Final cut: The Blockhouse

SIMON MATTHEWS on Clive Rees’s 1973 film The Blockhouse.

How do national treasures remain popular? Do they try and please their public by repeating the same roles over and over again? Or do they try and diversify, and hope audiences will follow? And what do they do if they fail?

Such were the dilemmas faced by Peter Sellers in the early 1970s. From his origins in BBC radio, through a series of black-and-white UK film comedies, of which I’m Alright Jack (1959) was the most richly satisfactory, he went on to take Hollywood by storm with The Pink Panther (1963), A Shot in the Dark (1964) and What’s New Pussycat (1965). Think not of Dr Strangelove (1964): yes, it won the awards – or, more correctly, it was nominated for awards – and yes, the political and bookish classes thought it amazing. But in box office receipts it scored well below his brace of Clouseaus and Woody Allen’s Pussycat. And all of them were surpassed by Casino Royale (1967), which had him as a Bond.

After dallying with the Beatles, and peaking with The Magic Christian (1969), he found audiences were beginning to stay away. Would-be comedies, whether in the UK or US, misfired and, proving that even the mighty are only as good as their last picture, his fee fell to 20 per cent of what it had been a few years earlier.

Desperate for a reboot, he swerved into European art-movie territory, and made The Blockhouse (1973).

It ticked all the boxes. Adapted from a 1955 French novel by Jean-Paul Clébert, the screenplay was by John Gould, whose 1970 Turgenev adaptation, Erste Liebe had won an Academy Award. Director Clive Rees had done a mix of documentaries and TV plays. And Charles Aznavour was signed up. Yes, ‘the French Sinatra’ who, although mainly known to UK audiences for recording the original version of ‘Yesterday When I Was Young’, also pursued a parallel acting career, notably in Truffaut’s Tirez sur le Pianiste/Shoot the Piano Player (1960). You didn’t get more art-house than that. Jeremy Kemp, late of the Old Vic, and Per Oscarsson, with any number of inscrutable Swedish credits, would co-star.

Funding came from Hemdale, whose prior production, Robert Altman’s Images (1972), an art-movie par excellence, had just been screened to some success at the Cannes Film Festival. Filming took place in June 1972 in the Channel Islands and closely followed the events in Clébert’s book. This has a group of forced labourers working on German fortifications on the French coast suddenly coming under attack as D-Day commences. They flee into the nearest bunker, which then takes a series of direct hits, collapsing the entrance and exit and burying them underground. Fortunately, it transpires the bunker holds sufficient supplies for an army, enough for them to stay underground for years, even decades to come.

The film plays this as straight psychological drama. The cast are stuck underground (in a real, abandoned German bunker) after ten minutes. And they stay there. Shuffling around in candle light, with no music, one gloomy set and Beckett/Pinter style dialogue. Minute details assume immense significance. The stars Sellers and Aznavour say little, and the ensemble playing is excellent. It’s a perfectly judged and flawlessly executed actors’ piece that holds the attention through to its bleak ending, when, after the light finally fades, we’re told that it was based on true events.

Disclaimers like this appearing on screen invariably ring alarm bells, and should have done so here. The plot had already been filmed twice. First as Nasser Asphalt/Wet Ashpalt, in West Germany in 1958 with Horst Buchholz, later as Sette Contra la Morte/The Cavern in Italy in 1964, which had Larry Hagman among the entombed. The former, interestingly, was about a journalist who ‘makes up a story of five German soldiers who have lived in a supply bunker in Poland for six years where they had gotten trapped… at the end of the war. There is one survivor, now blind, who was brought to a hospital. The story becomes an international sensation.’

And indeed, as if to verify this, on 25 June 1951 Time magazine had reported ‘From Warsaw last week came a story of two more curious survivors of World War II. A six-foot Nazi soldier with a beard reaching to his knees, and another who soon dropped dead of a heart attack, turned up in the village of Babie Doly, 20 miles from Gdynia, claiming that they had been trapped for six years in an underground storehouse’. Not quite seven years later, on 18 May 1958 the New York Times stated: ‘In August 1950, the French press reported that laborers clearing the remains of Hitler’s Atlantic fortifications had come on a weirdly inhabited concrete cave. In it there had been walled up for six years six men, of whom two were still alive, blind, jungled in their own beards, delirious, but breathing.

So… two similar events, both prominently mentioned in the US press, occurring in France (1950) and Poland (1951). And neither of the survivors named, or heard from subsequently. (Surely, they’d have been in demand for news conferences, media appearances and books about their terrible ordeal?)

Presumably Jean-Paul Clébert drew his inspiration from the French version. A 29-year-old bohemian who skirted surrealist and situationalist circles in Paris, the year after publishing Le Blockhaus, he rather oddly ‘retreated from urban life in 1956 to the mountainous Luberon region of Provence, in which he discovered abandoned stone villages, and took up residence there without running water or electricity’.

At this distance the story looks suspiciously like a hoax, possibly one of those Cold War claim-and-counter-claim episodes designed by both sides to show they were prepared for Armageddon: the US planting the story in 1950 (novelised by Clébert five years later) with its sub-text of ‘we’ve found people who’ve survived underground for five years, so we now know how to get through a nuclear exchange’ – and then the communist bloc playing catch-up in 1951. (Which, ironically, brings to mind the comic monologue in Dr Strangelove about the importance of mineshafts.)

Still, such considerations troubled few and there were high hopes for the latest adaptation, particularly from Sellers who proclaimed: ‘It’s a film for the connoisseurs of cinema.’ Premiered at the 1973 Berlin Film Festival, it was one of three UK entries, one of which, The 14 directed by David Hemmings, won a Silver Bear.

The Blockhouse would appear in West Germany and the US, but not the UK. Quite why is hard to fathom. It was good enough, but perhaps in the aftermath of domestic power cuts and speculations about gloomy circumstances generally (military coups and so on), the distributors thought audience prospects too minimal to justify the expense of putting it on the circuit. It also showed a gay relationship between two of the trapped men. Was 1973 a bit early for this?

Whatever the reasons, it wouldn’t be available until a 2005 DVD release, when it appeared to some acclaim.

Forty years earlier, the cast and crew had moved on. Aznavour finally broke the UK market, reaching No. 1 with ‘She’ and also enjoying a couple of big-selling albums, one of which, Tapestry of Dreams, came with a cover photo by Lord Snowdon. Which meant he got to be on the Christmas Day Top of the Pops, with Abba, the Osmonds and Slade, and even better, on the Royal Variety Performance, alongside the cast of Dad’s Army. Neither were exactly grim realism.

Director Rees, lauded, possibly unwisely, by Sellers as being ‘brilliant, every bit as good as Stanley Kubrick’, did some more TV before moving into commercials, including some for Guinness.

As for Sellers, he was back in multiple roles, including one as Hitler, in the Boulting Brothers’ Soft Beds and Hard Battles (1974), after which he reprised Clouseau in three further films, starting with The Return of the Pink Panther (1975). Audiences wanted funny voices and broad comedy. All of the Clouaseau films were huge at the box office and his earnings recovered.

He would die in 1980, with most critics describing Being There (1979), a political satire, as his best late work. They should have looked instead at The Blockhouse, where his acting is at its finest and most under-played.

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