The Blockhouse is one of the Peter Sellers films made in the early ’70s where he was trying to stretch himself with more dramatic parts—the other film around this time would be Hoffman. Unlike that film, The Blockhouse was very much a ensemble film, with Sellers playing one of the men in this extraordinary and somewhat true story.
D-Day happens, and a group of forced labourers who being held by the German forces take shelter from the Allied bombardment in German bunker. They end up stuck in the bunker for years, but luckily have enough food and wine for some of the workers to survive. The film attempts to get into the psychological effects on men trapped in a bunker for what ends up being six years, but sadly never quite delivers.
The film is really poorly shot by Keith Goddard, and the visuals are so dark that I struggled to really make out who was who for much of the running time. The sound is also horribly recorded, and at times the film was pretty inaudible, even with the restoration job from Indicator. The performances are fine, and Sellers really disappears into the ensemble, which is impressive. But while The Blockhouse promises so much, at almost every turn it fails to become particularly engaging. It’s not helped by the lighting—you need the film to have a dark visual palette to respect the story, but not so dark. The tension and claustrophobia should jump out into the audience itself.
Sellers considered The Blockhouse one of his very best, and is even on record as saying Clive Rees is “every bit as good as Stanley Kubrick,” which is obviously ridiculous. Rees would only direct one more feature, When the Whales Came, plus some stuff for the BBC. The Blockhouse is the kind of film where the idea is great, but the execution is not, with the exception of some of the performances, especially Sellers. It would be a perfect candidate for a future remake with somebody who knows how to light darkness. It was based on a novel by Jean-Paul Clébert, who was championed by the surrealists and, at the time, by the burgeoning Situationists. His 1952 book Unknown Paris is probably his best-known today.
The Blu-Ray from Indicator includes two versions of the film. The only differences are that the opening and closing captions are extended and more bleak. The interviews on the disc include cast/crew and Rees’ widow. The disc also features a 1945 short film of Channel Islanders re-enacting incidents from during WW2, and an image gallery. The booklet contains a new essay by Kieran Foster, a contemporary news report on the events that inspired the film, archival interviews with star Peter Sellers and director Clive Rees, an overview of contemporary critical responses and new writing on The Channel Islands short.