There were very few commercial feature films made during the Italian fascist era that were as openly propagandistic as this famous (notorious?) dramatic paean to the Blackshirts. The story takes place in a small villag...展开e in Italy in October of 1922, on the eve of the fascist "March on Rome", in which King Victor Emanuel III was persuaded to consign power to Benito Mussolini. Gianfranco Giachetti is Dr. Cardini, a doctor at the local psychiatric hospital, where a strike has been called by the local socialists. Cardini turns to the fascists to help avert the strike. His son Roberto (Mino Doro) rounds up fascist friends to fight those aligned with the strikers and the town's socialists. Mario, Roberto's kid brother (winningly portrayed by Franco Brambilla), wears the fascist armband that reads "me ne frego" ("To hell with it" -- a motto of the fascist squadristi.) "They are not naughty words," he tells his little sister, "they just show that we fascists have no fear of anything." Brawls break out between the fascists and the strikers and they are given the "castor oil" treatment (remember the father in Fellini's AMARCORD?) and forced to return to work. More confrontations occur between the fascists and the "socialist subversives", who are of course seen as a threat to the Italian social order in this village, a microcosmic emblem of the nation. More battles ensue and in one of them little Mario is shot down. News of the boy's death strengthens the fascists' resolve to join in the movement to form a new Italian government. The journey will rescue the nation from the clutches of subversion, socialism, communism. Dr. Cardini goes with them. "Today, nobody can stay at home! Mario is with us!" On a very simplistic, elemental level the film succeeds in rousing passions, exactly its intention. On any intellectual or moral level, there is a great deal to question here, of course, especially in hindsight. Simply as a film, it is extremely interesting and directed effectively by the great Alessandro Blasetti, who gave us terrific films like THE IRON CROWN, PRIMA COMUNIONE and FABIOLA. In 1937 it played New York City at the Broadway Cine' Roma, an Italian-language house, under the title PICCOLO EROE or "LITTLE HERO", at a time when many Italian-Americans or Italians living in America indeed supported Mussolini as a savior of the Italian nation.
(Gerald A. Deluca, imdb.com)
On its release the film received a positive reception from critics for its stylistic qualities and innovative approaches, such as realistic cutting and native language of the actors, in tune with their socio-cultural class. However the regime received the film with a coldness or even hostility, including top film official Luigi Freddi ("I thought to myself that my duty was to reject the film ... the Regime, in my opinion, certainly did not need those exhumations"). This reflects the inherent threat of the film's glorification of the squadristi at a time when the regime wanted to forget its "revolutionary" past and the Fascists' defense of the wealthy classes and employers against the working classes and the proletariat that Il Duce himself had always been proud to protect.
In Rome it is said that Mussolini projected the film at Villa Torlonia and wept. However the feature stayed in circulation only a few months and the regime did not publicize it. After Vecchi Guardia, Italian cinema retrenched in the apolitical, such as the telefoni bianchi [white telephone] films, characterized by an absence of political and social issues. Only with Italy's entry into the war in 1940 would political films again be produced in the "apologetic" vein (The Siege of the Alcazar, Giarabub, etc..).
(http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vecchia_guardia, translated and adapted by filmnutz)