WHENEVER a Hollywood studio buys a sensational best-seller for a fabulous price and sets in motion a tremendous ballyhoo for a stupendous production, all loyal employees rally round and convince themselves, with naïve and refreshing enthusiasm, that the picture will go down in film history as the greatest of all time. That is normal.
It is also normal that the rival big shots and small calibers of the other studios will be skeptical before the preview and insidiously critical, in a relieved and cautious way, after the picture is released.
For Whom the Bell Tolls is no exception.
“Three hours and someone blows up a bridge. So what?” was the comment I heard from a powerful and experienced agent, who does not, it goes without saying, handle either Gary Cooper or Ingrid Bergman.
One of t he pioneers of the industry, a man who has made several colossal pictures himself, told me, in a bewildered, almost fearful whisper, that he didn’t “understand” the story.
“Who was fighting whom, and why?” he asked.
Neither of these men knew anything about Spain or the war which laid it waste. They were judging the show purely as entertainment. It seemed to them too long, monotonous in tempo, confused and blurred, and for the most part boring. That, surely, is the consensus of opinion in the trade.
The producer-director, Sam Wood, saw primarily in For Whom the Bell Tolls a heart-rending love story and made no attempt to mirror contemporary history or elucidate the tragedy of Spain. His treatment invites the kind of criticism the picture is receiving from men who know lots about the show business and who, because they have devoted their lives to their craft, have lit tle general information or awareness of world affairs. So first an analysis of For Whom from the standpoint of romance.
The hero is a phlegmatic, somewhat taciturn, middle-aged American who appears on the hill as Robert Jordan and every man, woman, and child knows is Gary Cooper. Gary is always the same. He was a “natural” for The Virginian and has changed little since. They’re trying to get him now to be Rickenbacker. Let us hope he is spared that. He is patient, wonderfully considerate with his lesser-paid co-workers, a sterling citizen, exemplary husband — all in all, a splendid man. Granting all that, it would be churlish to press a point about his being an actor.
Gary’s partner, on the other hand, is one of the most talented actresses alive. She was listed as a Spanish girl, Maria, and instantly recognized as a Swede named Ingrid Bergman. Had Carmen Miranda been cast for the lead in some Swedish classic, the odds against Carmen would have been comparable to those faced, and how bravely, by Miss Bergman. No one can say she didn’t try.
So our love story, thus far, is safely un-Spanish. Maria had been forced to witness her parents’ execution, then had been cropped, tortured, raped, and was heading for prison and more abuse when rescued by a band of guerrillas. Pilar, the magnificent Paxinou, took care of her and was trying to nurse the girl back to mental and physical health when Robert Jordan showed up to blow a bridge. Maria likes Robert; he responds, but with restraint. Maria wants to live and serve and love. Jordan is busy with a war and feels that he is about to die.
The love scenes occur, as follows; —
(а) Boy meets girl in the presence of a gypsy who, unluckily for us, acts like an Italian comedian of the burlesque variety. Girl tells boy she is no one’s woman. He says he has no time for a woman. No one, utterly no one, believes a word of this. Least of all Pablo, the Republican heavy, who has a yen for Maria himself.
(b) Late the same evening, after Pablo has become a menace, Maria steals out to Jordan in his sleeping bag to warn him. She tells him she has been thinking of him, and when he runs his hand through her hair she admits she has been wanting him to do it.
(c) On a mountain slope, “ feeling the smoothness of her arm ... he turns his head and looks down at her.”
JORDAN: Hello, Maria.
MARIA: (Yes, reader. You’ve already guessed that she says) Hello, Roberto.
(d) “Her eyes are alight with unashamed love.”
MARIA: Don’t you want to be alone with me?
JORDAN (gruffly, to cover his surge of feeling): Sure I do.
She tells him the heart-rending story of her parents’ execution, but can’t go on. He says, “You poor kid.” At the end of this scene “he realizes it’s no use trying to fight himself any further and he folds her in his arms and kisses her with his whole heart and being.”
(e) Maria brings out Robert’s sleeping robe. “Even if Pilar had told me not to come I would have come,” she says. Gary is right up against it. Maria succeeds in unburdening her mind of the story of rape. He says it doesn’t matter. “No one’s touched you. No one!”
“Tears of unbelievable joy flood her eyes and she clings to him and they kiss with t heir whole hearts.”
(f) Maria dreams she has seen Jordan’s home and mother in America and has borne him a son. “Now I’m your woman, I will always be your woman,” she says. Jordan, “with deep feeling,” says, “Always.”
(g) Mortally wounded, Jordan talks Maria into leaving him. This is the most unconvincing scene I, for one, have ever witnessed on or off the screen. I remember thinking, the first time I saw the picture: “ Gary is not going to die from his wounds. It’s that dialogue that’s really killing him.”
