Tuesday, August 18, 2009


The quote from John Donne's "Sermon III" opens the film: "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 1936, Spain endured a three-year-long civil war. General Francisco Franco Bahamonde allied himself with Fascist Italian and Nazi German sympathizers and won this brutal war. Several hundred Americans fought alongside the Loyalists. For the record, Spanish citizens that opposed Franco's takeover constituted the Loyalists. In 1939, the war concluded with Franco as dictator. Author Ernest Hemingway served as a war correspondent in Spain from 1937 to 1938 and saw the action first hand. Later, Paramount shelled out $150,000 in 1940 for Hemingway's film rights to his novel “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” The Hemingway novel was published in 1940,became a bestseller, and sold about 750-thousand copies. Paramount made history with this deal as the highest price that a studio paid for a novel. The “New York Times” newspaper wrote that "Paramount paid Hemingway $100,000 for the property, agreeing to an additional 10 cents a copy for each volume sold up to 500,000." Originally, Paramount wanted the legendary Cecil B. DeMille to call the shots on the film, but he abandoned the project to direct “Rurales.” DeMille never produced “Rurales.”

Paramount sources said Hemingway created his main character, Robert Jordan, with Gary Cooper in mind and later suggested Ingrid Bergman as Maria. DeMille protégé Sam Wood sought Cooper, a Samuel Goldwyn contract star, for the role, too. Previously, they had worked together on the Lou Gehrig baseball movie “The Pride of the Yankees” in 1942. Paramount obtained Bergman from David O. Selznick. Bergman replaced an actress who didn’t work out as Maria. According to Turner Classic Movies Archives, the State of California loaned the bell tolling at the beginning and the end of the film. According to studio press book information, director Wood started shooting “For Whom the Bell Tolls” in November 1941 since the snow that they needed for the setting in the Sierra Mountains was falling. According to Turner Classic Movies, “Plans to film the airplane sequences on December 7, 1941 were delayed due to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which resulted in the grounding of all commercial planes. Paramount then had to register their pilots and planes with the Civil Aeronautics Administration and receive U.S. Army approval before they were allowed to shoot the airplane sequences.” Eventually, production resumed in the Sierra Mountains during the summer of 1942. The Lumsden Bridge near the Tuolumne River in Yosemite National Park served as the bridge in some scenes that Robert Jordan winds up destroying. Paramount spent $2,681,298 to make “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”

While the Production Code Administration worried about the political content of “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” the censors displayed greater anxiety over the—as the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library notes--"illicit sex affair" between Jordan and Maria. According to AMPAS, the filmmakers were told to "omit entirely from the picture the sleeping bag" sequence, and to "endeavor to remove...the suggestion that Maria has been raped." The word “rape” is never uttered in “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and Jordan repeatedly dissuades Maria from confessing to him the details of her rape. Predictably, Spain banned the film. Three years after Franco died; “For Whom the Bell Tolls” received its Spanish premiere in 1978. Initially, the film opened on July 14, 1943 in New York City, and the studio donated proceeds to the National War Fund. Incidentally, American women adopted Bergman's short hair. Greek actress Katina Paxinou, in her screen debut, received an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as the gutsy Pilar. The film also received nominations for other Academy Awards, including Best Picture; Best Actor (Gary Cooper); Best Supporting Actor (Akim Tamiroff); Best Actress (Ingrid Bergman); Art Direction/Interior Decoration (Color); Cinematography (Color); Film Editing, (Sherman Todd and John Link); Music (Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture).

Although Ernst Hemingway chose Ingrid Bergman and Gary Cooper as the leads in director Sam Wood's cinematic adaptation of "For Whom the Bell Tolls," the novelist hated the movie because the repressive Hollywood Production Code Administration made Paramount Pictures excise virtually all of the political content of "Stagecoach" scenarist Dudley Nichols' script. Indeed, what the Production Code did was to remove anything derogatory about General Franco's regime, ruling in Spain at that point, that Cooper and his Nationalist resistance compatriots sought to defeat. This was certainly not the first movie that had its plot eviscerated. The 1938 Spanish Civil War movie "Blockade" with Henry Fonda has suffered a similar fate. It was obvious which side was right and which side was wrong, but the Code prevented them from identifying them by name.

