For Whom the Bell Tolls

| June 20, 2012

After reading a great book, we can only hope for an equally pleasing movie adaptation. Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, published in 1940, is surely one of the author’s best. The novel shows a Hemingway that has strayed from his obsession with bullfighting and drinking to concern himself with the politics of the Spanish Civil War. And, thanks to the novel’s immense success, Paramount Pictures hired Sam Wood to direct the screen version in 1943.

For Whom the Bell Tolls tells the story of Robert Jordan (Gary Cooper), an American teacher turned soldier during the Spanish Civl War. Assigned to blow up a Fascist controlled bridge, Jordan and a group of Republican guerilla fighters prepare themselves for a virtual suicide mission. Considered an outsider at first, the American eventually wins over the Spanish revolutionaries with his passion to save the Republic.

That is, everyone except Pablo (Akim Tamiroff). As the head of the vigilante group, Pablo distrusts the suicide mission Jordan thrust upon them. Having seen the true brutality of the Fascist agitators, the weary fighter fears less of being killed and more of being captured. Seeing that he is alone in his opposition to the mission, including by his boisterous wife Pilar (Katina Paxinou), Pablo decides to take matters into his own hands.

Though some members of the guerilla group like Jordan more than just a comrade. Maria (Ingrid Bergman), a survivor from the recent Fascist purge of her city, falls for the American. A love blossoms between the two that cast doubt over Jordan’s commitment to the mission. Does a mission, destined for almost certain death, override love?

For those who have read the novel, the language is one to admire or abhor. Hemingway uses transliteration-“thees” and “thous”- when he translates Spanish to English. Screenwriter Dudley Nichols decided to stay true to this method. With less than fantastic results. Clocking in at 170 minutes, the film is muddled by staying too true to the novel.

We can’t put all the blame on the stilted script, Gary Cooper is also at fault. Having only seen High Noon, the actor seems better fitted to slow talking Westerns rather than the contemplative Robert Jordan. Cooper mumbles through his lines and, even worse, lacks the allure of the iconic Hemingway character. Regardless of my opinion, the author apparently penned the novel’s character after Cooper and Maria after Ingrid Bergman.

Bergman would be finishing Casablanca when she got the call from Paramount to star in For Whom the Bell Tolls. The long locks that became so iconic in the black-and-white film would be substituted for the nearly buzzed head of Maria in the Technicolor latter. Despite her beauty, Bergman smiles her way through the two-and-a-half hour film, playing the subservient character with ease. Once again, despite my personal opinion, both Bergman and Cooper would be nominated for their performances in the film.

The biggest blame goes to director Sam Wood. Release in the middle of World War II, the adaptation of For Whom the Bell Tolls lacks the Communist leaning sympathies from the novel. We can only point to Cooper and Wood’s later membership to the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, a group formed to “refusing to permit the infiltration of Communist, Fascist, and other totalitarian groups…for the dissemination of American ideals.” Though the anti-Communist alliance was formed a year after the film’s release, it’s tendencies filtered into the film and history.*

Thankfully Katina Paixnou is a shining light in this dark film. Known as the first lady of the Greek stage, the actress was stuck in the U.S. when her country was attacked by the Nazis. In her debut film, the actress brings to life the boisterous and mystical Pilar with grace. If it wasn’t apparent in the film, it was on Oscar night when she was awarded Best Supporting Actress. Though she would later go on to star in Rocco and his Brothers and Mourning Become Electra (Dudley Nichol’s adaption of Eugene O’Neil), nothing tops her dedication to the stage in her Academy acceptance speech, “I hope they are still alive, but I doubt it.”


*Wood’s conservative American ideals were present before and after For Whom the Bell Tolls in 1943. During the filming of A Day at the Races, Groucho Marx once called Wood a Fascist. Later, in one of American history blackest eyes, Wood’s Alliance of American Ideals presented much of the ‘friendly witnesses’ that testified against some of Hollywood’s best stars.

About the Author:

Daniel currently resides in New York City working as a freelance writer and director. He is a graduate of the Film and Video department of Columbia College, specializing in Italian Neo-realism and French & British New Wave cinema.
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