Movie Review: Blockade (1938)
“Blockade,” the only Hollywood feature film about the Spanish Civil War to be released during the Spanish Civil War, has been called an espionage thriller and a romance, but it’s really a “Whose Side Are You On?” movie. Will Norma, the once-wealthy Russian art dealer (Madeleine Carroll of “The 39 Steps”), come over to the side of Marco, the simple farmer/soldier played by Henry Fonda? Or will she betray his cause for the security and power of Andre Gallinet (a delicious John Halliday)?
We know the answer. And not just because the screenplay was written by John Howard Lawson, head of the Hollywood division of the American Communist Party.
Despite that lineage, by the way, “Blockade” has been whitewashed of almost every political reference. Civil war? The enemy seems external rather than internal. Spain? Never mentioned. So Hollywood’s great Spanish Civil War movie doesn’t mention Spain or a civil war. Yet The Knights of Columbus still considered it communist propaganda and picketed theaters. Here’s a snippet of the review from Catholic News, via Thomas Doherty’s book “Hollywood and Hitler: 1933-1939":
The Trojan horse is dragged within the walls! It’s a plea for peace, but peace at the Reds’ price!
Instead we got war at the fascists' price: about 50 million lives, more or less.
Oxen Express to Castlemar
The movie opens with Fonda as the poet/peasant Marco speaking with his friend Luis (Leo Carrillo), who is lazier and strumming a guitar, about the glory of farming and the beauty of the earth. “This belongs to us, Luis, and nothing can take it from us,” he says. Then bombs fall, villagers flee, but Marco rallies everyone: “No, we’ve always lived in this valley! ... This is our land!” and turns the tide. It also sets up a stalemate, and the titular blockade.
Marco and Norma meet cute before the bombs. She crashes her car, and Marco and Luis tow it for her to Castlemar—Luis on the oxen, Marco in the passenger’s seat. He flirts with her, quotes Byron. She says with a light laugh, “I’ve traveled on the Rome Express and the Orient Express but nothing can compare to the Oxen Express to Castlemar. I’ll never forget it.” He (enraptured as only Henry Fonda can be enraptured) respoinds, without a trace of a laugh, “I won’t, either.”
His early battle heroics make him a lieutenant on the good side, where he’s forced to wear a cloth cap with absurd tassel while ferreting out traitors. And it's not just him. We see a sign hanging in a bar:
DO NOT DISCUSS MILITARY MATTERS WITH STRANGERS
BEWARE OF SPIES
One of those is Norma’s father, who tries to trick Marco with the gun-in-the-shoe ploy, but Marco drops the old man. Norma discovers the body, and the killer, and the two lovers are distraught. At one point she gives this speech, which isn't a bad speech:
I was born in the Russian Revolution. My mother was killed with me in her arms in front of my father’s eyes. He took me to Budapest. There were guns in the streets and men marching. We escaped at night. China, South America, back to Shanghai. You think you’re fighting for your country but I know better, because I never had a country. My father followed any flag for the danger of it. [Pause] I never know how old and gray he was until I saw him die. He wanted a house and a garden. But that’s finished. You finished it. With one little bullet.
That’s much of the movie: He’s in love but a good soldier; she’s in love but he killed her father. Plus Andre Gallinet is so much more interesting.
Norma turns to the good side less for Fonda than for starving children and the women who lost them. Then she and Marco flush the rats from high places.
Happy ending? Not quite.
The conscience of the world
The bad guys are caught, sure, but the war goes on; and Marco, in classic Henry Fonda fashion, condemns it all in a Big Speech:
Our country's been turned into a battlefield! There’s no safety for old people and children. Women can't keep their families safe in their houses, they can't be safe in their own fields! Churches, schools, hospitals are targets! It's not war. War is between soldiers! It's murder! Murder of innocent people! There's no sense to it. The world can stop it. Where's the conscience of the world?
This last sentence, the last line of the film, is spoken less to other characters than to the camera—to us. That’s Lawson at his most strident, and he’s definitely getting at something, but it’s hardly the propaganda the Knights of Columbus made it out to be. Every anti-Fascist message isn't a pro-communist message. As itself, the movie is about defending your homeland. Ideology doesn’t factor in. And God and churches are plentiful. Even Joseph Breen, the Hays Office censor, thought the protests were a little cracked. “I have also heard from a number of Catholics,” he wrote to a co-censor, Father Lord, “many of them priests, who write and ask, ‘What is all of the shouting about?’”
In the end, “Blockade” lost money, the Fascists won Spain, and Generalissimo Francisco Franco ruled until 1975, when his death became a running joke on “Saturday Night Live.” Meanwhile, the movie’s producer, Walter Wanger, a longtime proponent of liberal causes, sold out his communist screenwriter, Lawson, not to mention the rest of the Hollywood 10, in a 1947 meeting before the Screenwriters Guild. Where’s the conscience of the world? Right about there.
The conscience of the world.