After I watched The Pride of the Yankees, it was time to watch For Whom The Bell Tolls on TCM. Based on the classic novel by Ernest Hemingway, the film version of For Whom The Bell Tolls was released in 1943 and, when I first started watching it, I was a little bit worried.
For, you see, For Whom The Bell Tolls is an extremely long film. It’s a film that takes its time. It’s also a very talky film and I have to admit that one reason I was worried was because the movie started at 11:30 and it was scheduled to last until 2:15 a.m. Oh my God, I wondered, as the film started to slowly play out before me, am I going to end up dozing off before this is finished?
Well, I need not have worried. Yes, For Whom The Bell Tolls does take a while to get started but it all pays off in the end. By the time the film concludes, you realize why it had to take its time and why we had to spend so much time listening to these characters talk about what they did in the past, why they’re doing what they’re doing in the present, and what they’re hoping for in the future.
Not that all of the characters have a future. At the start of the film, Robert Jordan (Gary Cooper) gets his palm read by Pilar (Katina Paxinou). Pilar refuses to tell him what she saw in his future but it’s not difficult to guess. Robert is on a suicide mission and everyone knows it. Even when he falls in love with the beautiful Maria (Ingrid Bergman), he does so with the knowledge that he’ll be dead in just a few days.
Robert is an idealistic American who, as the film opens, is in Spain. It’s the 1930s and Spain is embroiled in a civil war between fascists and guerrillas … well, if you’ve read Hemingway’s novel, you know that the guerrillas are communists. But this is a Hollywood film so, for the most part, we don’t hear much about ideology. But, then again, audiences in 1943 undoubtedly remembered the Spanish Civil War and understood that the guerrillas were fighting the forces of Gen. Francisco Franco. And, for audiences today, all that matters it that the guerrillas are trying to overthrow a government. Seriously, who doesn’t want to see the government overthrown?
(Full disclosure: My grandmother on my mother’s side came to this country from Spain and frequently insisted that Franco had not been that bad. At the time, not knowing one way or the other, I usually just smiled and nodded.)
Robert is fighting on the side of the guerrillas. In four days, a major offensive is going to be launched against the fascists and, in order to keep fascist forces from pursuing the guerrillas, Robert has been assigned to blow up a mountain bridge. Robert knows that he won’t survive this mission and, as he waits to die, he camps out with a small guerrilla band that is led by Pablo (Akim Tamiroff). At first, Pablo refuses to take part in a mission that he considers to be futile but he is overruled by his strong-willed wife, Pilar (Katina Paxinou).
Among Pablo’s group is the beautiful Maria (Ingrid Bergman), a young woman whose family was killed by the fascist forces. Robert and Maria fall in love, even as Robert prepares for his eventual death.
And then, finally, after two hours of screen time, Robert and the guerrillas head for that bridge and suddenly, we understand why the film took its time to reach this point. By the time Robert reaches the bridge, we’ve come to know and care about both him and the other guerrillas. And, as a result, we care about whether or not they survive. When the fascists launch their own counter attack, every death counts. We feel the loss of every casualty and we understand what they’re dying for. After two hours of talk, For Whom The Bell Tolls ends with a genuinely exciting and even moving action sequence. It all leads up to a final shot that will blow you away in more ways than one.
From Whom The Bell Tolls is a film that will reward those with the patience to stick with it and I’m glad that I turned out to be one of those people. It was nominated for Best Picture of 1943 but lost to another film about an anti-fascist who fought in Spain, Casablanca.