The Ministry of Information needed a propaganda piece, Michael Powell provided the oddest of wartime recruiters, a masterwork of wily drollery. A German U-boat surfaces in Hudson Bay waters, the Nazi officers congratulate each other on a ship well-torpedoed, the survivors are tossed overboard for knocking the invaders' tiny camera into the sea; the crew, "the first of many thousands" to set foot on Canadian soil, then watches from the shores as their vessel is bombed. Led by officer Eric Portman, the stranded unit ventures through the nation toward the 49th parallel dividing Canada and the then-neutral U.S., a line "drawn by men upon a map, nearly a century ago, accepted with a handshake, and kept ever since." Powell pulls out a mini-version of the Foreign Correspondent plane crash, but the approach proceeds rather from his understanding of Grand Illusion as a tragic and funny work (young Glynis Johns is blonde and pigtailed as a bow to Dita Parlo), with the Emeric Pressburger script giving both the winding road and the off-center pit stops. Every star-cameo is an impeccable sketch: shaggy Laurence Olivier sings "Alouette" in a bathtub and tries to fit into lumberjack plaids after a hearty potato meal; Finlay Currie plays chess under gunpoint with his ham-radio pal but the couple on the other side of the airwaves gives the game away with their squabbling; Leslie Howard is an aesthete in his teepee with Picasso and Hemingway, a pacifist until his guests touch his Matisse. The key passage is the Germans' stay at the peaceful Hutterite mission run by Anton Walbrook, central both for illuminating Powell's humor (the situation springs from Brother Orchid, taken up later in We're No Angels, Witness, etc) and for locating humanizing cracks in the enemy's superman armor (Niall MacGinnis distrusts Portman's Bismarck quotes and gives in to emotion, trading his Nazi uniform for a baker's apron). Propaganda wants things in black and white, but Powell knows the story could've easily been told from the other angle (i.e. One of Our Aircraft Is Missing), because, as visualized in Raymond Massey in his underpants in the back of a freight train, "our sense of humor may be different from theirs." With Richard George, Raymond Lovell, Peter Moore, John Chandos, and Basil Appleby. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce