Monday, April 09, 2018

Blockade - 1938 - Henry Fonda

The film Blockade from 1938 is more interesting for the politics around it than for the film itself which some 78 years later feels very antiquated, theatrical, stilted and didactic. It was unusual for Hollywood of the 1930’s to be political when it came to events that were going on in Europe due to the potential loss of profits if the film was banned and also because of the power of the Isolationist lobby back home. Blockade broke all the rules as it tells the story of a Republican territory holding out against the Nationalists under Franco. In it Henry Fonda plays a simple peasant who takes up arms to defend his land against the Nationalists and Madeline Carroll (39 Steps) is a spy for the other side. Naturally they fall in love. The Nationalists have enforced a blockade and the people are starving.

There is no doubt which side the filmmakers are on as the film goes from speech to speech and hungry face to hungry face. One of the great independent producers of that time, Walter Wanger had this to say when told that making such a controversial film would lose money "Not only do we meekly take intimidation from abroad, but we jump obediently when almost anybody in this country says, 'Frog!' It's ridiculous, and I, for one, don't intend to continue. I'm going to release this Spanish picture as is, and if it's banned in Europe, I'll have to take my loss." Now the film never explicitly identifies either side but there isn’t a bit of doubt who the bad guys are.

The scriptwriter was John Howard Lawson, one of the openly Communist writers in Hollywood at the time and he throws a lot of the political jargon in this film in the mouth of Fonda. Later he was to be one of the Hollywood Ten and was blacklisted after the war. Some of his other screen credits are Algiers, Sahara and after being blacklisted Cry, the Beloved Country under an alias. Director William Dieterle didn’t fare much better. After a very successful career, he was as he said “gray listed” because of his involvement with Blockade and after the House UnAmerican Committee (HUAC) hearings the job offerings slowed down and he was forced to move back to the country of his birth Germany to get work. Rather ironical isn't it. Going to Germany to be free to do his work.

I wish I could say it was a better film, but it is not that good. Still Henry Fonda gets to give a speech at the end of the film that was perhaps an audition for Grapes of Wrath two years later. Sadly in 1939 the Republicans were to be defeated by the Fascists. Over 30,000 Republicans were executed.

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