Tuesday, February 17, 2009

49th Parallel

How do you make a war movie where you root for the bad guys? Easy, make one of the first characters you meet an extremely obnoxious French Canadian stereotype whom you want them to shoot in the testicles so he shuts his stupid face. SHUT UP YOU STUPID FRENCH IDIOT, GODDAMN YOU'RE MAKING MY COUNTRY LOOK BAD!

(The above French idiot was played by Laurence Olivier. Wasn't he supposed to be good at acting?)

This was a propaganda film, trying to convince the Americans to get into the war. And hell, if I thought my first line of defense was the stupid, annoying, pain in the ass French Canadian I might want to enter the war too. See, the premise is that the Nazis want to take over Canada, so they take a submarine, sink some ship, leave a landing party, and promptly get blown up. They take a big long journey through wacky parts of Canadian society, like trappers up north, Hutterites in the Prairies, a bunch of people in Alberta, and so on. They're also extremely incompetent and pose no threat to anyone, but they do get to go and learn about different people and why Nazis are jerks.

I can't say I liked how it started in the most stereotypical and annoying of Canadian stereotypes - seriously, northern trappers? Why do we always go back to the stupid northern trappers? - but it eventually inched closer to the country I know. It'd be much nicer if we could have a film set in Canada where there's not one bloody dogsled (I've lived in this country for 23 years, and I have never seen a freaking dogsled), but there are much worse depictions of my country in the world. I do appreciate how our air force kicks some ass and that we tend to spot the suspicious Germans pretty easily. Of course, they're all so useless I'd be concerned if we didn't, as they steadily pick themselves off out of sheer stupidity.

So, as a movie involving Canada, it's not as bad as it could be. But it could also be a lot better, since it's ridiculously clunky film. Dialog frequently is expository and awkward, the plot moves in fits and starts, and there are a lot of big ideological speeches about how awesome everyone who isn't a Nazi is. We are supposed to learn about freedom, dammit, freedom! Look at how free we are! Look at how much better we are than the Nazis! Aren't you glad you're not living in Germany in the 1940s?

Not to say there aren't some good moments. There's a fantastically awkward scene at the Hutterite colony where a guy talks about how awesome it is to be a Nazi while blissfully ignorant about the people who he his talking to, and that he's representing everything they've come to Canada to avoid. All during this scene, we see one of the characters realizing that he doesn't agree with the Nazis anymore, mostly through reaction shots. It's a lovely subtle piece of film making, the use of reactions heightening the awkwardness and demonstrating how oblivious the Nazi leader is. Unfortunately, we get a big clunky scene where the man doubting his country describes his feelings afterward, which lessens the impact.

I suppose it's a film of its time, a historic artifact over a work of art. It's pretty obviously trying to boost morale, make people feel right about the war and the need for it. It's just a shame that they couldn't make a propaganda piece which wasn't quite so obviously propaganda. Clumsy speeches and haphazard plot development are the kind of things that don't stand up as time wears on. To be honest though, it's not like I'm the target audience, and I'm far removed from WWII. It's hard to be mean about it, since I know why they made it and the time. And honestly, it's not supposed to be a timeless movie that lives for generations. It was there to convince people that the war was a good idea, and considering the war in question, that's a good thing.

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