This was Powell and Pressburger's contribution to the British war effort. It's main aim was to help sway the American public into joining the war on the British side. By 1940, Britain and it's Empire, including Canada, were at war with Nazi Germany. America remained adamantly neutral. The US Neutrality Act forbade any direct appeal by the British to the American people but P&P sidestepped this by having the Germans stage a landing in Canada instead and showing how the Nazis were a threat even to far-away America.
The crew of the German raider U-37, after torpedoing a Canadian merchant ship, is sunk by the RCAF in northern Hudson Bay, near the Canadian Arctic (Talk of propaganda - as we learn in the commentary, the three B-10 bombers we see attacking the sub, actually made up the entire fleet of the RCAF in 1940). Six of the U-37 crew make it to shore alive. They have to cross hostile Canadian territory to reach the safety of neutral America. The film contrasts the kindness and decency of Canadians, emphasising their kinship with their American brethren to the south, against the brutality and inhumanity of the Nazis. As the U-37 crew trek southward, they encounter various Canadians who prove their loyalty in one way or another, often delivering ringing lectures about the rightness of the allied cause. Laurence Olivier is almost unrecognisable as the jolly French trapper whom the Nazis try to tempt by declaring that Hitler has sworn to free French Canadians from the tyranny of the British. Instead he risks his life trying to warn the Americans. Eskimo hunters (Inuit), described as semi-apes by the Nazis, manage to kill one of the Germans as they flee south. Leslie Howard plays to type, the caricature of the glib, upper-crust, Anglo-Canadian gentleman, totally uninterested in the war half a world away, but who finally stands up when it truly counts. Raymond Massey plays a Canadian soldier gone AWOL. We see Blackfoot Indians in full regalia, in the Canadian Rockies, staring balefully at the invaders, as the valiant RCMP hunt down the fugitives. Even German Canadians, in the form of a German Hutterite community (similar to the Amish), make their loyalty to Canada clear, when they proudly avow their German heritage while disdainfully forswearing any kinship with the Nazis. It is unabashed wartime propaganda and it is none too subtle. But it was and remains enjoyable. P&P won an Oscar for the film's original screenplay.
All 18 minutes worth of footage previously deleted from the American release has been replaced. This includes the German Lieutenant Hirst's exposition on Nazi racial theory, where he lumps the Canadian Eskimos (Inuit) together with Negroes as "semi-apes", just "one-degree" above the Jews. Also restored is the scene with the Inuit, Nick, lying dead on the floor with his skull shattered by a rifle butt. Also restored are references to the priest Father Malotte as a German spy - this latter sequence being deleted for fear of offending American Catholics. The ending works almost like an early Hitchcock thriller - will they or will they not reach the safety of America and what will the Americans do when they arrive?
The picture has been handsomely restored with only an occasional instance of dirt seen. It is presented in a slightly window-boxed 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Contrast, black level and grey scale are perfect. The sound is presented in its original 1.0 mono, with clear dialogue and fine music reproduction. Optional English subtitles are provided. There is an excellent full-length commentary from film and music historian Bruce Eder. Aside from the film he talks at some length on Ralph Vaughan Williams' fine score, relating it to Vaughan Williams' various other works. The first disc is rounded out with the original theatrical trailer.
The second disc contains three items. The first is another P&P wartime effort, "The Volunteer", a 46-minute recruitment film for the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm. It stars then Lt. Cmdr. Ralph Richardson with a cameo by his friend Laurence Olivier. It has extensive footage of the FAA, which by then (1943) was equipped with the Seafire (naval variant of the famous Spitfire). We follow the Royal Navy as it sails around the Mediterranean with the Seafires being put through their paces. The second item is an hour-long audio exerpt from the memoirs of Michael Powell detailing the making of 49th Parallel. The final item is a 50-minute BBC Arts documentary "A Pretty British Affair" chronicling the life-long partnership of Powell and Pressburger with tributes from younger America directors like Francis Coppola and Martin Scorcese. Picture and sound are excellent throughout. There is a 10-page booklet with a fine article on P&P's various wartime efforts, followed by the transcript of Michael Powell's speech at the premier of 49th Parallel.
Note: The 49th Parallel refers to the US-Canada border, which as the film states at the beginning, remains the only undefended border in the world.