This is a sample: “I know it’s harder for you. But now I’m you also. If you go, I go, too. That’s t he only way I can go. . . . You’re we, now. Surely you must feel it, Maria.”
She clings desperately but he takes her arms from him.
“Now you’re good and kind — you’re going well and fast and far and we both go in you. Now you’re obeying, Maria. Not me, but both of us. The me in you. We both go in you now. I promise you that.”
She goes. Hedies. And mind you, reader, these seven scenes, all brief except the blowoff, which is much too long, are scattered through three hours of practically unrelated matter. Everything created by Hemingway in the book is lost — all the passion and the subtlety, all the humanity and tragedy, all the vicarious thrill.
Hemingway, himself, had nothing whatever to do with the film. He has had no experience in Hollywood, dislikes moving pictures intensely, and, up to the moment of this writing, has not seen the Paramount production. One must not forget that he wrote, on the battlefield, the commentary for The Spanish Earth, which shows the Spanish Republican Army in all its dignity and courage. Because The Spanish Earth was denied a general release, most Americans who see For Whom the Bell Tolls will not think of it in relation to the Hemingway-Ivens documentary concerning the Spanish War. That is a pity, for them and for Hemingway.
Hollywood’s small minority that has an interest and understanding of the Spanish War as a part of the present general conflict is so tiny and has so little influence that it is negligible. In its behalf one can only say that For Whom the Bell Tolls brought indignation and disappointment.
The war in Spain was essentially a defense of their elected government by the Spanish people, fighting against a clique of military traitors supported by the resources and men of Mussolini and Hitler, a corrupt and cynical clergy backed by uninformed Catholics elsewhere, and a few large and fabulously wealthy landowners.
What do we see in the film, For Whom the Bell Tolls? A Russian and an American blow up a train. Manfully the American shoots his comrade to save him from torture by the Fascists, who are called “Nationalists.”
We see no Spanish Republican soldiers in uniform— only a band of guerrillas who look and act, for the most part, like comedy tramps. Their messenger is intercepted by a half-witted Frenchman and sped on his way by another Russian. Franco’s Fascists, however, appear in neat Spanish uniforms, and seem to be Spaniards. There are only two mentions of foreign invasion. With reference to some planes passing over, Gary Cooper says briefly they’re of Italian make. The second is the following oration as written (in full) by Dudley Nichols and delivered (in part) by Cooper: —
JORDAN: Well, I believe I am fighting for my country. A lot of us do. (Looks at their puzzled faces and sees he must make it clearer.) Maybe you feel I’m sticking my nose into other people’s business, but I don’t feel that way. It isn’t only Spain fighting here, is it? (They shake heads emphatically.) I believe another world war’s beginning to boil up here. Germany and Italy on one side, Russia on the other — and the Spanish people in the middle of it all. The Nazis and Fascists are just as much against democracy as they are against the Communists. They’re making your country a proving ground for their new war machinery — tanks, dive bombers, all that stuff — so they can get the jump on the democracies and knock off England, France, and my country before we get armed and ready to fight.
PILAR (profoundly interested, as all are): Do all Americans believe this?
JORDAN(shakes head): I wish they did. Some people are doing all they can to help the Fascists. Americans want peace, and a free world. But if the Fascists aren’t licked right here, it’s going to be a tough war. The few Americans fighting for your side here are like fellows who see a fire starting outside their own yard and try to put it out before it spreads and burns down everything.
Anyone with the slightest experience in making moving pictures knows that action registers in the public mind, and long speeches never.
The Fascists murder Maria’s father and mother and neighbors, manhandle and rape the girl and her Republican girl friends. But this we never see. Maria tells it, very briefly, and Roberto assures her it is nothing.
The Republicans, aided by Pablo and his staunch wife, Pilar, round up the Fascists in their home village and have them killed quite brutally. This, of course, we see in great detail. In false detail, in fact. Americans, 99 per cent ignorant of Spanish affairs, are left with the impression that some drunken peasant brutes are wiping out the respectable element in the town.
So, instead of seeing a lot of Italians with German technicians and modern arms fighting Spanish patriots with nothing but their courage and what stones they could pick up from the ground, we are treated to the spectacle of Russians, Americans, Swedes, and tramps slaughtering substantial citizens and fighting Spanish “soldiers.” The only thing to be said for this hoax is that it is so complete that no one believes it.
The total effect of For Whom is as thorough a piece of anti-democratic propaganda as has ever been accidentally achieved. Fortunately, it doesn’t come off. Sam Wood knows very well what has happened on the screen during the past twenty years. The outside world has passed him by completely. So much for the value of the film as a piece of propaganda.
There is a bright side to the Paramount tour de force, however. After a three-hour orgy of misrepresentation, after blinking at the false use of technicolor that resembles tearoom candles more than Spain, the beholder can leave the theater 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.