The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) occupies a strange place in American historical memory. On the one hand, because we were officially neutral during the war, a lot of people just weren’t and aren’t that interested in it (sort of like people who think WW I began in 1917, because that when the United States became involved). On the other hand, it was a huge deal for the 3,000 or so American volunteers who joined other international forces to fight for the Republican cause, and nearly everyone knows that Ernest Hemingway used his experience covering the war as a journalist when writing perhaps his greatest novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls.*
Hollywood loves to crank out war films—the drama is ready-made, and there’s practically no end to the stock characters and situations that can be employed—but the choice to produce a big-budget film with big names about an ongoing war whose outcome was unknown and that wasn’t all that important to many in their target market seems curious, at best. Perhaps in compensation, The Last Train from Madrid seems to not care much at all about the Spanish Civil War, treating it instead as a backdrop against which a varied cast of characters do various things to and with each other. In fact, the melodramatic goings-on in this film might as well have come from scenes cut from something like Grand Hotel, which executed the intertwining stories trope a lot better.
If you don’t come to this film knowing what the Spanish Civil War was about, you won’t leave it much better informed. In fact, you may have a hard time figuring out who is on what side or even what the sides are. I suspect the vagueness was a decision by the money guys, who hoped the presence of an all-star cast and the vague excitement of a story taking place during wartime would be enough to win audiences over. And, of course, by not taking sides or saying much about the specifics of the conflict, the film could avoid offending anyone, which is the safest approach when dealing with an ongoing conflict in which it isn’t clear which side is going to win.
Director James P. Hogan still gives it the old college try, opening the film with a title card declaring, over a backdrop of bombed-out buildings, that (all caps original) “Out of War have come the world’s greatest dramas—dramas all the more challenging to the imagination because their basis is real.” This promising beginning is undercut a few cards later by the statements that the film “is a story of people—not of causes” and that the filmmakers “neither upholder nor condemn either faction of the Spanish conflict.” And isn’t that the most Hollywood statement ever? Because Hollywood has always been about making money, and if you take a stance, you risk losing some of your customers.
As referenced in the title, many of the characters want to be on the last train out of Madrid, as the city is under attack and the train line to Valencia is about to be destroyed (there was no such train line at the time, but don’t let that bother you). To get on this train, you need a pass from Captain Ricardo Alvarez (a striking Anthony Quinn in one of his first roles), which makes him very popular indeed. Colonel Vigo (Lionel Atwill) makes the desperate decision to draft convicts to bolster his forces. One of the names on the draftee list is that of Eduardo de Soto (Gilbert Roland), a friend of Alvarez; the latter engineers his pal’s escape, and the first place de Soto goes is the home of his old flame Carmelita Castillo (Dorothy Lamour). Soldier Maria Ronda (Olympe Bradna) deserts her regiment and forces reporter Bill Dexter (Lew Ayres) to take her to visit her father before he’s executed. And so on and so forth—there’s a lot of story lines in this film, and a lot of talking, but it’s still enjoyable enough if you don’t get exhausted trying to keep it all straight.
The cast is the outstanding feature of The Last Train from Madrid, which features, besides those already named, Karen Morley, Helen Mack, and Robert Cummings. Cinematography by Harry Fischbeck is fine but nothing special (the film was shot in California, at the Iverson Ranch as well as Paramount Studios, with some second-unit footage from Spain). The other technical aspects, including art direction by Hans Dreier and A. Earl Hedrick, set decoration by A. E. Freudeman, and editing by Everett Douglas, are totally up to Hollywood professional standards without drawing attention to themselves. All in all, The Last Train from Madrid is a reasonable example of a middle-of-the-road Hollywood entertainment film, watchable but not particularly memorable.
*And of course there were all those “Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead” pseudo-news reports from the first season Saturday Night Live to keep the memory of the war’s aftermath alive in the minds of teenage stoners of the 1970s.
| Sarah Boslaugh
The Last Train from Madrid is distributed on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. The print is based on a new 2K master, and the main extra on the disc is an audio commentary by journalist and author Bryan Reesman. The disc also includes trailers for this and six other films.