Sunday, 1 November 2015

No.89 - Peter Sellers - THE BLOCKHOUSE (1973)


(2008 Hollywood Classics Ltd DVD release)

1973 was a remarkably varied year for film work by Peter Sellers. Before his chaotic, indulgent turn in GHOST IN THE NOONDAY SUN and the sublime delicate melancholy of THE OPTIMISTS OF NINE ELMS, he agreed to this most unlikely of cinema projects – a gruesome story of premature burial in a film that suffered the same fate by never seeing the official light of day itself until many years later...

THE BLOCKHOUSE, based allegedly on a true story, concerns a group of seven multi-national WWII soldiers in a forced labour camp who flee from an aerial attack into a concrete bunker thirty metres below ground. Sealed off, they are fortunate to discover it is stocked with a cellar full of wine meant for the officers, balls of cheese, tinned fruit and boxes of candles. Despite these provisions, the blockhouse becomes their tomb and gradually all but two of the men perish in varying ways over a staggering six years underground. We are told that when the remaining two are dug out by chance in 1951, they have survived together for four years in total darkness.

This is a frustrating and perplexing film to watch, composed of all kinds of contradictions and mixed emotions when reflecting on it afterwards. On the one hand, it’s extremely brave of director Clive Rees and the superb actors to undertake something so resolutely uncommercial. Sellers defies the growing accusations of egotism in his approach by melting into an ensemble in a refreshingly comradely way as Frenchman Rouquet, his accent more muted than his famously facetious Clouseau. Amongst the other prisoners are Peter Vaughn, projecting the same intimidating presence he uses in STRAW DOGS and soon as the memorable ‘Grouty’ in TV’s PORRIDGE. Jeremy Kemp, a veteran of war films, gives class and dignity to Grabinski who develops a tender homoerotic relationship with Nicholas Jones’ emerging psychotic Kromer. Charles Aznavour, a noted film actor as well as a lionised pop mega-star in France, was about to become similarly recognised in England, and here challenges himself away from the obvious as Italian Visconti. Film buffs will also know the familiar face of Leon Lissek. In fact, the entire group are admirably embedded in their characters’ truth.

However, the material is wilfully, painstakingly dull and a relentless grind of attrition. There is no action other than the terrific opening action sequence of the plane bombardment strafing the men, and brief enlivening diversions when Rouquet teaches his ‘cellmates’ dominos and they compete on a found bicycle. Maddeningly, in order for the film to work artistically as it does, it has to fully create the very atmosphere of tedium and hopelessness that would repel its audience. It succeeds, which deserves respect, yet to what end? We know that war is hell and to incarcerate men together on film till they kill each other or themselves is immensely dispiriting to no benefit other than the curiosity of seeing a rare character study of unreleased cinema. This quality conversely makes it at least worth seeing – see what I mean about contradictions? It also suffers from dialogue that is so sparse and woolly that it has the air of a ragged improvised theatre piece...

There is so little detail known about the making of the film, even in Roger Lewis’ wonderfully exhaustive biography of Sellers, that watching it as a finally-released DVD decades after making, I felt almost like Max Renn seeing an illicit transmission in VIDEODROME. We know it was shot entirely on Guernsey, was entered into the Berlin Film Festival and that according to Wikipedia its source story was that: ‘on June 25, 1951, Time magazine reported that two German soldiers claimed to have been trapped for six years in an underground storehouse in Babie Doły, Poland’. Even this tenous link to reality though somehow gives THE BLOCKHOUSE an urban myth edge, especially as the film was shelved unseen for so long.

It occurred to me once the film finished that a more interesting and potentially life-affirming story might have followed the rescue of the two surviving soldiers, tracing their hopeful subsequent rehabilitation from what is an almost unimaginably awful endurance test for the human soul, and using the gruelling events as a flashback.

Even so, THE BLOCKHOUSE demands that you be impressed by it as a total commitment exercise in film to a project that was determinedly non-commercial. In that respect it earns a place within the ethos of what made 1967-75 such an interesting period in cinema - the very point about why I write this blog.


  1. Well I enjoyed your write up. As soon as I saw this DVD on ebay I thought rubberneckers on a motorway not wanting to look away but unable to stop themselves. Thats how I feel when I stumble on something like this. Just cos a painting does not sell It doesnt mean its not worth admiring! Or does it, is moving art there mainly for the lowest common denominater? Judging by the previous comment I would yes probably. I know what I'd rather watch anyway. Thanks theres virtually nothing about this movie online.