Blockade (1938): Political Thriller Starring Henry Fonda

Blockade, Producer Walter Wanger’s film, was the first Hollywood feature to deal “seriously” with the Spanish Civil War.  Typically though, the sides of the conflict, the Loyalists or the Republicans, were not named.

Well-intentioned but severely flawed as a realistic drama, “Blockade” was a sincere anti-war film.  Henry Fonda is well cast as a young peace-loving farmer named Marco, who decides to take up arms to defend his land.  Unfortunately, the movie is contrived and marred by a romantic intrigue, when Marco fall for the beautiful Madeleine Carroll, as an unwilling secret agent for the side that bombs civilians.

Essentially a routine spy melodrama, the picture benefited from Wanger’s known leftist ideological inclinations.  At the time, it was considered a courageous and controversial statement about democratic ideals and the threat posed by fascism, even if the fascists weren’t directly identified.  Like other message movies, “Blockade” ends with Fonda delivering a long ideological monologue, denouncing war.

Howard Barnes represented many critics when he wrote in the New York Herald Tribune: “The film is badly out of focus with a romantic spy story thrown up against the terrifying realities of the Spanish Civil War.  Moreover, it works so hard to maintain a reportedly impartial view of that conflict that it is constantly being drained of dramatic power.”

“Blockade” created a furor among Nazi-ruled countries, where it was banned.  Even in the U.S., the movie was picketed in some cities.  As a result, the film was not a box office hit.

Wanger was not deterred by pre-release threats, asserting: “Not only do we in Hollywood meekly take intimidation from aboard, 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.”

 

It’s too bad that “Blockade” didn’t succeed in being the stirring, impassioned film it meant to be—despite Wanger’s intent and the decent direction of William Dieterle, who is better known for the “The Story of Louis Pasteur” and the Oscar-winning “The Life of Emile Zola.”

It’s interesting to note that during McCarthy’s political witch-hunting,  Dieterle’s passport was confiscated in 1951 and then again in 1953, even though he was never charged directly with anything.

Oscar Alert

Oscar Nominations: 2

Original Story: John Howard Lawson
Original Score: Werner Janssen

Oscar Award

The Original Story Oscar went to Eeanore Griffin and Dore Schary for “Boys Town.”  Erich Wolfgang Korngold won the Scoring Oscar for the Errol Flynn vehicle, “The Asventures of Robin Hood.”

Cast:

Madeleine Carroll

Henry Fonda

Leo Carrillo

John Halliday

Vladimir Sokoloff

Robert Warwick

Reginald Denny

Peter Godfrey

Katherine de Mille

William Davidson

Fred Kohler

Carlos de Valdez

Nick Thompson

George Houston

Lupita Tovar

Rosina Galli

 

Credits:

Produced by Walter Wanger.

Directed by William Dieterle.

Screenplay by John Howard Lawson.

Release date: June 16, 1938