For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943)
Didn't Ring My Bell
Having watched "For Whom the Bell Tolls" it made me wish two things; one that I had been born earlier and two that I had read Ernest Hemingway's novel on which it is based. Why? Well for the simple reason that maybe I would be in love with this movie more because sadly this story of adventure and romance left me bored and I know that will annoy many who love this old movie. The trouble is that "For Whom the Bell Tolls" feels like it has been made by those who idolise Hemingway delivering an end product which is over long, slow going, unrealistically wordy and for a movie which features a bridge being blown up not that exciting. Not only that we also have a director and cinematographer who is mesmerised by Ingrid Bergman and in fairness she is ridiculously beautiful but the number of times the camera gets up close in her face is over kill.
The year is 1937 and American Robert Jordan (Gary Cooper - North West Mounted Police) is fighting for the rebels in the Spanish civil war using his skills as an explosives man to take out important bridges and train tracks. Having been sent high up into the mountain to await for the right time to blow up his next target he finds himself staying with other rebels and not all of them are keen on him or what he has been sent to do. He also meets Maria (Ingrid Bergman - Casablanca), an attractive young refugee who has ended up staying with them in the hills leading to some surprise romance between them.
Now I don't know how close to "For Whom the Bell Tolls" sticks but I get an unsettling feeling that it sticks very close to the point of using some of Hemingway's dialogue. I say unsettling because this is the problem I have with the movie, director Sam Wood comes across as if he reveres Hemingway and wouldn't dare stray from his story and vision. Now that story and vision may work as a piece of literature but turned into a movie it doesn't, it fails to flow, to create atmosphere and frankly feel natural. That lack of naturalness comes from some seriously over baked dialogue which probably sounds great in your head when read from a page but heard spoken sounds so wrong.
As such "For Whom the Bell Tolls" struggles to find its own identity especially as it struggles to juggle the 3 elements of the story which should give us romance, tension and action. Again it never feels natural, the confrontations which arise from Pablo disagreeing with what Jordan is there to do comes across as too staged with long passages of dialogue which tend to bore. It is the same with romance and as already mentioned someone behind the camera was obviously smitten with Bergman thanks to the over indulgent use of close ups on her face. And then there is the action which to be honest ends up the best part of the movie but also feeling like an after thought because you have to wade through over 2 hours of what now feels very much like melodrama to get to it.
Now some of these problems come from "For Whom the Bell Tolls" being an old movie, one in a very old style but even taking that in to account, the familiar romantic set ups all feel quite flat. Why? Well there is the issue of dialogue and close ups but there is also no chemistry between Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman, yes they individually play their parts well but when it comes to the scenes together it is all too rigid and forced. In fact whilst I would say Cooper and Bergman were ideal for their characters they are both eclipsed by Katina Paxinou who plays the larger than life Pilar and delivers what the movie needed which is character. When ever a scene involves Paxinou you get aggression, humour, character and tension as she makes the most of her role as a dominant woman.
What this all boils down to is that "For Whom the Bell Tolls" is a disappointment because for the simple fact that it feels like those who made the movie idolized Hemingway and made a too literal adaptation of his novel rather than turning it into a movie which flowed and felt real. I am sure if I had read Hemingway's novel first or had been alive to watch "For Whom the Bell Tolls" when it came out my impression would be different and more positive.
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