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Building my Movie Posters Puzzle: For Whom the Bell Tolls

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In late June I took advantage of some free days to visit my Mother in Virginia for her birthday. It was a fun long weekend that included meals out, a screening of Finding Dory, and an unexpected shared activity when I ran across a puzzle in the book store that was just too good to pass up. It consists of thirty-nine posters from a wide variety of classic films stretching from the silent era of the 1920s into the 1970s. It was an engrossing project to undertake alongside my Mother and we naturally discussed several of the featured movies as we built it. What stunned me a little was that I had actually only seen twenty-six of the thirty-nine films honored. I have vowed to fill these gaps in my knowledge of film and take you along for the ride as I reconstruct the puzzle in question. I’ll re-watch the movies I’ve already seen along with experiencing the ones that are new to me and share my thoughts on each one.

This is one of the movies I have looked forward to seeing since setting this task for myself. For Whom the Bell Tolls is a toweringly famous novel, but the film version has faded from the public mind over the intervening decades. Come with me as I discuss my viewing of this forgotten curiosity.

I should first admit that I have never read Ernest Hemingway’s source material. My school introduced us to The Old Man and the Sea instead, along with one of Hemingway’s short stories, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” The Nobel prize-winning author and journalist was a giant of mid-20th century American culture, emphasizing simple, economical prose and themes such as the nobility and failures of masculinity, naturalism, and dignified death. This self-manufactured image was damaged a little when Hemingway ended his own life in 1961 by shooting himself in the head with his favorite shotgun.

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Hemingway himself was closely consulted on the production of For Whom the Bell Tolls, and he personally approved its stars Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman. The selections are a bit of a mixed bag from what I can tell from the final product. Cooper’s well-worn, understated American masculinity is extremely appropriate both for the character and as a personification of the Hemingway ideal. He is often un underrated actor, but his subtlety is put to good use here. The twenty-eight year old Swede Bergman, on the other hand, seems like a poor fit for the role of a nineteen year old Spanish woman. This inappropriate casting is only emphasized by the slightly cartoonish depictions of some of the Spanish Republicans and gypsies Cooper’s character finds her with. Despite this, Bergman’s incandescence and charm continue to be inarguable in her very first appearance in a Technicolor film, just one year after her signature role in Casablanca.

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The film was generally well-received critically on its release in 1943, with only its mildly arduous length coming under fire at times. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times gave a mostly glowing review of the film, but kept coming back to phrases such as “The quality of their work is flawless. Only there is too much of it.” I would personally offer caveats to both ends of those conflicting pronouncements. Yes, the film is generally engaging and does an admirable job of plotting out the relationships of its characters and building very genuine feelings of suspense, dread, and impending tragedy. Classic Hollywood melodrama and some stunning moments of economic visual poetry show me why the film was nominated for nine Academy Awards. However, some of the characterizations have aged poorly enough to significantly damage how seriously a modern audience can take it in spots. The cinematography, which I’m sure was quite handsome for its time, is too often insular and does not fully display the physical realities of the story’s settings.

As far as the film’s length goes, while I must admit that the running time is high, there are mitigating factors which should be taken into account. First, the film’s very length is part of what allows the audience to become fully invested in the story and characters, giving it a novel’s breadth and shared history. A more truncated version would likely lose the scope and impact the movie currently possesses. Secondly, modern audiences will likely be watching this movie at home through a streaming service, allowing them to react appropriately and independently to some of its built-in time-wasting. The version of the movie I rented through iTunes on my Apple TV included both an overture and an intermission, each one playing to a blank black screen. A home viewer can deal with this in a few ways. You can take the opportunity to use the bathroom or grab a quick snack while the soundtrack plays on. You can fast forward through it in order to reduce the overall playing time by several minutes. Or you can just sit there and watch a blank screen and listen to the Oscar nominated score. Personally, I would recommend a combination of the first two approaches. Fast forward through the overture. Its inclusion will only add to your impatience with the opening stages of what you know will be a long movie viewing experience. When the intermission arrives, race for that relief or refill and let the film play (but don’t go far, it doesn’t last that long).

While I won’t claim that For Whom the Bell Tolls is a forgotten masterpiece, or even a piece of popular entertainment that will please a wide audience, it does possess well-formed romance and action paired with some sophisticated subject matter and dynamics, making it the sort of movie that a fan of storytelling in general will find engrossing and rewarding. Have any of you seen this adaptation of one of Hemingway’s  most famous books? Tell me what you think in the comments section.

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Posted on July 23, 2016, in Movies, Oscars, trailers and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. I’m aware of the film, but I’ve never viewed it. Also, I’ve read some of Hemingway’s work, but not this particular one. Well, for fans of the band Metallica, the title is familiar (good song, and I’m only casual for Metallica).

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  2. Have I seen it? You have to go far deeper into Ingrid Bergman’s filmography if you want to find a movie of hers I haven’t seen. Do I remember it? Not very well. I checked that box in high school.

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    • Bergman was a wonderful actress, but her casting in For Whom the Bell Tolls is a little questionable.

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      • Mostly, I remember her short, curly hairdo. It’s been about 30 years since I watched For Whom the Bell Tolls and I filed it in the “once is enough” column. I do remember reading Bergman’s autobiography that she became quite close to Hemingway and corresponded with him quite a bit. I suspect, like many, the author was smitten with her.

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        • Can’t blame him for that, but she just doesn’t look or sound like a 19 year old Spanish woman.
          I ended up liking the movie much more than I had anticipated, and if it wasn’t for some of the wonky casting and broad characterizations, some very simple and minor editing could make it into a truly excellent film. There was a lot about it that was very very good, including its build of internal tension, the chemistry between Cooper and Bergman, and the action sequences.

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        • Can’t really argue against any of your points. My memory of the movie isn’t strong enough even if I wanted to. Bergman certainly doesn’t call to mind a 19-year-old Spanish girl.

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  3. I saw it 20 years ago and don’t remember it. How was the work of Katina Paxinou in the film? She won an Oscar for best supporting actress.

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    • She did, and I don’t want to underestimate the talent involved in her work, but it is not the kind of performance which would be highly esteemed by modern audiences. As I mentioned in the article, some of the characterizations of working class Spanish people are pretty cartoony and hers is not blameless on this count. I like that the character as written is nuanced and that she is a powerful female, but it’s an antiquated presentation.

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