The Blockhouse (1973)
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This is a tough film to watch. It's scary to imagine it happening. And there are good, good performances by the crew involved. I saw it because of Peter Sellers- I came away realizing this movie is stolen by the whole cast and I wish it would be seen more and appreciated. This is a film I think Alec Guinness would have appreciated.
I guess its grade should be 3 stars.
The film has an interesting premise, but trying to cram six years of action into 90 minutes is beyond the ability of the director and writers. It becomes very episodic, starting with a decent amount of set-up, followed by what more or less amounts to a series of death scenes. The story is certainly tragic, but it feels like Cliff's Notes on celluloid. I'm going to try to find the book.
This was probably Stanley Myers's easiest film to score, since it only called for an opening and closing bit with only a couple of instruments. The lack of music throughout underscores the claustrophobic atmosphere of the "dungeon." The sound and picture quality of the DVD available from Netflix (in 2010) leave much to be desired. If you enjoy dark, depressing, hopeless stories, this should be in your top ten.
The film features seven slave laborers in World War II France who find themselves trapped deep in an underground chamber when their German position is bombed and shelled in preparation for D-Day. There is no escape for these men; they must bide their time eating and drinking from the ample provisions left by the German Army, do their best not to get on each other's nerves, and hope for a miracle.
The film stars Peter Sellers, though he is only a first among equals here and certainly not to be watched for his comic prowess. Playing a teacher named Rouquet, he has a light moment trying to teach dominos to the others, but for the most part stares bleakly at the walls as a heavy beard grows on his face. Sellers is completely convincing in his part, but it is less a character than a construct. Rouquet is the voice of hope whose point in the story is being stilled.
The other main character, and the only one that catches your notice, is Jeremy Kemp's Grabinski, a rational man who realizes before anyone else the hopelessness of the situation but who tries to make things bearable for his comrades. His exchanges with Rouquet playing games reflects the hope/no hope dichotomy.
"I think you'll lose," Grabinski tells Roquet during the dominos demonstration.
"How can you possibly tell I'll lose when I'm teaching you this game?" Roquet replies.
"Never mind," Grabinski shrugs.
The whole movie is like that, unconnected vignettes between the trapped men that strive at some greater purpose without advancing anything resembling a plot. Director/co-writer Clive Rees seems to be trying to go for a Pinder or Beckett thing with the sparse dialogue and hopeless situation. But too much bleakness keeps us distant from the characters and their situation.
As calamities pile up, like the suicide of one of the men and the arrival of winter, it's all you can do to register their pain. You don't have any sense of who these people might be, however good a job Kemp, Sellers, and the other actors do. And they do good work all around, including the legendary French singer Charles Aznavour as a tough scrapper named Visconti and Swedish notable Per Oscarsson as the brooding Lund. With their beards and grimy faces, and their believable, seemingly improvised acting, they pull you into their horrible situation easily enough. But the film lets them down in terms of having anything more to say than life is hell.
Don't be fooled by the 90-minute running time: This is a long movie to sit through, tough to follow with choppy editing that seems to kill off one character twice while two others disappear without explanation. Characters say little to one another, and when they do speak it is often pitched so low one can barely hear it. The visual design leans heavily on the dark surroundings to the point where the only print available today screens like an oil spill.
This is a movie I wouldn't watch once if it wasn't for Sellers, and can't recommend even to his fans. If you like bleak movies, you may feel otherwise, but whatever your mindset I doubt you will have any more success figuring out what is happening than I did.
This is one of the best movies ever made, and should be shown every Memorial Day. The 88 minute masterpiece puts you there on D-Day, and leaves you there while men contemplate the nature and value of life. Those who survived to tell the tale must not be forgotten. As the credits roll, the viewer is reminded that it was a true story. The line between fictional cinema and reality melts away, and the viewer is left stunned by the realization that the story actually happened, and it was not some Stanley Kubrick fantasy.
One must go back to War Films in general for a long long time just to discover such a unique film presentation. I consider this to be totally riveting...though my copy was "grainy" and soundtrack was not up to par by my standards. I have an original VHS copy only. BUT, this film shines like a diamond in the rough so to speak. The men portrayed must have had tons of fortitude...or a belief system that belies more than basic survival. Great Flick.
Fantastic performances all round, but god, what a depressing movie. For those who get to the end of this film heartened by the strength of human endeavour as two men survive seven years of total isolation including three years of total darkness, please note that on discovery - the shock of the light killed one instantly, and the lone survivor died three days later. Depressing indeed.
For a really interesting perspective on Seller's appearance and performance in such a bleak movie, I'd like to recommend Roger Lewis' verbose yet illuminating biography "The Life and Death of Peter Sellers". By the time you have finished it you're easily persuaded that seven years solitary is far less than Sellers deserved!
The film starts off during D-Day. A group of laborers conscripted by the Nazis have taken shelter from the bombings in what turns out to be a German supply depot. Soon after, one of the bombs hits--sealing them in at about 100 feet below ground. To make things worse, the walls are seemingly impregnable. But, on the positive side, there are tons and tons of supplies--candles, foods and wine. And, because air inexplicably makes it inside the shelter (which, oddly, the men really did not investigate further for a very long time), they survive there for years AFTER the war has ended. In fact, almost the entirety of the film consists of watching the men coping with these claustrophobic subterranean conditions...and then, slowly dying off one after another!! Then, they continue in darkness for four more dreadful years--thankfully, though, this part is skipped in the film but explained in a super-depressing epilogue. It's supposed to be a true story about perseverance but the story seems completely made up--and I could find nothing on the internet to verify that this story ever actually occurred. Plus, I don't want to see such a story, thank you very much. It was just dreadful, depressing and awful. Sure, the acting was generally pretty good, but that alone is NOT enough reason to watch this film. Life is too short to watch films like this.
By the way, although I said I saw it because of Sellers, he was NOT the entire film--just one of several characters. Those who praise only his performance seem to be forgetting the work of the rest of these very capable actors.
I loved the way Seller's character towards the end of the film made the best use of the precious remaining lighting. Because they were in a underground bunker, there was no light except what they could burn, and they were eventually running out of things that would burn.
I saw this originally on local cable years ago, and have searched and searched to find a copy to buy or rent to no avail. If you ever have the chance to see this, do not pass it by.
Imagine spending the last six years of your life underground - Now consider spending four years of those years in total, complete darkness.
Had this film been released now in the 21st Century it would have surely have received the appreciation it truly deserved.