Here’s an interesting one, a near forgotten Peter Sellers movie made during a dry patch in the early seventies, when he was trying to move out of the comedy genre and tackle more dramatic material. It’s a strange one for him to have chosen; a claustrophobic ensemble piece which is notably gloomy and grim, with nary a light moment to be had anywhere. Unfortunately, one of the reasons that this never got the attention it deserved was because the arthouse crowd – its natural audience – were probably distracted by Sellers’ presence and some of the more melodramatic content. I suspect that it went down much better in Europe.
A group of seven allied prisoners – working on shoring up the clifftop German sea defences somewhere – are forced to take refuge in a bomb shelter (or blockhouse) when they’re caught in the middle of a bombing spree conducted by their own side. Unfortunately, the blockhouse partially collapses around them, leaving them trapped deep underground, in a heavily concrete lined tomb and with no chance of escape. On the positive side, though, they have air (there are a couple of tiny ventilation shafts) and enough food and drink to last a lifetime (it had been being used to store officers rations, so it’s well stocked with fine wine, cheeses and salamis)!
The majority of the runnign time is spent detailing the minutae of the men’s lives, which mainly revolve around trying to alleviate their own boredom and come to terms with the situation. So, what you essentially have is a kind of proto-Big Brother, and even the characters fall into the same kind of stereotypes you find in the reality TV show: there’s the unpopular guy who goes a bit crazy (Peter Vaughan), the semi-intellectual (Peter Sellers), the flirty couple (Jeremy Kemp and Nicholas Jones), the louche sleazeball (Charles Aznavour), the methodical guy who sets himself ‘missions’ in order to keep sane (Per Oscarsson) and the quiet, intense one (Leon Lissek). And, as is the way with most ‘groups of people in confined spaces’ films, their biggest problem is themselves.
It’s all intense stuff, and it could probably have done with a somewhat lighter touch to really do it justice. Director Clive Rees films it all with a realist’s eye (he came from froma TV documentary background), which is probably appropriate, but perhaps a little more flair would have made it a little less heavy going. In fact, with it’s limited set and dialogue heavy approach it feels rather like a filmed play, which is fine, but perhaps doesn’t make full use of the cinematic medium. There are also slight problems with the sound, so that it becomes quite difficult to distinguish what’s being said some of the time, and it sometimes looks a little on the dark side (again, possibly appropriate, but not easy on the viewer).
Unsurprisingly, it’s a very actor friendly film, as all the characters get plenty of opportunities to emote. Peter Vaughan, long a favourite of mine, steals the show despite having the least screentime, but the whole cast do a great job. It’s a fascinating bunch of performers: even the least known of them, Leon Lissek and Nicholas Jones, have had lengthy, succesful careers. Sellers actually has a rather secondary role and is fine, but you can’t help but flashback to his other films while watching it, which isn’t ideal.
The Blockhouse has been released on UK DVD. The print is acceptable, but far from glorious. Still, any chance to see this is much appreciated.