"For Whom the Bell Tolls" (**** out of ****) takes place in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War as the protagonist, American teacher-turned-Republican soldier Robert Jordan, blasts a Nationalist troop train to smithereens. Enemy soldiers swarm after Jordan (Gary Cooper of "Sergeant York") and his friend Kashkin (Feodor Fedorovich Chaliapin Jr. of "Mission to Moscow") and wound the latter. Kashkin holds Jordan to his promise to kill him because he refuses be captured. Nobody wants to fall into the savage hands of the Republicans. This form of mercy killing is a rule of thumb among the Republican. Nevertheless, Jordan hates having to kill Kaskhin and calls it "murder." Meantime, Jordan escapes to Madrid to rendezvous with Republican General Golz (Leo Bulgakov of "This Land is Mine") briefs him on a new mission to dynamite an important bridge at the same time that the Republicans launch a surprise air assault. Jordan has three days to prepare.

An older Spanish guide Anselmo (Vladimir Sokoloff of "Scarlet Street") leads our hero to the bridge spanning a gorge and then escorts him to a Nationalist outpost in a mountain cave not far from the structure. A small band of guerrilla fighters and Gypsy refugees take orders from Pablo (Akim Tamiroff of "Union Pacific") and his fire breathing wife Pilar. According to his wife, Pablo has lost his nerve and she supervises their exploits. Pilar (Katina Paxinou of "Confidential Agent") has nothing but contempt for her cowardly drunkard of a husband. Robert conceals the explosive in the cave and gets to know his new companions, among them a carefree gypsy Rafael (Mikhail Rasumny of "Comrade X"); Primitivo (Victor Varconi of "Strange Cargo"); Andres (Eric Feldary of "Cloak and Dagger"), Fernando (Fortunio Bonanova of "Citizen Kane"), and young Maria, (Ingrid Bergman of "Casablanca"), a Spanish refugee that the Nationalists raped after they shot her parents. Palo and his men rescued Maria from a prison train. Robert needs Pablo's assistance to blow up the bridge. Pablo, worried about a Nationalist reprisal, gives Jordan the cold shoulder.

Meanwhile, Pilar warns Jordan that Pablo cannot be trusted. Pablo is not happy since Pilar has assumed command of his men and behaves in a suspicious manner. Later, Fernando reveals that he left camp to be with his wife in the city. He eavesdropped on loquacious Nationalists chatting about gossip of a possible Republican attack on the bridge. Pilar, Maria and Robert climb through the mountains to meet the rebel El Sordo (Joseph Calleia of "The Gorilla"), a renegade gypsy, who agrees to steal the horses they need to escape after the bridge is destroyed. Gradually, over a three day interval, Jordan and Maria become lovers. Eventually, Maria tells him that the Nationalist soldier abused her. Mind you, Nichols could not use the word 'rape' in 1943, and Jordan doesn't want to hear about the details. A snowstorm has everybody worried that Nationalist patrols may spot the tracks of El Sordo's stolen horses and follow them to the cave. Pablo's drunken behavior prompts the others send him into exile.

After Pablo's departure, Pilar reveals that Pablo has not always yellow. When the war began, Pablo proved himself a courageous leader. Organizing the citizens against a Nationalist attack, Pablo helped save their town. He blew up the wall around the city hall where the Nationalists had been cornered and decided not to give up. Pablo forced these city officials to face the wrath of the citizens. These men brave a gauntlet before the enraged citizens hurl them off a high cliff to their deaths.

