Movie Review

For Whom the Bell Tolls

In spite of all the things that were done to me...I never kissed a man until you...and now there are only three days and three nights!
For Whom the Bell Tolls Movie Poster

US Release Date: 07-14-1943

Directed by: Sam Wood


  • Gary Cooper
  • Robert Jordan
  • Ingrid Bergman
  • Maria
  • Katina Paxinou
  • Pilar
  • Akim Tamiroff
  • Pablo
  • Vladimir Sokoloff
  • Anselmo
  • Arturo de Cordova
  • Agustin
  • Lilo Yarson
  • Joaquin
  • Fortunio Bonanova
  • Fernando
  • Mikhail Rasumny
  • Rafael
Average Stars:
Reviewed on: March 16th, 2009
Does that Swedish woman look Spanish at all?

Does that Swedish woman look Spanish at all?

For Whom the Bell Tolls is a very long adaptation of the Ernest Hemingway novel of the same name. It was the highest grossing film of 1943 and earned 9 Academy Award nominations. Yet today, its melodramatic acting makes it seem very dated. There are a few action scenes, but its interminable length on top of the melodrama made it difficult for me to enjoy.

Cooper stars as Robert Jordan, an American fighting in the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side against the Fascists. He's an explosives expert who is sent into the mountains to rendezvous with a band of guerrilla fighters who will aid him in destroying a bridge that is key to an upcoming surprise attack by the Republican army. The attack is due to happen in three days and the entire movie takes place during that time.

In camp, during the time Jordan is waiting, there is lots of drama going on. He meets young Maria (Bergman), a woman who witnessed her family being killed and was raped by Fascist troops. The two fall in love (or at least lust) at first sight. It is their relationship that suffers from the most meldrama. Hemingway, while a genius, often wrote some pretty sappy dialogue for his characters, but is outdone here by the screenwriter who takes his words and adds a few extra layers of over-the-top sentimentality. "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," is an example of some of their dialogue. I mean, who talks like that?

There have been many great on-screen romances, but I never felt like this was one of them. Also, although reportedly Hemingway himself wanted Bergman for this part, I am left wondering why they hired a Swedish Actress to play a Spanish woman and then never even bother to dye her hair black, but instead just give her a very heavy foundation that completely fails to make her look Spanish in the tiniest bit. She just looks like a blue-eyed Swedish woman with a tan.

The other drama in the camp is caused by the power struggle amongst the guerrilla band. Pablo, the leader when Jordan arrives, is a fallen man. Once brave, he now is content to remain hidden in his cave in the mountains. He tries to veto Jordan's plan, but is overridden by the other men and most humiliating, by his own woman, Pilar, whom it turns out has more balls than most of the men in the movie. Katina Paxinou, deservedly won an Oscar for Best-Supporting Actress in the part.

Only during the action does this movie come into its own. The majority of it is filmed on location and the mountains look beautiful, particularly in the snow. There are some tense scenes when the guerrillas are hiding from some soldiers and a good fight scene when another group is trapped on top of a hill, who know that as soon as the planes arrive they will be bombed out, but who cannot leave because they are surrounded. There is also a scene shown in flashback of Pablo killing prisoners by making them run a gauntlet and then throwing them off of a cliff, which might have been shocking at the time, but pales by comparison to the description in the novel.

One of the real problems with adapting a Hemingway novel is that the real genius of Hemingway, wasn't in his plots and his characters, but in his actual writing style. You can take characters with the same names in the same situations and put them on the big screen, but you can't put his crisp, clean prose style up there. Also, a great deal of this story is told inside Jordan's head, which is difficult to show in a movie. This one only attempts it once at the very end, when you "hear" Jordan's thought.

This is a real old-fashioned epic. It runs nearly three hours long, beginning with a musical overture and featuring an intermission where the overture is reprised. You could easily edit an hour out and you wouldn't lose anything, you'd only gain.

If you really want to know this story, don't bother with the movie at all. Go out and read the book.

