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A film about the Spanish Civil War made and released while the conflict was still raging, Blockade (1938) was quite controversial in its day. It was protested as leftist propaganda in some quarters, condemned by the Catholic Church, and even banned in some American cities (all of which helped it at the box office, of course). Even in Spain, Franco's army protested the movie, threatening to ban it and all future Walter Wanger-produced films. Wanger responded: "Regardless of threatened reprisals I will not change my picture. Blockade does not take sides in the Spanish Civil War."
Indeed, most of the critical knocks against Blockade were that it didn't even identify the sides. The enemy is never actually named in the film, and many critics and observers complained that the story was far too mild to be worth all the controversy. Variety, for instance, called it "distinctive, different and provocative... but misses any claim to greatness because it pulls its punches....Occasional flashes of anger against the stupidity of war [but] doesn't stay mad enough to arouse audience indignation." And The New York Times was equally blasé: "Mr. Wanger's film of Spain, with its temperate appeal to the conscience of the world to stop the bombing of civilian populations, seems to be mild enough a protest against wholesale murder."
Blockade's plot follows a peasant farmer (Henry Fonda) who loses his land and joins the Loyalist forces in their fight against Franco's army, eventually becoming involved with a beautiful woman (Madeleine Carroll) who turns out to be a spy. Since the United States government had not taken sides in the conflict, none of the Hollywood studios were interested in producing Blockade, for fear of offending sensitivities on either side. But independent producer Walter Wanger had the passion and the freedom to take it on, not to mention the ability to enlist top technicians (such as director William Dieterle and cinematographer Rudolph Mate) and top actors. The film was released through United Artists and turned a small profit. Even Wanger, however, had to struggle to even get some degree of moral outrage up on the screen; despite his above-quoted response to Franco, he had already softened the film from his original vision.
Hollywood may not have produced the film but it did take notice of it, rewarding it with two Oscar® nominations -- for Best Original Story and Best Original Score. It lost to Boys Town (1938) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), respectively.
Time has been kinder to Blockade. Respected film historian William K. Everson defended the picture, calling it in his 1985 New School program notes "one of THE most maligned films of the later thirties, especially as it was made at a time when pressure groups were rampant, the Production Code was imposing stifling restrictions, and Hollywood was geared to turning out escapism rather than 'serious' films."
Addressing the vagueness of the warring sides in the movie, Everson wrote, "Its failure to identify the two sides in the conflict does possibly make the film a trifle confusing at times today. But not so in 1938: since it was considered a major testing ground for fascism, the Spanish Civil War was covered extensively not only for its news value but also in political editorials. Even without television, people were well-informed about the issues of the war at the time, and could bring that knowledge to the film with them.
"The remarkable thing is that is was MADE: by a producer frequently willing to tackle controversial material, by a director of considerable prestige, and clearly with the intent of arousing outrage on the part of the viewers. It has been most maligned by latter-day critics who look back not realizing the difficulties of the times in which it was made, and also have a convenient political scapegoat in [screenwriter] John Howard Lawson, later identified as one of Hollywood's foremost Communist writers... However, Fonda's final direct appeal to the audience is an emotional one, an appeal for reason and help. It is certainly not a political let alone a Communist statement; yet that scene...is largely responsible for the film (in later years) being cited as an example of insidious propaganda!"
Everson also noted that the film's plot is "a direct descendant of both Pabst's silent The Love of Jeanne Ney (1927) and Lewis Milestone's The General Died at Dawn (1936), with the links reinforced by the presence of Vladimir Sokoloff in two of the three films, and by Madeleine Carroll playing virtually the same role in the two American films."
Madeleine Carroll, incidentally, owed much to Walter Wanger for resuscitating and even guiding her Hollywood career. Carroll had first come to America from the U.K. in 1934, acting in John Ford's The World Moves On (1934), but as Wanger told a newspaper in 1936, she "hadn't remained long enough to find her proper place. Knowing she was unhappy about what she found here, but assured that she was a cultured and beautiful woman, and possessed splendid diction and well above the average amount of acting talent, I went to England and persuaded her to give Hollywood another chance." By that point, she had starred in the sensational Hitchcock classic The 39 Steps (1935). Wanger brought her back and cast her in The Case Against Mrs. Ames (1936), and then good roles followed in such films as The General Died at Dawn and The Prisoner of Zenda (1937).
Producer: Walter Wanger
Director: William Dieterle
Screenplay: John Howard Lawson (writer); James M. Cain (additional dialogue); Clifford Odets (uncredited)
Cinematography: Rudolph Mate
Art Direction: Alexander Toluboff
Music: Werner Janssen
Film Editing: Walter Reynolds, Dorothy Spencer
Cast: Madeleine Carroll (Norma), Henry Fonda (Marco), Leo Carrillo (Luis), John Halliday (Andre Gallinet), Vladimir Sokoloff (Basil, Norma's Father), Robert Warwick (General Vallejo), Reginald Denny (Edward Grant), Peter Godfrey (Magician), William B. Davidson (Commandant), Katherine DeMille (Cabaret Girl).
by Jeremy Arnold