For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943)

For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943)


An American demolition expert, Robert Jordan (Gary Cooper, High Noon), helps a group of anti-fascist fighters during the Spanish Civil War in 1937. Jordan’s mission is simple: he is ordered to blow a bridge. Jordan’s dangerous assignment gets complicated when he falls in love with a Spanish girl named María (Ingrid Bergman, Casablanca).

Reaction & Thoughts:

“Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

In 1940, Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ernest Hemingway published one of his most celebrated novels, For Whom the Bell Tolls, a story obviously inspired by his experiences as a war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War. America’s entry into World War II forced Hollywood to look for ways to support the cause and Hemingway’s novel seemed the perfect choice to turn into a film. Here is a story that is both an inspiring yet cautionary tale that revels against the futility of war, but at the same time condemns one’s lack of personal involvement in it — all in all it was the kind of movie WWII audiences were craving for.

That age-old question applies here: has the movie stood the test of time? I thought so. Paramount’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, written by Dudley Nichols (John Ford’s The InformerStagecoach and The Long Voyage Home), produced and directed by Sam Wood (Goodbye, Mr. Chips and The Pride of the Yankees), is old-style Hollywood filmmaking with broad scope and ample spectacle.

The film is heavy on drawn out dialogue-driven scenes and close-ups, but I found this super-production absorbing and moving. There are many great scenes along the way and the film is surprisingly honest when it comes to show the brutality of war. For Whom the Bell Tolls also has assured performances by Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman, plus strong support from a truly international cast.

Cooper’s low-key personality makes him the perfect Hemingway hero (he was also perfect in the 1932 adaptation of Hemingway’s classic novel A Farewell to Arms). Bergman was another inspired casting choice. Hemingway himself hand-picked the actors and was very pleased with their performances.

But much to my surprise, the best moments are provided by the supporting players. Katina Paxinou’s (Mourning Becomes Electra) earthy Pilar is unforgettable (she won the Oscar). Pilar is the heart and soul of the movie and Paxinou, in her film debut, gives the role everything she has and then some! Akim Tamiroff’s (Touch of Evil) treacherous Pablo is fantastic too. The cast also includes Arturo de Córdova (Frenchman’s Creek) as Agustín, Vladimir Sokoloff (The Magnificent Seven) as Anselmo, Joseph Calleia as El Sordo, and Leo Bulgakov as General Golz.

Above all, I loved Victor Young’s (The Quiet Man and Around The World In 80 Days) fabulous musical score. He uses a series of specialized instruments to further emphasize the presence of the Spanish culture. The inclusion of the original Overture and Intermission are a big plus, and allows the score to really show off.

Celebrated production designer William Cameron Menzies (Gone with the Wind) supervised the look of the film. The sets are particularly impressive. Most of the film was shot inside sound stages — shooting in Europe was an out the question — but you won’t mind; the movie does great! Ray Rennahan’s (Blood and Sand) Technicolor cinematography is stunningly beautiful! The visual effects are pretty good too.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

For Whom the Bell Tolls was originally released with a lot of fanfare, and it went on to become the highest grossing film of 1943. The film’s original running time was almost three hours, but it was cut down to 130 minutes as the studio succumbed to pressure from movie theaters that wanted to have more showings per day. For years, the cut footage was thought to be lost, but Universal (who eventually gained the video rights) started an arduous and tedious restoration process in the late ’90s. The result is a gorgeous-looking film, with a new running time of 166 minutes. Considering the incorporated new footage and the good condition of the transfer, this is likely to be the definitive version of the film and it can finally be seen as it was intended. Color, 166 minutes, Not Rated.

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