I had not seen "The Last Train from Madrid" since I was a child when it was broadcast regularly on KTLA-5 in Los Angeles. I watched it tonight, not expecting anything beyond a B film. I watched it because I like Lew Ayres' acting and I didn't realize that he was in this film.
I watched it and, although the film put a disclaimer about not taking sides in the Spanish Civil War (which was a recent world event and going on when this film was made), the script displayed enough anti-militaristic messages and a sense of dread offer a muted, veiled support of Republican Spain. Nonetheless, the film states that it is focusing on the dramas that play out in times of war among people.
Many commentators are judging this film with 21st Century eyes. No one can go back in time and redo the film to suit subsequent historical research and people's sense of justice. It was made in 1937 and reflected the largely isolationist attitudes that most Americans had about the war. It was writers and actors, in and out of Hollywood, that were committed to tell Americans about the horrors of the civil war. To be fair, no other film industry was making films with the Spanish Civil War as a theme.
Nevertheless, I was engrossed way beyond my expectations by the story written by Robert and Elsie Fox, writers that I had never heard of before but I will research them now that I've seen one of their scripts produced. While there are elements of "Grand Hotel" and "Shanghai Express" in this film, the interweaving of characters surviving to get out of the Spanish Civil War was done masterfully and, with the exception of Dorothy Lamour's character, the other characters were compelling individuals, within the constraints of an 87-minute running time and plausibility. Although I felt that Robert Cummings displayed the weakest acting of the entire cast, I was taken with the complexity of behaviors displayed by Karen Morley's, Lee Bowman's, Helen Mack's, and Anthony Quinn's characters. They were as three dimensional as such a film would allow in that period about so complex a topic. Anthony Quinn was impressive in his acting and in the fact that, only a year acting in films, he gets and commands a lion's share of importance to the plot and characterization. He carried the weight of this film beautifully. Although Lee Bowman played a stock character, his short time onscreen was effective and nuanced, displaying, once again, what an underutilized actor he was by studios, showing an acting range that was rarely utilized and developed. See his portrayal of Gary Mitchell in the Doris Day musical "My Dream is Yours" to show how he had presence to carry a film. Gilbert Roland displayed more acting range than he was usually allowed, making his story suspenseful and intriguing. If anything, the script left me wanting to know more about Roland's character of Eduardo de Soto and his friendship with Capt. Alvarez, Anthony Quinn's character. A fine ensemble chat!
The cinematography is pure 1937 Paramount and that's, overall, a good thing. The cinematography at Paramount during this period was still being influenced b Lee Garmss and Leo Tover, who were influenced by one of Paramount's premier directors of this period, Josef von Sternberg. Whenever a Paramount film of this period had a foreign locale, the black and white photography gave a sensual, exotic, hothouse effect that was both inappropriate for realistically portraying a place and time but it was also exciting to watch, making it easy to immerse oneself in the world the Paramount cinematographers created. This has the virtue of really placing me in a world I would never otherwise experience but it does make the scenes of the film involving Lola's lover being shot dead or Maria escaping the march to Cardoso jarring in their artificiality. To the credit of director James Hogan, the bombing scenes filmed at Paramount had almost-seemless intercutting with newsreel footage of the bombings in Spain during the war.
All in all, this film, while not of the top tier of classic films, is fascinating as a time capsule, better-than-expected characterizations, and good acting from a true ensemble cast that gave some of these actors one of their best roles. It was an effective story of suspense and character. "The Last Train from Madrid" does need critical reconsideration, greater opportunities to view it, and deserves far more recognition than it currently has.