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DVD SAVANT

Blockade


Blockade
Image Entertainment
1938 / B&W / 1:37 flat / 85 min. / Street Date December 3, 2002 / $24.99
Starring Madeleine Carroll, Henry Fonda, Leo Carrillo, John Halliday, Vladimir Sokoloff, Robert Warwick, Reginald Denny
Cinematography Rudolph Maté
Art Direction Alexander Toluboff
Film Editor Walter Reynolds, Dorothy Spencer
Original Music Werner Janssen, Ann Ronell, Kurt Weill
Written by John Howard Lawson and James M. Cain
Produced by Walter Wanger
Directed by William Dieterle

Preview Review by Glenn Erickson

Savant has a curiosity factor in deciding the films he wants to review for this column. Blockade is a title I could not resist, not because it was supposed to be good, but because of its status as a famous propaganda effort and its later relationship to the HUAC witch hunts. This is one of the key films the Commie-baters quoted when they accused its writer of being a Stalinist 'plant', ringleading an effort to inject anti-American content into Hollywood product. If such was the case John Howard Lawson, one of the original Hollywood Ten, didn't do a very good job; filmed during the Spanish Civil War to motivate Americans to act against Fascism, Blockade is devoid of Red sentiment and except for some awkwardly direct pleading, doesn't make a political case at all, just a vague emotional one.

Synopsis (with spoilers):

Cosmopolitan Norma (Madeleine Carroll) meets Spanish farmer Marco (Henry Fonda) when her ritzy motorcar breaks down. When war comes to the province Marco becomes an officer charged with the responsibility of rooting out spies for the Fascists. He tries to arrest Norma's father (Vladimir Sokoloff), a profiteer working in concert with the oily Andre Gallinet (John Halliday). The old man pulls a gun, and Marco kills him. Norma refuses to cooperate and Marco lets her go free, an act he later regrets when the costal city is blockaded by Fascist submarines, and starvation sets in. Seeing children suffering, Norma finally tries to make things right but is thwarted by General Vallejo (Robert Warwick), a traitor still profiting with Gallinet by foiling relief efforts. A trick by Marco's faithful friend Luis (Leo Carillo) sees one relief ship making it through the blockade, and Marco and Norma are saved at the last minute when the real traitors are finally unmasked.

Henry Fonda was said to be left-leaning and sympathetic to the Republicans in Spain, so perhaps he was eager to lend his name to this openly anti-Fascist appeal. There wasn't much precedent for this kind of thing as in 1938 a resolutely isolationist attitude held America in a grip that the moguls of Hollywood didn't yet want to disturb. Offending these Fascist regimes would mean losing their European distribution markets.

Blockade is an okay thriller that makes an emotional appeal but doesn't begin to make a rational case against the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War. We hear no talk of Franco or politics and simply learn that 'an invading enemy' has threatened virtuous Marco's province using obscene terror technology. Bombing civilians from the air simply to raise havoc was an innovation instigated almost as a research effort by Franco's German 'advisors'. Starvation tactics, surely a preferred method of War since before Christ, are used as the Fascists cut off sections of the country. In 1938, isolationists in America and Britain used legal arguments to avoid involvemnt -- fighting Fascism in Spain was difficult to justify to the electorate when the opposition was heavily populated with Communists, Socialists and Soviet advisors.

None of this is addressed by Blockade, which concerns itself with a little fairy tale about 'international adventuress' Madeleine Carroll (of The 39 Steps fame). She blithely follows her crook pop and his verminous partner around the world, profiting from subversion and deceit without knowing the precise details, yet aware that something's up. It doesn't do the story much good for her to allow the Evil partner to continue starving the populace, when all she need do is turn him in to noble soldier Marco.

Then there's the issue of the blockade, in which someone is tipping off the submarines (manned by curious sailors from some indefinite country, certainly not Germany) that torpedo the relief ships.  1 Curious plot machinations follow. Madeleine tips off Marco (who doesn't trust her) that she's going to give misleading information to the traitors. Marco follows and fouls things up by arresting the group before she can undo their mischief. Why didn't she foil the evil plot first, and then go tell Marco about it?

Sadly, the ending of Blockade plays almost like a Saturday Night Live skit. When the city is saved and the traitors dealt with (this film has an unhealthy Stalinist eagerness to eliminate reactionary traitors) Fonda turns to the camera as if in a Bertolt Brecht play, and shouts out a demand that decent people come to Spain's aid. Which Spain? The film has scarcely identified which side is which.

Henry Fonda is committed to his part, but as written Marco is a fairly dull noble peasant sort with just a sidekick in Leo Carillo and no family in sight. His group of patriots adopts a an orphaned baby. As the film is made in Hollywood, director William Dieterle has imbued it with a slick direction that can't disguise the phoniness of it all -- the stagebound landscapes, the central-casting peasants. Mexican-Americans and various Europeans stand in for the Spaniards, and of course no Spanish is heard. If John Howard Lawson and producer Walter Wanger wanted to raise money for Spain, they'd have done better showing a docu like Spanish Earth and passing a hat. Blockade can't do much for public opinion because Americans watching it don't learn anything about the Civil War, or what it might mean to them.

Just a season later, when Hitler's aggression was acknowledged by all, Hollywood came out of the political closet and began releasing some still-controversial anti-Fascist movies. Walter Wanger and Alfred Hitchcock made one of the best, Foreign Correspondent, turning a light-hearted spy romp into a serious call to arms. Joel McCrea's plea for America to 'ring itself with steel' as bombs fall on London, is 50 times more stirring than Henry Fonda's blurted speech at the end of Blockade.

The Allies always felt less affinity for the Soviet Union than they let on; even during the war, there were voices that said that German Fascism was the only weapon that could stop Stalin. For a while, American Communists like John Howard Lawson were tolerated as 'premature anti-Fascists', a horrifying 1984 -like phrase that cynically acknowledges that political stances are relative, flexible.

Horror fans will want to see a scene where Lupita Tovar, of the Spanish version of Drácula (1931), plays a cabaret señorita who reads Leo Carrillo's palm.


Image's DVD of Blockade is a clean, good quality copy of the film from Castle Hill, an outfit that apparently owns all rights to it now. Like many daring and original independent Hollywood productions, this was originally a United Artists release. The sound is solid and the picture very good, if perhaps a tiny bit light. There are no extras, just the cautious copy on the package-back that avoids the political context in which the film was produced. I was curious to see what the key 'Commie Conspiracy' film was like, the one that was supposedly subverting American values. Like Dalton Trumbo's Tender Comrade, there's not much ammunition here for the Red-Baiters. But they never needed evidence, just accusations.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Blockade rates:
Movie: Good --
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: none
Packaging: reviewed from check disc
Reviewed: November 25, 2002


Footnote:

1. Info from reader Thomas Casten, 5.17.05: Dear Glenn, Italian submarines disavowed by official Italy did indeed sink ships bound for Republican ports until the British and French made it known that their fleets would treat such vessels as pirates. Best regards, Thomas W. Casten

Web Article on the details of Spanish Civil War
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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