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49th Parallel (1941)

Cuts to the first American release

The first American release of 49th Parallel (1941) had quite a few cuts and changes made to satisfy various special interest groups and sensibilities in the then still neutral United States. There were quite a few pro-German and isolationist groups in America when it was first released there in March 1942.

I had heard of some of these cuts before but I didn't realise quite how many of them there were. Some seem a bit puzzling, the reasons for others are more obvious. The UK release of the film ran at 123 minutes. The initial American release was cut down to 104 minutes. But every version I've every seen offered for sale in America or have heard of being screened in America in the last 20-30 years have all been the full UK version of the film. In fact it has proved very difficult to find a version of that original American release.

But luckily, some people do remember, in some details, what those cuts were.

IMDb user Hugh O'Brien tells us:
Many things, large and small, were cut in the US film, THE INVADERS. Most of the sub's voyage up to Hudson Bay was removed; after the scene where they dive after sinking the freighter (and filming her crew), we next see them in the Bay, preparing to send the raiding party; all the scenes of them entering the Bay, including the reference to "his charts" (the missionary's), are gone. They did cut all references to the "flying missionary" who was a German spy, the scenes with the map and all of it. They also cut the other "touchy" passage there, where Eric Portman tells the captive Canadians that the Eskimos are sub-apes like Negroes, only one step above the Jews, and Curry's and Olivier's ripostes. Obviously they didn't want to offend southern segregationists or anti-Semites by showing that Nazis shared their racist views, or leave in any dialogue decrying same. (Talk about the fight for freedom!)

They also cut the montage of the Germans working at the Hutterite settlement, and a bit from Hirth's zig-zag escape after Banff Park -- the part with him aboard the airplane and its attendant radio report, though the rest of the scene is left in. But there are two changes worth a remark.

One is the motorist with the flat tire. This is not cut out of the American film, it's entirely intact, but for one curious change. It has the entire scene, save at the very close of it, when in the original they show one of the Germans hit the guy and knock him out. In the American edition, just as the German raises his arm to strike the motorist, and he begins to suspect that something's about to happen, the picture fades to black, but the scene does not stop: the sounds of the motorist being stuck, of him crying out, collapsing as his dropped soda bottle breaks on the ground, all are heard -- but it all goes on "underneath" a black screen. Actually, this is very effective, much more so than seeing the entire action. It leaves a bit to the imagination and gives one a sense of "blacking out", like the motorist. A most interesting change, but why it was done I have no idea.

The other weird editing was done in the scene with the Germans in Winnipeg. You'll remember the film shows Hirth standing in a crowd in the rain while a woman is reading the latest bulletins to the blind soldier; meanwhile the other two sell their binoculars for money to eat, after which Hirth tells them of his plan to walk to Vancouver to catch a Japanese freighter home, based on his visit to a travel bureau. But in the American film, the entire scene after the news bulletin part is cut out, which leads to an enormous amount of confusion: until then the Germans had been making south for the US border; suddenly, with no explanation, they're shown hiking along the road headed west, only a few miles north of the border. (The overlaid maps confirm this.) This made no sense whatsoever, and until we finally saw the complete film it was the major lapse in the film's progression. (I still think their plan made no sense -- they should have gotten out of enemy territory as quickly as possible; if they really wanted to, they could have headed west in the US. Also, after they hijacked the guy's car, why didn't they keep it instead of suddenly switching to the train? Plus a few other plot lapses. But it remains perhaps my favorite Powell/Pressburger film.)

One other interesting difference: the opening credits show, not the mountain ranges of Canada, but an extreme close-up of a beach: at first the sand is untouched; then as the title THE INVADERS appears, the shot dissolves into one of a bootprint in the sand, pointed ashore. Kind of cool.

Thirty years ago I had the honor of dining with Michael Powell, and while I knew him and his work at 20-something I was not as schooled in his films as I am today, so I've laways regretted the timing. On the other hand, each summer I host a series of classic films and usually insert one P/P film. Last summer it was 49TH PARALLEL, finally on DVD, and everyone loved it.

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