49th Parallel required a touch of clarification on its position as a "propaganda" piece, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger provide it through perspective reversal and thematic intensification. Both works need to be viewed together, really, for the full, complementary effect of their humorous compassion -- The Archers' sense of marvel is amplified rather than strapped down by the rigid exigencies of wartime rhetoric, the low horizons and heroically angled close-ups of the opening shots are shaken by the appearance of an unmanned RFA bomber, sent off by Powell himself ("Off you go," he whispers). The ghost vessel, dubbed "B for Berty," crashes and burns, but the crew has already bolted: A bombarding mission (photographed from above the clouds by Ronald Neame) goes awry, the British airmen parachute into Dutch terrain and are welcomed atop trees by farm children. Nazi patrol is heavy, but quiet resistance emanates from the local community, embodied by Pamela Brown, a "quite foxy" teacher; a lanky Peter Ustinov recites from the pulpit until mass is interrupted by a German officer looking for fugitives, the organ player hits a few bars from the Dutch anthem as he heads to the exit. (The same hymn also figures in another droll bit, involving an informer's gramophone records and showcasing Robert Helpmann's uncanny twitches.) The crew is a jovial bunch, Bernard Miles runs a garage while Emrys Jones gives the soccer field a go, Hugh Williams is an actor in drag and clogs in "a series of perfect Dutch sketches" -- authority falls to Godfrey Tearle, who's the required Col. Blimpish bearing as they seek out a clandestine radio transmitter, too late to catch BBC broadcasts but just in time to hear a performance by Williams's songbird wife. Posing as a widow to aid their escape toward the ocean, Googie Withers hates the invaders yet calls the Germans an "unhappy people": War hits people from both sides in the Powell-Pressburger world, and it's a testament to their human empathy that their reconciliatory spirit ("Same in England. Same everywhere") trumps the jingoistic trumpet-blowing ("Next stop: Berlin"). With Eric Portman, Hugh Burden, and Hay Petrie. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce