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(I should preface this review with the fact that I watched this movie Sunday morning, and I’ve worked two nearly consecutive shifts since then so I apologize if my recollections of this film are less than pristine)

A military “epic” from the late 1930s sounds like a recipe for disaster to me. It’s an opinion I’ve long held, but with the exception of foreign films and film noir, I find most of the dramatic cinematic output of the pre-1960s era to be laughable at best (clearly there are exceptions like Rebel Without a Cause or The Searchers, but generally, I stand by my assertion), and 1938’s Blockade barely qualifies as a good film. The acting is often overwrought (though by turn intriguingly sensitive). The script hinges on one too many improbable coincidences, and it has all the flawed trappings of the melodramas of its time. But, despite all that, I found myself drawn into William Dieterle’s Spanish Civil War drama.

Perhaps it’s the film’s merciful length which miniaturized the epic to a manageable 90 minutes, but Blockade rarely saddled itself with its weak points for long enough for them to be too bothersome, and when it worked, it created interesting clashes with what I associate as the typical convention of late 30s Production Code era Hollywood storytelling. Thanks in no part to the by turns hammy and then deceptively sensitive performance from Henry Fonda, Blockade wormed its way into my heart and though I doubt I’ll give much thought to this tale a month from now, while it lasted I genuinely cared about the fates of its heroes.

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On the eve of the Spanish Civil War (whose politics are not even remotely discussed. it is, in fact, difficult to tell which side of the war that our hero ultimately fights for), simple peasant farmer Marco (The Longest Day‘s Henry Fonda) encounters the beautiful and mysterious Norma (Madeleine Carroll) whose car crashes into Marco’s oxen cart. Marco gives her a lift back to the nearest town not knowing that Norma is a Russian spy working for the force in the war that Marco ultimately opposes. As the war begins, Marco and the other farmers are fleeing their land when Marco finally has enough and rallies the men to form a military defense of their homes.

Afterwards, Marco becomes a high-ranking officer in the resistance (though, yet again, it’s really unclear what he’s resisting and who he’s fighting though maybe less subtlety was needed in 1938 to get across the facts of a then semi-recent war). And, Norma, her father, and another Russian spy work to undermine the resistance by blowing up a ship bringing relief to the blockaded Spanish city of Castelmare. However, after Marco kills her father, Norma begins to realize the error of her ways, and unless she can atone for her past misdeeds, the entire city of Castelmare will starve and the war will be lost.

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This is the earliest Henry Fonda film I’ve ever seen, and I was bowled over by how much he looks like a cross between Willem Dafoe and Jack Lemmon. Watch this movie and til me I’m wrong. I was also impressed by how his performance seemed far more sensitive and less outwardly masculilne than many of his contemporary peers. Here was a man that was clearly a model for later sensitive stars like James Dean and Montgomery Clift. In the bigger dramatic moments, he generally couldn’t find the emotional subtlety that he displayed in the quieter, more emotional scenes, but when he hit the right notes, I was very impressed. I now owe it to myself to watch the rest of Fonda’s early repertoire (as I feel I’m sorely uneducated in the career of Henry Fonda).

I’ll draw this review to a close. I want to play Assassin’s Creed 3 for a bit, and maybe get around to watching the Daniel Day-Lewis movie I’ve had at home from Netflix for nearly a month now (I tried to watch it on Netflix Instant a month ago, but everyone’s Irish accents were so thick that I couldn’t understand a word and I realized I needed subtitles). So, I’ll leave you with this note. Blockade is a melodramatic, ultimately forgettable relic of 1930s cinema, and other than hardcore Henry Fonda fans, it is nowhere near required viewing. But, for a simple cat-and-mouse spy story and a tale of man’s convictions in a war, it will pass 93 minutes with enjoyment.

Final Score: B-

 

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