US / 84 minutes / bw / Walter Wanger Productions, United Artists Dir: William Dieterle Pr: Walter Wanger Scr: John Howard Lawson, with James M. Cain and Clifford Odets (both uncredited) Cine: Rudolph Maté Cast: Madeleine Carroll, Henry Fonda, Leo Carrillo, John Halliday, Reginald Denny, Vladimir Sokoloff, Robert Warwick, Fred Kohler Sr, Carlos De Valdez, Peter Godfrey, Nick Thompson, Rosina Galli, Wm. B. Davidson, Lupita Tovar, Katherine DeMille, George Byron.
It’s Spring 1936 in rural Spain. Marco (Fonda) and Luis (Carrillo) are peasant farmers, devoted to the land; they’re the best of friends, even though Marco is ambitious and go-getting, hoping to improve his lot, while Luis is never happier than when lounging on a grass bank, swilling the local red and regaling his flock of sheep with music on his fipple flute. (His fingering doesn’t match the sounds we hear, but what the heck.)
Into their lives one day comes Norma (Carroll), whose car veers off the road as she tries to avoid a convoy of women, children and cattle. Marco and Luis help her complete her journey to Castelmare, where she’s due to meet her father, Basil (Sokoloff). En route, Marco and Norma fall in love, but both realize there’s no future in it . . .
Norma and her father, supposedly art/antiquities dealers, are in fact spies, working with creepy Andre Gallinet (Halliday) for whichever side will pay the most—which right now, as the Spanish Civil War gears up, appears to be the fascist insurgents. Marco, because of a heroic act, is suddenly made a lieutenant in the loyalist army. When Basil, Norma’s father, pulls a gun on him, he shoots the man dead.
Clearly this is set to be a star-crossed romance.
Vomitogenic Gallinet blackmails Norma into betraying the patriots who’re starving in the blockaded town of Castelmare—starving because, every time a food ship comes their way, the fascists’ submarines sink it. She and her confederates are caught by Marco and his soldiers but, while Vallejo (Warwick), the Commissioner of Public Safety, has the others summarily executed, he spares Norma. It takes our heroes a little too long to realize why . . .
Blockade both has its heart in the right place and wears its heart on its sleeve: hearts everywhere, eh? It speaks out very strongly against what was then a supposedly new war technique, the mass slaughter of civilians; it was a message that’d very soon be forgotten by all sides in World War II. It’s horror over the way the civilians of Castelmare—men, women, children—are being made to pay through their starvation for a political struggle in which they really have no interest that drives Norma to renounce her mercenary ways . . . that and her desire to keep yuckster Gallinet’s clammy mitts off her.
In its portrayal of the cruelty of the blockade, or siege, as a military weapon, the movie’s an undoubted propaganda success. I have no idea how effective it was in conveying this message back in 1938, a time when many Americans thought Adolf Hitler was rather a good egg. It took me a little while to work out which side Marco was fighting on: this may have been a deliberate move, so as not to alienate the fascists in the audience while trying to get through to the US public that what was happening in Spain, the mass murder directed against the innocent, was maybe a bad thing.
Viewing the movie today, however, involves running smack-bang into a few brick walls. One of these concerns some dreadful acting from Fonda, of all people: earlyish in the movie he blubs over the peasant farmers leaving “our land” with all the conviction of a toddler discovering his diaper isn’t as dry as he’d thought; I’d have forgiven Fonda that, but then there’s a similarly overwrought final speech to the camera.
As for Carroll, alas she too has a moment or two of risible hammery.
In sum, while I respect enormously Blockade’s effort to awaken the American public to the horrors of the Spanish Civil War—horrors of which they were probably largely unaware despite the best efforts of international figures like Pablo Picasso—I did have difficulties with the movie itself. Ironically, most of those concerned Fonda, normally a favorite actor of mine.
There’s a nice support role from Reginald Denny as Brit journalist Eddie, sent to Spain to report on the strife and finding himself (who wouldn’t?) attracted to Norma. Or maybe he’s gay and just likes her: that’d work as well.