❉ Mark Cunliffe on the claustrophobic WWII drama featuring Peter Sellers in a rare straight dramatic role.
Released alongside Hoffman in Powerhouse Films’ Indicator series earlier this year was another curio in Peter Sellers’ career. The Blockhouse is a 1973 film based on a novel, Le Blockhaus, by French author Jean-Paul Clébert which was in turn based on an astonishing true story, though the authenticity of this tale has been disputed for many years since.
Our setting here is D-Day, France: a mixed group of forced labourers – todt workers – held by German forces take shelter from the Allied bombardment inside a German bunker, only to find themselves entombed within when the entrances are blocked from the extent of the heavy shelling. Exploring their new surroundings they discover that it is in fact a storehouse, replete with plentiful reserves of food and wine that could last them years. However, the seven men slowly come round to the fact that they are more likely to be trapped down there forever, rather than for years – a realisation that begins to chip away at each man’s sanity as the stock of candles begin to run out.
The Blockhouse is perhaps notable for featuring Peter Sellers in a rare straight dramatic role. Indeed, I think this and 1960’s Never Let Go were Sellers’ only true forays into straight acting; though he of course approached several comic roles straight, most notable Casino Royale and of course Hoffman. Here he stars alongside French singer Charles Aznavour, Per Oscarsson and a group of character actors familiar to British audiences in Jeremy Kemp, Peter Vaughan, Alfred Lynch, Leon Lissek and Nicholas Jones.
A British production from director Clive Rees, it was filmed on Guernsey in the Channel Islands and was entered into the Berlin Film Festival but, for some reason, the film was subsequently never released in British cinemas. As such, The Blockhouse was something of a rarity. Unseen for decades, it eventually secured a bare bones DVD release sometime in the ‘00s and since then long out of print, before surfacing for a time around five years ago on the inauspiciously named cable channel Movies4Men. Whatever your views on the merits of the film, it did not deserve such ignominy and so it is good to see it secure a proper release now.
Despite being, as I said in my Hoffman review, a big Sellers fan, I didn’t get to see The Blockhouse until its appearance on cable in 2016. I’d known about it for years of course, thanks to Roger Lewis’ extensive 1995 biography The Life and Death of Peter Sellers which dedicated lengthy passages and critiques of all Sellers’ movies, including this one. The reason why I hadn’t sought it out prior to 2016 is because it just sounded too bleak and depressing – and guess what? It is very bleak and depressing indeed.
The film is an utterly claustrophobic and unflinching study of how the eponymous blockhouse turns from the saviour and hiding place of the men to an impregnable and inescapable underground prison. Rees explores how such captivity impacts upon the human nature of his seven entombed characters, how it affects their mental and physical health, their sexuality and sexual desires, their relationships with one another and ultimately with death itself – both the acceptance and eventuality of this fate. It’s the kind of film you need a strong constitution or philosophy for but, as there’s certainly a market for these kind of single-setting survival/trauma stories, I would argue that it deserves wider recognition amongst audiences for whom this will be their cup of tea. As such I am pleased to see it get this worldwide debut Blu-ray release.
At the time of filming Sellers praised his director, stating he was “every bit as good as Stanley Kubrick”. Not everyone agreed. I recall Lewis citing that the film was rather unsatisfying and the direction somewhat inept too and I have to say I found myself sympathising with this criticism. For all of Sellers’ praise, it is sadly somewhat fair to say that this isn’t exactly proficient or canny filmmaking; shooting almost exclusively in ‘the blockhouse’ itself makes for poor sound design and lighting/cinematography, and in some places that means it is actually really hard to make out what is being said and who is saying it because of the decision to remain truthful to the conditions and shoot solely by candlelight.
This Blu-ray release with its 4K scan from the original negative is a marked improvement on my TV viewing six years ago, but it can of course only do so much in terms of clarity. Despite these limitations, Rees clearly has some talent and an extra here interviewing his son and widow suggests the film was very much a labour of love but, given how his film was received – or rather, not received at all – in the UK, it’s perhaps unsurprising that his career was pretty sparse after this, with his only other cinematic credit arriving sixteen years later with 1989’s When The Whales Came.
Extras on this release include interviews with actor Leon Lissek, producer Ken Walwin, production manager Matthew Raymond and electrician Peter Bloor, two feature presentations; the distributed version and the director’s version, which includes revised and extended opening and closing captions, plus a short film from 1945 entitled The Channel Islands 1940-1945 which sees the islanders recreate incidents from the then recent history of Nazi occupation.
❉ ‘The Blockhouse’ (Limited Edition Blu-ray) was released via Powerhouse Films/Indicator Series, 17 January 2022. Cat. No. #PHILTD224. BBFC cert: 12. REGION FREE. RRP £15.99. Click here to buy.
❉ Mark Cunliffe is a regular contributor to The Geek Show and has written several collector’s booklet essays for a number of releases from Arrow Video and Arrow Academy. He is also a contributor to Scarred For Life Volume Two: Television In The 1980s, now available to buy in paperback, £19.99, and as a full colour Ebook (PDF format) £6.99.