A MESSAGE TO GARCIA is a creaky but entertaining 1936 adventure melodrama. Hollywood embroidery is added to a business-booster essay-turned-pamphlet that took its germ of inspiration from a misreported incident that was 90% bogus yet helped the rabble rousing fever for the Spanish-American War. The ostensible gist of the Garcia memorandum is “be a man and answer duty’s call”, but when the facts are pried from the fancy it’s more like “bullshit runs downhill with increasing velocity.”
As rebellion is poised to explode in 1898 Cuba, a U.S. Army officer is sent to the island to head into the jungle and find rebel general Garcia and inform him that President McKinley and America are ready to back them up against their Spanish rulers. The persevering soldier gets help from a disreputable mercenary (red, white & true-blue when it counts, naturally) and a young female patriot (spirited and attractive, naturally). Chases, shootouts, brawls, swamps, alligators, torture, infatuation and a big battle to wrap it all up, complete with the Marines Hymn.
George Marshall directs the script concocted by W.P. Lipscomb and Gene Fowler which further fictionalizes what was already hooey that much of the world nonetheless believed was true–the essay/pamphlet foisted by Elbert Hubbard was issued in multiple millions. A silent movie of the exploited exploit was made in 1916. When this sound version came out, Spain was about to have another war—with itself—one freedom fight the United States decided to sit out.
Decent prints of this escapade are hard to come by, but if you can get past the degraded visuals and sound, two of the stars make for a fun watch. John Boles plays the actual Lt. Andrew Rowan (who disobeyed orders and could/should have been court-martialed) and he’s none too exciting. Fortunately, Wallace Beery as the renegade and Barbara Stanwyck as the daring damsel are on hand to liven things up. Beery’s typical broad-stroke approach works here, though the script neglects to tell us how a rascal who’s spent 10 years in Cuba doesn’t speak any Spanish. Stanwyck, her hair darkened, is supposed to be Cuban, but doesn’t bother with an accent. Yet her energy and sex appeal suffice for the character, even if the clothes, hair and makeup are three decades ahead of the period setting and somehow manage to hold up neatly in the jungle. Nine years into her film career, the 28-year-old actress was a popular draw (she made five movies that year), and veteran lug Beery still had a strong following.
Alan Hale plays the lead bad guy. Others in the cast include Herbert Mundin, Enrique Acosta (as Gen. Garcia, then 78) and Mona Barrie. Rudolph Mate manned the camera. Reviews were dismissive, box office muted, the $3,300,000 gross at 48th place for the year, which also saw history profitably mangled in rousers like The Charge Of The Light Brigade and The Plainsman. 95 minutes.