The 1936 action/romance A Message to Garcia is an effective, if somewhat laconic, chase picture set during the Spanish-American War. Based partially on a true incident from the conflict, the film stars John Boles as Lt. Andrew Rowan, a volunteer for a dangerous mission to break through enemy lines and deliver a message of support to the head of the Cuban resistance. There, Boles meets his future Stella Dallas co-star, Barbara Stanwyck. She plays Raphaelita Maderos, the daughter of a rancher who has lost everything to the Spanish. She, along with a dastardly smuggler by the name of Dory (Wallace Beery), lead the American soldier through the jungle in search of General Garcia. On their heels is the mercenary Dr. Ivan Krug (Alan Hale, It Happened One Night). His goal is to stop them from getting through, because the Spanish believe, should Garcia never find out that President McKinley is on his side, the rebellion will fall.
A Message to Garcia was released just before the Hayes Code was about to start showing its teeth, and the lack of censorship shows in some of the film's more violent sequences. There is plenty of gunplay, and with it comes gruesome results. There is also a rather harsh torture sequence after Rowan accidentally stumbles into Krug's capture. The added degree of peril doesn't mean that A Message to Garcia is necessarily any more realistic, but it's certainly grittier than the war movies that would soon follow in the 1940s. The action also saves A Message to Garcia from being a total drag. Director George Marshall doesn't quite have the knack for pacing that would make his later genre efforts, including the western Destry Rides Again (and later the unrelated Destry) and the noir classic The Blue Dahlia, far more memorable.
It's the performers that keep A Message to Garcia interesting, moreso than the plot. There is decent chemistry between Boles and Stanwyck, though the burgeoning starlet was already shining brighter than her leading man. That special X-factor that allowed her to command the camera's full attention whenever she is on screen is already apparent, even in a part that is slightly underwritten. It's actually Beery who makes for a better foil to Stanwyck's tough gal routine. The star of The Champ (as well as non-existent wrestling pictures written by Barton Fink) plays a real scoundrel in this one. Dory is a deserter who has been playing both sides of the conflict, selling defective ammo to the Cubans and the Spaniards alike. No one trusts him, least of all Raphaelita, but Beery's natural bearish charm makes you want to keep following him around, fingers crossed that the jerk will actually turn out all right.
There's not much else to A Message to Garcia. It's really just a movie where the hero rushes from Point A to Point B, encountering certain obstacles along the way, some of which contribute to the main plot, some of which don't. (The scene where Rowan and Dory fight off alligators is wholly superfluous, and completely clumsy when viewed now.) It's the kind of thing you might catch on cable and kill an evening watching without feeling too bad about it, but it may not be something you want to go out of your way to track down on DVD, particularly given the poor quality of this release. But more on that below...
Note, too, how in all of my screengrabs, there is a static line running along the very bottom of the frame. This is in the entire movie, though more evident in some scenes than others.