At the outbreak of the World War I in 1914 Ralph Vaughan Williams was – at the age of 42 – beyond the threshold for active military service, but nevertheless joined the army and served as a paramedic.
Naturally, he could not play such an immediate active role at the beginning of World War II when he was 66 years old. But Vaughan Williams had mentioned to fellow composer Arthur Benjamin (1893–1960) that he would like to ‘have a shot’ at writing music for films. Benjamin relayed this information to conductor Muir Mathieson (1911–75), who was at the time one of the directors of London Films.
Only a few days later Mathieson contacted Vaughan Williams to ask him whether he would like to compose the music for the project that he was working on: the propaganda film 49th Parallel, which was to be the only major feature film project of the Ministry of Information. The intention behind the production was to sway opinion in the United States, which was still at the time neutral in the war. For Vaughan Williams this project served a double purpose, the chance to write film music whilst also serving his country.
49th Parallel is a one of many collaborations between the director Michael Powell (1905–90) and screenwriter Emeric Pressburger (1902–88). It tells the story of a group of German soldiers, whose submarine had been sunk in the Hudson Bay, trying to cross the border into the United States. On their way they find many characters who exalt in the racial plurality and democratic values of Canada, thus challenging their Nazi ideology by mere juxtaposition.
Vaughan Williams composed the music in 1940-41. The prologue, which lasts for more than 11 minutes, is in itself almost a tone poem, with impressive descriptions of nature and the sound of the sea. Very much in keeping with his past work, Vaughan Williams used folk songs as the basis for some of the cue tracks. The harsh moods that surface later in the film anticipate the tone that was to be used in Scott of the Antarctic, his most remembered foray into film music.