For Whom The Bell Tolls

For Whom The Bell Tolls (1943) Director: Sam Wood

★★★★☆

For Whom The Bell Tolls is a beautiful technicolor film version of Ernest Hemingway’s famous novel of the same name. It is impossible to successfully compare the film version to Hemingway’s classic novel, as so much is lost without the modernist reflections of the complex protagonist, Robert Jordan, however Sam Wood’s production does a fabulous job of capturing the main narrative, despite the film being nearly three hours long. The Hays Code, active in Hollywood in the 1940s, blocked certain romantic scenes from being shown onscreen, scenes which are quite scandalous even in the novel. Hemingway was apparently involved in the production. He hand-selected both Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman for their respective roles in the film. The film was nominated for nine Academy Awards, winning one well-deserved award: Best Supporting Actress for Greek actress, Katina Paxinou who played the domineering role of Pilar. The novel For Whom The Bell Tolls very nearly won the Pulitzer Prize in 1941 but it was controversially denied the prize that year. For my full reflections after recently re-reading the novel click here.

For Whom The Bell Tolls is about Robert Jordan (played by Gary Cooper), an American soldier in the International Brigades caught in the middle of the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, and his newfound love for Maria (played by Ingrid Bergman). He is tasked with destroying a strategic bridge that is a key point of transportation for the Nationalists (i.e. the fascists). He befriends a band of rebels hiding out in the mountains. As with the novel, much of the film explores the complex inter-dynamics of this group. Who is courageous like Anselmo, El Sordo, and Pilar? Who is cowardly, like Pablo?

As with the novel, the film contains a long and slow build-up of tension until the final climax, in which the bridge is destroyed but Robert Jordan is mortally wounded and tragically left behind to fight the coming fascists. The film ends with the haunting image of Robert Jordan shooting from his hiding place, and it fades to a scene of a church bell ringing -an allusion to Jordan’s death and also an allusion to the title which Hemingway borrowed from John Donne’s famous poem.

The film was shot in the High Sierras in California, but it was made to look like the mountains of central Spain. Hemingway was apparently approximately $150,000 for the screen rights, and the full production cost just under $3M to create.

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