For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943)

For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943)

“A man fights for what he believes in.”

An American (Gary Cooper) fighting in Spain on behalf of the Republicans falls in love with a beautiful refugee (Ingrid Bergman) living with a group of gypsy fighters in the mountains — including violent Pablo (Akim Tamiroff), his “woman” Pilar (Katina Paxinou), and an aging guide (Vladimir Sokoloff).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Akim Tamiroff Films
  • Gary Cooper Films
  • Ingrid Bergman Films
  • Sam Wood Films
  • Spanish Civil War

This big-budget, nearly three-hour Technicolor adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s bestselling novel about the Spanish Civil War was highly regarded by both audiences (who made it the second highest grossing film of the year) and critics (it received nine Academy Award nominations, winning one for Paxinou as Best Supporting Actress). Unfortunately, it hasn’t dated well at all, and comes across today as a beautifully filmed but overlong, drawn-out melodrama with far too much pancake makeup used.

The screenplay is apparently quite faithful to Hemingway’s novel, which audiences of the day were much more familiar with than viewers now would be; to that end, in his mostly rave review, Bosley Crowther of the New York Times noted:

“As often is the case with pictures which are based upon popular works, a thorough comprehension of this one may depend on whether one has read the book… The cosmic symbolism of [the leads’] regenerative love, set against a background of violence and the impending prospect of death, will barely be comprehensible only to those who have read the book.”

Exactly. Watching Cooper and Bergman fall instantly in love with one another here feels simply like inevitable Hollywood fare, given we don’t have much (if any) background understanding of their characters:

Anyone hoping to actually learn about the Spanish Civil War will be sorely disappointed, as it’s not even mentioned as such. We know there are Rebels (who must be good, given the famous actors playing them) fighting against Bad Guys, but that’s the extent of the nuance — other than a throughline focusing on the nefarious tactics of Tamiroff’s Pablo, who is shown in flashback overseeing brutal acts of violence:

… and whose loyalties we’re constantly made to question. Meanwhile, the Hemingway-ian dialogue in Dudley Nichols’ screenplay is often either laughable and/or offensive — as when the much-darker-skinned Paxinou rambles the following to Bergman:

Paxinou: Life is very curious. I would have made a good man. But, I’m all woman – and all ugly… Yet one can have a feeling *here* that blinds a man while he loves you. He thinks you are beautiful. And one day for no reason at all he sees you ugly, as you really are. And he is not blind anymore. Then you see yourself as ugly as he sees you – and you lose your man and your feeling. Then one day the feeling, that idiotic feeling that you are beautiful, grows inside you again, and another man sees you and thinks you are beautiful, and it’s all to do over again.

Poor Bergman herself, however, is given some of the worst clunkers:

“I do not know how to kiss or I would kiss you. Where do the noses go? Always I wonder where the noses will go.”

“I love you, Roberto. Always remember: I love you as I loved my father and mother, as I love our unborn children, as I love what I love most in the world, and I love you more. Always remember.”

“I’ll never go away from you. I loved you when I first saw you. I’ve always loved you, but I never saw you before.”

… at least until the final sequence between Bergman and Cooper, when Cooper takes back the prize — but I won’t spoil anything.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Ray Rennahan’s atmospheric cinematography

Must See?
Nope; you can skip this one unless you happen to be a diehard fan of Hemingway, Bergman, or Cooper.


2 thoughts on “For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943)

  1. First viewing. SKIP IT!

    I avoided this film until now because… Hemingway. As I think I wrote re: ‘A Farewell to Arms’ (the only work I actually read, I think, but that was enough!), I have never understood his fame; his work is so clunky.

    And here we have it in spades! There’s almost no end to the pretentious dialogue. It just goes on and on and on. I was ready to throw in the towel about a half-hour in, but I forced myself to complete it.

    9 Oscar nominations?! The second-highest-grossing film of 1943?! YIKES!

    This is among the worst films EVER! Granted, it is occasionally ‘entertaining’ in an unintentionally laughable way – and there is at least one line of dialogue which now takes on new, wish-fulfillment meaning: “They don’t shoot you for being a Republican in America.” But, cripes, what a SNOOZE-FEST!

  2. I saw it years ago as a teenager when I was dutifully making my way through a couple of Hemingway’s novels and cinematic adaptations, just to get a sense of his style. The only thing I remembered about this movie was that it was LONG.

    Watching it now, it’s just embarrassing.

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