The savagery of his countrymen sickens Pablo and refuses to participate in the fighting. Later, Pablo shows up at the cave with a change of heart and agrees to support Jordan's mission to blow the bridge. The next day, Robert has to shoot a Nationalist cavalryman who rides too close to the cave. A patrol rides up and El Sordo's gang diverts them from Jordan and company. El Sordo and his men take refuge in a mountain outpost and fight until fighter planes wipe them out. Meanwhile, the treacherous Pablo sabotages Jordan's equipment. Anselmo warns Jordan that Nationalist troops are fortifying the bridge. Robert fears that the Nationalists know of the Republican surprise attack. He dispatches Andres on a hopeless mission behind enemy lines with a message for Golz to cancel the offensive. During the night, Jordan and Maria make love. Before dawn, Pilar uncovers Pablo's treachery, and Robert rigs up make-shift detonators from hand grenade. As Jordan is placing the dynamite, a Nationalist armored column trundles into view. The bridge is destroyed, but Anselmo dies in the blast. As Jordan and company escape, the soldiers open fire and a shell knocks Jordan off his horse and he breaks his leg. Jordan convinces Maria to leave with Pillar and Pablo and dies when the soldiers rush him.

Director Sam Wood paces the action so that he can tell several stories at once and he generates considerable suspense and tension in the final quarter hour of this epic. The legendary production designer William Cameron Menzies created the fake bridge over the gorge. Composer Victor Young's score is wonderfully evocative. Film critics at the prestigious magazines of the day virtually denounced the film. LIFE magazine wrote: "Althoug it has been publicized as 'one of the greatest movies of all time,' "For Whom the Bell Tolls" is hardly that. To most it will be a good picture that for various reasons missing being a great one. The chief complaint will be the length of the movie. Running for almost three hours it becomes tiring, lacks a natural humor and more than once becomes self-conscious." NEW REPUBLIC film critic Manny Farber complained about the color: "I am not sure how much of the picture's peculiar lack of effect is the result of its technicolor. I myself find it difficult to take seriously a movie made in technicolor: profundity seems out of key with the carnival spirt of the color, which is always gay and bright, masklike, without substance." Farber also griped that the censors at the Production Code "killed the theme."

According to TIME magazine, Paramount presented the film as a 'roadshow attraction' with ticket prices ranging between 75 cents to a minimum of $1.10. Meanwhile, THE SATURDAY REVIEW OF LITERATURE decried the film. "The news on Paramount's long-awainted production of "For Whom the Bell Tolls" is pretty nearly all bad. It's too late, it's too long, and it's too painfully anxious not to hurt anybody's feelings. It emphasizes all of the book's inherent weaknesses, and instead of striking a ringing blow agains the forces of reaction, dribbled off into a series of pittypats." NEWSWEEK wrote "In general, it is advisable to regard FWTBT as a poignant, ill-starred romance, played against a grimly melodramatic background. Even here, though, the film leaves a good deal to be desired. Director Sam Wood does manage to whip the action into a superb fury of excitement and suspense in his scenes of carnage--particularly in the climactic destruction of the bridge, and in El Sordo's gallant, hopeless delaying action on a vulnerable mountaintop. Yet such moments only infrequently break a series of garrulous, though artistically arranged, close-ups, in a story that lacks the variety to sustain its excessive running time." THE NATION faulted the use of technicolor as Faber had in THE NEW REPUBLIC. "The Technicolor is even unluckier. It is a good as the best experts, at his stage, can make it: which still means the rankest kind of magazine-illustration and postcard art. Color is very nice for costume pieces and musical comedies, and has a great aesthetic future in films, but it still gets fatally in the way of any serious imitation of reality." Also, THE NATION's critic James Agee noted: "Mr. Hemingway's sleeping bag, by the way, is so discreetly used that you can never at any moment be sure who is in or out nuendo." ATLANTIC MONTHLY wrote: "There is a bright side to the Paramount tour de force, however. After a three-hour orgy of mispresentation, after blinking at the false use of technicolor that resembles tearoom candles more than Spain, the beholder can leave the theatre in an exalted frame of mind, because of the performance of the great actress, Katina Paxinou. She was the Pilar of whom Hemingway wrote, whom all of us knew under one name or another--the blood and dust of a suffering Spain. Every word and movement, every silence and gesture of Paxinou, was not only convincing but unforgettable. Concerning her great contribution, ennobling an otherwise dull and harmful picture, Hollywood is unanimous and overflowing with praise."

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