Tuesday, March 8, 2016

For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943)



Director: Sam Wood

Honors:

This colorful adaptation of the widely popular Ernest Hemingway novel would become one of the most widely acclaimed pictures of 1943. A war feature with a heavy focus on a romance depicted by front lining stars Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman made this one of the more anticipated films of the year. With its beautiful Technicolor production, admired performances by the main and supporting casts, and its ties to one of Hemingway’s more heralded works, For Whom the Bell Tolls was a grand feature of its day.

For Whom the Bell Tolls is a drama of an American soldier battling in Spanish Civil War who falls in love while carrying out a guerrilla mission that he knows will endanger his life. American teacher turned soldier Robert Jordan (Gary Cooper) is recruited by the Republic forces during the Spanish Civil War to strategically destroy a bridge at the same time as their major attack to cripple an enemy stronghold. To aid him of his mission Robert joins forces with a group of guerrilla freedom fighters. Trouble rises within this group as their leader, Pablo (Akim Tamiroff), proves to be a drunken hindrance who would rather sabotage the mission than endanger his life and is usurped by his strong willed wife Pilar (Katina Paxinou). Amongst this group of gypsy-like fighters Robert falls in love with Maria (Ingrid Bergman), a young Spanish lady who suffered the loss of her parents and her innocence to the Republics fascist enemies. Their love blossoms deeply as the moment of strike comes closer to action. Strong omens abound about the danger Robert’s future is in as he and the group blow up the bridge and must fight off the enemy soldiers. Robert is shot in the attacks as the enemy soldiers move in on his team as they attempt to escape after carrying out the mission. In duty and love Robert sends Maria and the rest to safety as heensures their escape sacrificing himself in the heroic process.

The film’s locations are exquisite. The colors are beautiful. The romance is deep and heartbreaking. For Whom the Bell Tolls was a studio prestige picture, complete with elaborate art direction and rich Technicolor cinematography. With a lengthy 170 minute runthe feature was originally presented in road show format complete with overture and intermission before being cut back for wide release. Both Bergman and Cooper were at the peak of their careers at this point further adding to the pictures great appeal to the mass audiences at the time. However the film would stray clear of Ernest Hemingway’s main political views woven within the novel to help picture remain less overwrought by the political realities in the world at the time.

Cooper and Tamiroff
When Ernst Hemingway’s novel first published in 1940, which was inspired by the author’s own experiences in the Spanish Civil War, Paramount near immediately jumped at the chance to purchase the film rights for future production. The book proved to be a triumph for the author as the book was an immediate success, one of the very best sellers of its time. As Hemingway sold the rights for $150,000 he made one condition, that Gary Cooper be cast as Robert Jordan, which legend states was whom Hemingway had in mind while writing his masterpiece work. Initially with Cecil B. DeMille attached to direct, the reigns of the picture would be passed along to Sam Wood who most recently worked with Cooper on his Academy Award nominated The Pride of the Yankees.

The role of Maria became a highly sought after role within Hollywood, similar to the Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, but many actresses refused to cut off their hair even for a praised role such as this. Production began with Vera Zorina, a 28 year-old ballerina under studio contract, as Maria. At the time Ingrid Bergman was working on a small production entitled Casablanca, which garnered her great reviews and became the defining role of her career. As filming commenced on For Whom the Bell Tolls on location in the Sierra Nevada Mountains it became clear that Zorina was not providing the performance wished for in the role. Bergman assumed the role with great eagerness at the support of Cooper and even Hemingway, stating she would not just lop off her hair for the role, but further exaggerating to say she would even lop off her head if they wished to play Maria. With Bergman in the role the romance between Robert and Maria on screen became more passionate and emotional. They found the right actress for the part.

The film focused on this on screen romance and the mission that Robert and the men needed to carry out, leaving out the strong political undertones that Hemingway laced throughout his novel. Hemingway had plenty to say and express when it came to fascists, communists, and capitalists that could have stirred people the wrong way, but the studio was mindful enough to see where the audience’s attention should be focused on. It was this kind of drama, action, and romance that audiences sought for in movies of the period and the film would go on to be a huge box office and critical success.

Paxinou (pictured with Bergman) won an Oscar and Golden Globe for her work.
The film was showered with praise including nine Academy Award nominations. Along for being in the running for best picture all of the major players were nominated for their on screen performances. Cooper and Bergman both saw nominations, losing out to Paul Lucas (Watch on the Rhine) and Jennifer Jones (The Song of Bernadette) respectfully. Supporting players of Akim Tamiroff and Katina Paxinou also receive nomination honors for their work as Pablo, the troubled, drunken freedom fighter, and Pilar, his strong willed wife. Paxinou would walk away with the lone Academy Award honor. However, at the newly formed Golden Globe Award, hosted by the Hollywood Foreign Press, both Paxinou and Tamiroff would be awarded with the highest achievement for their supporting performances. These awards manifests just how highly thought of the performances in For Whom the Bell Tolls were in 1943.

Perhaps the film holds much more significance for audiences when it initially released than it does looking back on it several decades later. The feature appears to be lacking as it plays as a drawn out love story within a drawn out plot to destroy a bridge by explosives. Separated for the deeper emotional perceptions of the novel and the separation of time from its release, this feature suffers from being a bit too long and slow.

That is not to say the film is not good. Perhaps it is not for most contemporary audiences. The performances could be looked upon as a bit forced as time goes by, but For Whom the Bell Tolls was a picture that was made for and enjoyed by an audience of the 1940s while war was very much in the minds of all in everyday life. Now, far separated from times of World War II, the story does not impact audiences the same way it had to a world under the conditions of that time.

The presentation of a glamorous roadshow picture also added to the prestige of the picture as many movie goers lapped up the idea of going to the theater as a major event complete with all the bells and whistles that made the feature seem more important than it really was. Time has not been the kindest to the picture story-wise, but it still shines on as a beautiful piece of celluloid that flickers wonderful imagery on the screens of today. The resonance of story and its romance just does not appear to have quite the same impact as it once had when the actors were in their prime and the timing was right.

For Whom the Bell Tolls still remains as shining example that Hollywood studios in the midst of World War II was able to put out a high quality of prestige picture even in a world of cut backs and rationing. Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman literally shine on the screens of 1943 as they still do today in this feature. Together they shared performances in this heartbreaking romance that can still stir audiences.

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