49th Parallel (1941)

One of the first films made by the famous British team of writers/producers/directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (jointly known as “The Archers”) was the World War II propaganda 49th Parallel.

Finlay Currie, Laurence Olivier and Eric Portman in 49th Parallel (1941)

The film begins with a German submarine that tries to hide in Hudson Bay after being hunted by the Canadian navy. The submarine is eventually caught up with and sunk, but a small group of survivors start to make their long way across the enormous nation of Canada, trying somehow to find a way to neutral or allied territory.

The film has an interesting structure. It is basically a series of short stories, strung together by the evil protagonist in the shape of Leutnant Hirth. Hirth is well played (though not exactly delicately) by Eric Portman. As he and his small group of Germans go from one place to the next, they also move from story to story. And there is where we meet the true heroes, played by Laurence Olivier, Leslie Howard, Raymond Massey, and others. They are true-blooded Canadians, who stand up for their country, against oppression and tyranny.

49th Parallel in some ways forms an interesting counterweight to One of Our Aircraft Is Missing, Powell’s and Pressburger’s joint project from the following year. Both films share the theme of a crew that has lost their vessel and now have to make their way through enemy territory. The two stories share many similarities, but through the filter of propaganda they still emerge as completely different films. They are also very good, so I can only recommend that you download and watch both.

This film is best enjoyed for its powerful and well played drama. Even though Powell and Pressburger were yet to develop their true mastership in film making, we can already see many of the techniques that were to be used to make some of the best films in the history of cinema. 49th Parallel may not be quite up to that standard, but it is still excellent.

Peter Moore and Leslie Howard in 49th Parallel (1941)

49th Parallel
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Year: 1941
Running time: 2 h 2 min
Director: Michael Powell
Stars: Laurence Olivier, Raymond Massey, Leslie Howard
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (664×502, not counting black border)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.2 G)

Nanook of the North (1922)

The documentary is an interesting genre. In a sense, it may be said to be the first film genre. Some of the very earliest surviving films, such as Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge (1888), were just brief snatches of reality, but already with Blacksmith Scene (1893) we see actors performing what may best be described as a forty-second drama documentary, and Fred Ott’s Sneeze (1894) is an early example of the filmmaker tampering with reality rather than just recording it, as the “actor” Fred Ott is apparently putting snuff in his nose for the purpose of producing an effect on film.

Compared with the 19th Century efforts, Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North plays in a completely different league. It has been described as the first feature-length documentary, and as such it has had a tremendous impact on the entire genre of documentary film produced ever since. But in essence, it is just a very much more polished and sophisticated variant of what had already been done ever since the dawn of film.

Inuit eskimo in Nanook of the North (1922)

In Nanook of the North we are provided with some samples from the life of Nanook, an eskimo living in northern Canada. We get to see life in the igloo, walrus hunting, and various other activities in the life of Nanook and his family. All of it appears very genuine, but when you start to think about the lighting equipment that would be necessary to film inside an igloo, or the realism of bringing cameras along on a strenous and dangerous hunting expedition, you realize that many scenes must have been staged to a greater or lesser extent.

As a factual description of an eskimo’s life, Nanook of the North is about as flawed as any later documentary. Whether a wartime propaganda, such as The Fighting Lady (1944), or a modern political statement, such as The Corporation (2003), you can be sure that the film-maker has his own purpose, his own vision and his own ideological background, leading every step in the creative process. While few documentaries actually lie about factual matters, they are selective in what they show, and how they present their message.

Nanook of the North was the first “modern” documentary, and like any good documentary, it tries to impress upon the viewer its creator’s vision. But regardless of what shortcuts and stagings were made between takes, it succeeds in bringing the humans in front of the camera to life. The film begins and ends with closeups of Nanook’s face, and in between, Flaherty makes me feel that I get a glimpse of the soul behind that face. And perhaps, to some small measure, I do get such a glimpse, nearly 100 years later. Such is the power of good cinema.

This film is best enjoyed for its considerable artistic merits. Regardless of whether the film reflects any kind of truth or not, it is in its best moments breathtakingly beautiful. If you are interested in the history of documentary film, or if you are just looking for an fascinating cinematic experience, this is one you will definitely not want to miss.

Inuit eskimo paddling a kayak in Nanook of the North (1922)

Nanook of the North
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Year: 1922
Running time: 1 h 18 min
Director: Robert Flaherty
Image quality: Good
Resolution: High (960×738)
Soundtrack: Good; classical music synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (3.4 G)

Wolf Blood (1925)

It is only natural, I suppose, that a whole lot of “firsts” of cinematic history came into existence during the silent era. Many of these are little more than historical curiosities, such as the first Frankenstein film from 1910.

Occasionally, however, such a film turns out to have interesting qualities in addition to just being first, and one such is Wolf Blood, the first feature-length werewolf movie (and the oldest preserved of any length).

George Chesebro, Marguerite Clayton and Raymond Hanford in Wolf Blood (1925)

The film is set deep in the Canadian forests, where two competing lumber companies fight for control of the best timber. Dick Bannister is the local boss of one company, and when one of the employees is shot, he asks the female owner Miss Ford to come to the site for a first-hand experience of the situation. She does so, bringing her fiancée along for the ride. In spite of this, Bannister and his employer feel a mutual attraction, gradually deepening as the film progresses.

Bannister is wounded in a fight and the fiancée, a surgeon, is forced to perform a blood transfusion using a wolf’s blood to save Bannister’s life. This in spite of the risk that the animal’s savage characteristics may transfer to the victim. Miss Ford nurses him to health, but are the rumours true that he is now part-wolf, terrorizing the camps?

Wolf Blood is slow-moving and not very exciting in terms of adventure or horror. Its qualities lie elsewhere.

This film is best enjoyed for its warm, humane drama and nice character portraits. There is also a lot of fascinating forest scenery and film of what is probably genuine lumberjacks at work. The werewolf theme is relatively low-key, and it was probably not an inspiration to The Wolfman (1941), the film that really made the werewolf into one of the legendary Hollywood monsters.

George Chesebro chasing a wolf in the werewolf film Wolf Blood (1925)

Wolf Blood
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Year: 1925
Running time: 1 h 7 min
Directors: George Chesebro, Bruce Mitchell
Stars: George Chesebro, Marguerite Clayton
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Low (400×304)
Soundtrack: Acceptable; classical and jazz music partly synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (699 M)