A Revelation of Sellers' Talents
Amy Weaver | Novi, MI USA | 08/03/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"The "real life horror story" of The Blockhouse is haunting but understanding why Sellers would play a role of such claustrophobic intensity makes the film both harrowing and amazing. Nine years earlier was Dr. Strangelove with its psychotic view of international relations (Mutually Assured Destruction writ large upon the screen). Then, at the age of 48 and after years of failed movies and in failing health himself he took on The Blockhouse, conveying the same "war is absurd" message but at a supremely personal level, and this time with a stunningly subtle performance. Where Sellers had been able to exceed the pain threshold of comedy like no one before or since (re: Hyrundi V. Backshi pantomiming through ten excruciating minutes searching for a restroom to relieve himself), he did so in this film by the mere tweak of an eyebrow.
In The Blockhouse, Sellers and his cohorts (WWII labor camp prisoners), are trapped by Allied bombing inside tunnels offering all the amenities they'd been starved of by their German captors. They quickly find, however, they have everything needed for survival except a means of escape. It's the worst possible situation, but it's Sellers' character -- Rouquet, a French schoolteacher - who becomes the very essence of integrity for the others. Through him the group maintains civility by having a way to judge the passing of time - a feat accomplished by Rouquet counting his own heartbeats to measure how long candles are lasting. This is where the film becomes truly harrowing, as we're more than aware that Sellers had survived a massive heart attack a decade before the release of the film. Thus we suddenly find ourselves trapped along with the other prisoners into relying on Seller's heart (and sanity -- of all things) as he obsessively, yet perfunctorily counts heartbeats until the lights will literally go out. Rouquet (Sellers?) even makes the almost resigned (chilling) observation that he can continue doing so "Only as long as my heart keeps beating."
Eventually Rouquet realizes there is no dignified escape and thus quietly, and neatly, slits his wrist into a bag of flour (the only material on hand by which to bury those who die), culminating the scene by using his own blood to snuff out the last of his candles -- the hiss of which haunts one long after the film has ended.
Sellers' role in this film is a revelation, but The Blockhouse is also a bookend to Strangelove in that both are exceptionally anti-war films but from opposing styles and approaches. What they share is a view that war is the very summit of absurdity and thus irony taken to its naturally painful conclusion (a Sellers' stock in trade, thus both films are perfect for him). Strangelove, however, is extroverted madness (chaos and kinetic energy) while Blockhouse is madness turned in upon itself (it may be the closest viewers, or Sellers himself, ever came or will come to finding the hidden center to the man). The latter also features no musical soundtrack while Strangelove blares When Johnny Comes Marching Home throughout. And where Strangelove ends in multiple mushroom clouds, Blockhouse extinguishes the screen to total blackness as Rouquet douses the light of his candle -- one can only imagine what it must have been like to experience that effect in a theater.
As this film is autobiographical by the very nature of Sellers repeatedly claiming he had no "self" other than his characters, it is truly a terrifying glimpse of what it must have been like to be Peter Sellers, and as such, a must have for anyone hoping to understand his genius - or The Blockhouse that may be inside us all.
Experimental Film That's Not Wholly Successful
David Baldwin | Philadelphia,PA USA | 10/10/2005
(3 out of 5 stars)
""The Blockhouse" is a film rife with good intentions but, alas, good intentions do not a great film make. It is noble of the filmmakers to portray men in a desperate situation trying to maintain their spirits and sanity. That said, even at the 92 minutes that the film clocks in at it's difficult for the viewer to retain their spirits let alone interest. Director Clive Rees films the men trapped in an underground bunker in natural candlelight and it appears that he allows his international cast, led by Peter Sellers, to improvise with no music to cue our emotions. In this regard the film is only marginally successful. It's not to say that this cannot be effective. Some may laugh, but think of Tom Hanks in Robert Zemeckis' "Castaway". As for Peter Sellers, some may think this is a vanity project for him but it's anything but. Sellers is effectively subdued in a rare dramatic role for him and graciously shares the screen with his supporting cast."
Sellers' Finest Dramatic Performance
Scott T. Rivers | Los Angeles, CA USA | 04/25/2009
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Based on the true story of seven Allied prisoners sealed inside an underground German bunker after the D-Day invasion, "The Blockhouse" is a hidden gem in the Peter Sellers filmography. Director Clive Rees transforms this claustrophobic nightmare into a quietly effective drama. Sellers' detailed performance as the French teacher is a revelation - ample proof that he could step outside the comedic realm. Charles Aznavour, Jeremy Kemp and Peter Vaughan give equally compelling portrayals in a strong ensemble cast. "The Blockhouse" was shown at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1973 and then unceremoniously buried in a British vault. Except for a few rare screenings, the film remained unseen until its VHS debut in the mid-1980s. This belated DVD release includes the widescreen version with better sound and picture quality. Not for all tastes, but a must-see for Sellers admirers."