It begins with a mission: A group of six Nazi soldiers land on the shores of Nova Scotia as scouts before bringing in the whole army to attack over the Canadian/American border. But Canada spots the submarine and takes it out, leaving the six soldiers to continue on alone. We follow the group as they head down to the border through a series of different settings, all unwelcome to the Nazi intruders and all ready and rearing to stop the force from the Third Reich.
The story leads us along with the German soldiers as they encounter all sorts of people living in Canada, free from oppression and proud of that fact. As they go along, still trying to succeed in their mission, each of them is lost along the way one-by-one, in one way or another. Ultimately, the message is not only one of empowerment to the people fighting against the Nazi regime. It also shows the drastic differences between our ways of thinking, the differences between Socialism and Democracy, and explains in a very profound way exactly why the German way of doing things at the time was ultimately going to fail. The movie is a really fascinating bit of propaganda, and an effective one at that.
I think the most interesting thing about it is that it doesn’t hold back at all. There are some really brutal, uncomfortable scenes in this movie, ever building your hatred for the monstrous antagonists at hand. What’s really great is that it doesn’t just blindly say "Nazis bad, Canadians good," it really does explain not only how much better the Western way of life is but how much better life was in Germany before things turned sour. In other words, it doesn’t portray Germans as the enemies; it portrays bullies as the enemies, or "gangsters" as they call them throughout the movie.
This was emphasized to great effect in a portion where the troops fall into a commune made up of German immigrants living under a Democratic system. The Nazis are confused by ideas such as people choosing their own jobs and spending their own money. Specifically within this section, there are two contrasting speeches back-to-back in which the Nazi leader Bernsdorff (Richard George) tries to recruit the commune to help him and they return with an enthusiastic “Yeah, that’s not gonna happen.”
49th Parallel is not unlike many films of its time in its message, but seeing that message being constantly bludgeoned over the heads of the Nazi soldiers and then seeing the Nazis still be completely reluctant to it makes the payoff throughout the film all the more satisfying.