Friday, March 27, 2009

For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) [UR] ***+


Based on a screenplay by Dudley Nichols, itself based on Ernest Hemingway’s best-selling novel by the same name, and produced and directed by Sam Wood, For Whom the Bell Tolls is set in 1937 Spain, during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). The film is an above-average adventure, war drama featuring a romance between Robert Jordan (Gary Cooper) an idealistic American expatriate and demolitions expert, and Maria (Ingrid Bergman) a Spanish girl.

The Spanish Civil War was fought between the Republicans, who were loyal to the democratic, left-leaning and relatively urban Second Spanish Republic, and the Nationalists, an aristocratic conservative group led by General Francisco Franco. The civil war is usually portrayed as a struggle between a leftist revolution (democracy) and a rightist counter-revolution (fascism), and can be viewed as a test of weaponry used later in World War II. The leftist, loyalist Republican forces received weapons and support from the Communist Soviet Union and leftist populist Mexico, while the rightist, fascist Nationalist forces received weapons and soldiers from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Other countries, such as the U.K. and France were neutral. Ultimately, the rightist, fascist Nationalists won, and Franco then ruled Spain for 36 years, from April 1939 until his death in November 1975.

Gary Cooper’s character, Robert Jordan, is working for the leftist Republicans, and his assignment is to blow up a mountain bridge in northern Spain to prevent Franco’s rightist Nationalists from being resupplied with troops and tanks from Germany and Italy. Jordan is led into the mountains by a guide (Vladimir Sokoloff) where he joins a small group of hardened guerilla fighters led by Pablo (Akim Tamiroff). Pablo does not want to blow up the bridge, and so Jordan is not sure he can trust him. Katina Paxinou plays Pilar a rough, yet wise, woman who stands up to Pablo, aligns herself with Jordan, and encourages his relationship with Maria (Bergman), a Spanish girl who had watched the Nationalists kill all the Republicans in her village, including her mother and father, and then endured having her head shaved and being raped by them.

For Whom the Bell Tolls may have been great cinema in 1943, but it has not aged well. At nearly three hours it’s overlong, and there is little chemistry between Cooper and Bergman, although it’s not for Bergman’s lack of trying. In fact, if you’re a fan of Ingrid Bergman, you will appreciate For Whom the Bell Tolls as her first Technicolor film. Born in 1915, she was 28 when this film was released, at the height of her beauty. Because she’d had her head shaved and been raped, as part of the backstory, her hair was short and curly, and when For Whom the Bell Tolls was released, it started a fad – women had to have their hair cut like Bergman’s. However even though Hemingway handpicked Cooper and Bergman for their roles, many critics felt Bergman was poorly cast; young Spanish women do not usually look like blonde Swedish film stars.

For Whom the Bell Tolls was nominated for nine (9) Oscars in the 1944 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Actress. The only win was Paxinou for Best Supporting Actress.

Labels: adventure, drama, history, romance, tragedy, war



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