the streets singing battle songs! You talk about a new order in Europe — the new order, where there will not be one corner, not a hole big enough for a mouse where a decent man can breathe freely.

Is the film’s portrayal of democracy unduly rosy and idealistic? Undoubtedly, but that’s natural enough in a wartime movie with a propagandist slant. Besides, screenwriter Emeric Pressburger, a Hungarian-born Jew who left Germany once the Nazis came to power, was all too familiar with the alternative. 49th Parallel, in addition to being a gripping thriller, is both a warning against isolationism and apathy and a paean to freedom and democracy — particularly as practiced in Canada.

o-canada-49th-parallelThis post is part of the O Canada! Blogathon, hosted by Speakeasy and Silver Screenings. Click the banner above to see all of the other great posts.

19 thoughts on “Where a Decent Man Can Breathe Freely: 49th Parallel (1941)

  1. Ah, this is a film near and dear to my heart. It’s wonderful to see a film that treats Canada respectfully, not as an afterthought.

    I’m glad you included Anton Walbrook’s speech, because it is inspiring and stirring in many ways.

    This post has stirred my Canadian patriotism, and makes me want to watch it again. Thanks ever so for joining the blogathon with an early and wonderful contribution.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re welcome, and thanks for hosting! I was glad to have a reason to rewatch this one, because I hadn’t gotten into Powell and Pressburger yet when I watched it several years ago, and I feel like I got a lot more out of it this time around. I really like the fact that it shows so many different sides of Canada, and that it treats the country respectfully, as you say.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. This was a fantastic read! I love watching 49th Parallel and you have perfectly captured why it is so special, why it stirs us up inside. The music is also beautiful, I think Ralph Vaughn Williams outdid himself with the theme. It’s interesting to note that Powell and Pressburger had a way of making Canadian viewers proud to be Canadians after watching this film, and then P&P made films that made Scotsmen proud to be Scots ( I Know Where I’m Going ), Brits proud to be British ( Stairway to Heaven ), Indians proud to be Indians ( Black Narcissus ) and even Germans proud to be Germans ( Life and Death of Colonel Blimp ). They had a knack for making feel-good films!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. The 49th Parallel works both as its intended government sanctioned propaganda and as a deeply personal plea for decency, without sacrificing any of its ability to entertain. A great achievement and a worthy film for the blogathon.

    PS: Long live Andy Brock, and those swell guys over the border at Niagara Falls!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: #OCanada Blogathon – Day 1 Recap – Silver Screenings

  5. I’d never heard of this one until now, but you make it sound like a winner, so hopefully I can track it down at my local library. And I can’t pass up a chance to see Glynis Johns! (or Laurence Olivier in a flannel shirt, for that matter).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hope you enjoy it! Yes, Olivier as a jovial French Canadian outdoorsman is a sight to behold, and it’s fun to see Glynis Johns so young — I always think of her as the mom from Mary Poppins, which was over twenty years after this.


  6. Great choice! I have this in my collection but haven’t watched yet! I the last year or so I’ve been watching through lots of Powell-Pressburger movies and this one’s next for sure now. Thanks so much, love having you be part of these blogathons.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much, and thanks for hosting! I’ve really gotten into Powell and Pressburger in the last year or two, and it was fun revisiting this one now that I know their work better.


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