Saturday, June 22, 2013

Blockade (1938)

Director: William Dieterle

In a time of political unrest brewing in Europe it was brave to produce a film that made a strong political statement towards the battling factions by a country an ocean away. Blockade takes a stance on how people should have felt towards the rule of fascism when America was still a just a third party country, desperately trying to stay neutral when it came to the affairs of other nations. A controversial, little film about the current event of the Spanish Civil War, it would cause a small amount of debate before fizzling out and ultimately lose money. Years later its star would become a Hollywood mainstay and the film stood as a testament of Americans against fascism when the nation undoubtedly became one of the major world powers.

Blockade is a war drama about a farmer who has no choice, but to fight in the Spanish Civil War and a woman, a reluctant spy, whom he falls in love with. Marco (Henry Fonda) was only a simpleton until war literally came to his doorstep and he takes up arms against those that took away his livelihood. Along his journeys he meets and becomes infatuated with a Russian lady, Norma (Madeleine Carroll), who happens to be in the country at the outbreak of the battle. Norma is forced to carryout espionage after the death of her father and having no homeland of her own to go home to. Marco learns Norma’s dark secret and through her knowledge is able to help a starving seaside village receive some much needed aid despite a heavily armed enemy blockade, helping to bring down spies within his own ranking officers. In the end with this one victory Marco finds little joy, making known his absolute hatred of war and the death it brings.

The film lacks the emotional attachment that warrants a picture of this type. Somewhat forced is the relationship between Marco and Norma, but when looking at the overall compass of the film its story is really about being anti-war instead of being a romance. The Spanish Civil War was still on ongoing fight in Europe as the picture was being produced and distributed and to make a politically driven statement in a picture while events were still wagging just on the other side of the Atlantic would serve to be both an item of free publicity, but at the same time make it box office poison, bring the picture its own demise.

The feature is built up to the final moment of the picture where Henry Fonda turns towards the camera and states his final short speech against war and the senseless price paid at the grumblings of politicians. It would take over 80 minutes, but that was the reason that screenwriter John Howard Lawson wrote the story. In that scene audiences would realize that the film was a statement more than a piece of entertainment.

Director William Dieterle fresh off his work on the Academy Award winning film The Life of Emile Zola would produce some rather simple work in this picture. The camerawork, overly plain; the staging, bland; and the acting, uninspiring and melodramatic. Put side by side it would be hard to tell The Life of Emile Zola and Blockade would have been shot by the same filmmaker. Perhaps led by his strong views on fascism as well, Dieterle would not find success in this feature regardless of his recent success.

The stars of this Hollywood independent picture were lesser knowns. Henry Fonda was still in the earlier years of his career. His depiction of Marco is the most emotional character in the piece, but it comes off at many times as overly melodramatic, but the actor’s conviction is very present as his rage literally radiated from the screen. Madeleine Carroll would be no stranger to suspense films, being one of the original Hitchcock blondes before she moved her way into Hollywood. Somehow her portralil as Nelly lacks believability, a girl who could get caught into international espionage and fall in love with a man like Marco at the same time. The love story is an aspect truly lacking in the film. Portraying a side character, as the trusted friend of Marco named Luis, Leo Carrillo falls right in line with another stereotype latin character he was known for. Regardless of playing a character more like a Mexican, his character is the most ethnic of all the actors, all of which are suppose to Spanish, but are unavoidably American. Carrillo plays mainly as a small comic relief and deliverers of small snippets of very important information when needed. His character might be the best written part in all of this dull scripted story.

What makes Blockade so interesting is the time period the film was made. The Spanish Civil War was still very much raging on and this film does its best to mask taking sides in an America that was meant to be neutral. The armies and politics in the movie are all very shrouded, never naming sides other than “Us” and “Them.” The uniforms are very plain with no distinctive markings and not political beliefs are stated for either side in the film. However with the lightly trained eye and ear it is easy to see the anti-fascist views of the story. With the rise of fascism in Europe, including Spain, Italy, and most notably Germany, and with Americans being very much on the fence with ideas of what was right and wrong in the global affairs, Blockade was all the makings of a doomed picture.

With controversy surrounded the film even before its release, the grand premiere set to take place at the famous Grauman’s Chinese Theater was suddenly cancelled. The picture would be a lost cause, losing over $100,000 and make no real stir in the cinematic world. Years later Blockade would be used as evidence against fascism during the witch hunts that took place in Hollywood during the time directly after WWII entering the Cold War.

Blockade is one of those few pictures that had very little impact on the film industry or the nation, but would serve as an excellent footnote to the events surrounding important global events of the period. Cinematically overlooked for rather good reasons, it still makes for an appealing watch for those looking to see what the world was going through at that uncetain time.

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