Directed by William Dieterle (The Life of Emile Zola (1937)) and written by John Howard Lawson this below average war drama attempts to evoke sympathy for the struggles of peasants during the Spanish Civil War. Henry Fonda plays a simple farmer named Marco who becomes a leader in the resistance against the invaders who would take their land and livelihood. Leo Carrillo plays his sheepherder friend Luis and Madeline Carroll plays a Russian foreigner he meets and is smitten by just before the war breaks out. John Halliday and Vladimir Sokoloff play spies who infiltrate the resistance for profit and Reginald Denny a journalist who writes about the peasants’ struggle. Robert Warwick Peter Godfrey and William Davidson also appear in supporting roles. The film received Academy Award nominations for its Werner Jannsen (his first) Score and Lawson’s (his only) Original Story.
Peasant farmer Marco (Fonda) and fellow peasant sheepherder Luis (Carrillo) discuss the love of their land and sheep respectively. They are interrupted when a car driven by a woman crashes into Marco’s ox cart. Norma (Carroll) is a foreigner on her way to town where her father is seeking art treasures. Her car no longer functioning Marco & Luis decide to help her; Luis directs Marco’s oxen who tow the car while Marco sits beside Norma in her front seats. He is taken with her beauty and perfume while she dreams of a less traveled life with a home to call her own. When they get to town she departs to join her father while Marco & Luis begin to return home. Norma learns that her father Basil (Sokoloff) is once again working with a man she detests named Andre Gallinet (Halliday). But Basil promises his daughter that they’ll settle down somewhere after they do one more job.
While Marco & Luis are headed out of town they hear gunfire. Soon there is an exodus of all the town’s residents until Marco decides it’s time to make a stand. With impassioned words Marco makes a speech which stops his fellow peasants’ flight; they all decide to make a stand to save what little they have in the world. Their fight is successful and Marco is given a leadership position by the Commandant (Davidson) though in another town. After watching a magician (Godfrey) perform some slight of hand in a bar Marco is suspicious enough to have the magician arrested while he follows another participant with fancy shoes. Not knowing that the man is Norma’s father Marco shoots Basil when he resists arrest after he’d apprehended Basil in his apartment. Norma rushes into the room with several of Marco’s men and is naturally upset with Marco for killing her father. Suspected of being a spy Norma is taken in for questioning. Then there’s an air raid during which Norma and Marco are trapped in a basement together; Luis rescues them but Norma escapes. She then learns that her father was part of Gallinet’s spy ring. Gallinet is in a position to free her from General Vallejo (Warwick) if she’ll deliver a message to the town she and Marco first met.
After reluctantly agreeing to deliver the secret message Norma meets journalist Edward Grant (Denny) on the train there. He begins the process of her realization that the people Gallinet is working for are ruthless but not before she delivers the message to his spies in town. In fact Gallinet’s side has instituted a blockade to keep food and other supplies from reaching the town in order to break the peasants’ spirit and crush the rebellion. The note that Norma delivered will allow them to sink the latest supply ship headed to their town. Horrified after what she sees starving children and forlorn mothers Norma goes to Marco to admit her guilt and convince him to let her undo what she’d done. After her impassioned speech Marco allows Norma to leave but follows her. Just when Norma had almost gotten the spies to cancel the submarine which would then sink the supply ship Marco’s men moved in and captured them all. However just before Marco’s raid Luis is seen boarding a small boat with several other men.
*** SPOILERS ***
It turns out that Luis and his companions under Marco’s orders had dragged a dilapidated & empty ship out to sea to be sunk in lieu of the real supply ship. Of course none of the spies knew that and General Vallejo & Gallinet who’d just arrived in town together are surprised to see the real supply ship arrive at port. Norma who’d been arrested with six other spies is taken before the General where she learns that he too is working with Gallinet. The General has just had the other six spies executed to keep from talking and is about to have Norma sentenced to death when Marco rushes in. She and Marco are then taken away. As the General is being congratulated for the supply ship (he’d wanted to sink) arriving safely Marco & Norma are brought before him followed by the Commandant who tells the General his spy gig is up. Marco gives yet another impassioned speech seemingly to the film’s audience asking “won’t anybody help?”.