Reviewed on: May 17th, 2012
Ingrid Bergman, Katina Paxinou, and Gary Cooper in For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Ingrid Bergman, Katina Paxinou, and Gary Cooper in For Whom the Bell Tolls.

I disagree about the acting. Sure some of the dialogue is almost operatic in its emotionalism but I think this is one of Gary Cooper's best performances, and I didn't find the acting by any members of the cast to be overly melodramatic. I do agree that it runs too long and some of the many talking scenes could have been cut or shortened. Overall though the story is tense and the cast very good. I would argue that it holds up better than many 1940's war dramas thanks mostly to the great writing by Ernest Hemingway. The climax is gripping.

Ingrid Bergman is fine as Maria. Scott, not all Spanish or Hispanic women have black hair, they do have some blonds too. Sofía Vergara of television's Modern Family is Colombian and she is a natural blond. She dyes her hair black to better fit the American stereotype of a Latina. But I digress. Bergman's short haircut gives her a charming boyish appearance. The director filmed many of her scenes with Cooper in extreme closeup to take advantage of just how photogenic and charismatic the two of them were.

For years I had wondered about who this Katina Paxinou was. She is one of the least known people to ever win an acting Oscar. After seeing this movie I wholeheartedly agree with Scott that she deserved it. She gives the standout performance in the movie as Pilar, easily the best soldier and most memorable character of the guerrilla band. The scene Scott mentioned where Pilar describes the execution of several fascist members of her village when they are forced to walk a gauntlet towards a cliff, is powerfully filmed and was apparently based on actual events that took place in the village of Ronda in 1936.

Scott, when you say most of it was filmed on location I know you are referring to the fact that they left the studio backlot and went up into the California mountains. They did not, however, go to Spain, just to be clear. The cinematography is quite gorgeous though and takes full advantage of both the scenery and the incredible faces of its two stars.

Of course, as Scott mentioned, when dealing with great literature it's always better to read the novel than to merely watch a movie adaptation. As he pointed out, there is so much that cannot be translated from page to screen. In fact, seeing For Whom the Bell Tolls made me want to go out and buy a copy of the book; it's one I have been meaning to read for years but have never gotten around to.

Reviewed on: June 12th, 2012
Ingrid Bergman and Gary Cooper play the cleanest cave dwelling rebels ever in For Whom the Bells Toll

Ingrid Bergman and Gary Cooper play the cleanest cave dwelling rebels ever in For Whom the Bells Toll

Sam Wood began directing films in 1920 with a series of silent films starring Wallace Reid.  He then went on to work with Gloria Swanson in even more silent films.  They were almost all one hour or less.  Clearly he had practice in telling a story in a modest amount of time.  There is not enough story going on here to justify a 170 minute running time.

I agree with my brothers that he mostly takes advantage of the mountainous scenery.  The opening scene was clearly filmed on a sound stage.  At dusk, two men blow up a train that looks to be very far off.  Soldiers from the train know exactly where they are hiding and find them in seconds.  They chase after them as they run across what is supposed to be a mountainous region.  It is a decent scene but would have been so much better had it been filmed on location.

As Patrick wrote, Wood often filmed Bergman and Cooper in extreme close up to take advantage of just how photogenic and charismatic they were.  To accentuate just how attractive they were, he had everyone else buried under all kinds of makeup that made their skin look grayish and dirty.  You never forget who the stars are, just look for the two cleanest people on screen.  

I agree with Scott about the dialogue.  Another stupid line of Bergman's is when she says, "I do not know how to kiss, or I would kiss you. Where do the noses go?"  How young is her character supposed to be, 13?  It is not just that some of the dialogue is bad but that there is just too damn much of it.  Too often it is just a series of conversations between the same small group of people that barely, if at all, advance the plot.

As in his silent film days, Wood liked to work with an actor more than once.  This was Wood's second of three movies in a row with Cooper.  The other two, The Pride of the Yankees (1942) and Casanova Brown (1944) are far shorter and more entertaining and watchable films. 

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