For Whom the Bell Tolls Movie Review

Content Warning: this review contains discussions on brown face.

Whenever a novel is adapted into film, there are three ways that it can be approached. One is to take elements from the book loosely. Another is to follow the main plot of the novel, but change certain aspects of it like structure and characters. The third way is to adapt almost everything from the book with little to no alterations. The movie version of For Whom the Bell Tolls falls neatly into the third category. I mentioned a while back that I was reading that novel by Ernest Hemingway, so I could watch the film version from 1943 starring Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman for The 300 Passions Podcast. Well reader, I viewed the film very recently, and it desperately wants to be the novel without fully capturing the spirit. I’ll analyze the good, the bad, and the why aspects of the movie in this context.

Let’s begin with the good. In addition, the action scenes were well shot. Cinematographer Ray Rennahan shoots these sections with a variety of angles that often includes lots of closeups of the main characters. These shots are extremely effective since they show those characters’ reactions to what’s happening around them and to others and emphasizes the stakes involved. A case in point is the scene, in which each member of the guerilla group tries to move past the fascists while on horseback as the latter shoots at them. The tension is well placed, and the long and closeup shots are appropriately used. 

Furthermore, the score by Victor Young really suits the atmosphere that the film desperately wants to be. Its sweeping dramatic and romantic melodies along with plenty of Spanish guitars capture the flair of the main location and tries to convince audiences to believe that it’s a grand epic. If it was a silent movie, I’d buy into that. It also helps that it’s pleasant to listen while cleaning the bathrooms during the overture and intermission.

In addition, I like the look of the flick. It’s not necessarily ugly, but it’s de-glamorized. Knowing how Hemingway’s novels contained a lot of realism, it makes sense to make the environment – high up in the mountains of Spain – as naturalistic as possible. This includes a color palette of white, tan, black, purple, blue, green, and brown – lots and lots of brown (we’ll get to that when we get the why section of this review). Even Ingrid Bergman as Maria, who always looks beautiful, is de-glammed with her short hair and formless shirt and pair of pants. Also, the film shows plenty of sweat and blood, especially during the action scenes. All of these elements make it look visually effective. This marks the end of the good elements of the film.

Now, let’s move to the bad, or more specifically the dull. Where to start…oh yes, there’s a lot of talking. There’s nothing wrong with that since that can be effectively used to get points across in filmmaking, but movies are still a visual medium. In other words, people go to the cinema to watch flicks, not to listen to them. Many scenes in For Whom the Bell Tolls contain scenes with heavy dialogue with little to no variety. For those not familiar with the book, these can be painfully boring to them and make it harder for them to follow along. 

To be fair, this isn’t entirely the film’s fault. The book consists of a lot of dialogue as well. The main problem with the movie is that the filmmakers involved, including director Sam Wood and screenwriter Dudley Nichols, felt that they needed to include almost everything in the book. Given that the novel is unnecessarily long, this makes the flick just the same. As mentioned earlier, the film even has overture music and an intermission. Yes, it’s almost Gone With the Wind long. Speaking of that movie, Sam Wood was briefly involved with that one, so I have a feeling that he wanted to make his own epic based on a popular book. For Whom the Bell Tolls the book sold over half a million copies when it was originally published in 1940. According to the recent Ken Burns documentary on Hemingway, the only novel that sold more at that time was in fact Gone With the Wind. In other words, by making For Whom the Bell Tolls a cinematic epic, Wood was making Oscar bait.

Speaking of translating the book to the screen, whatever nuance the novel had got eliminated or watered down in the movie. This essence mainly lied in the politics surrounding the Spanish Civil War and the trauma some of the characters face. For example, in the book, one of the guerilla members asks Robert if he’s anti-fascist. He says yes, and the guy who pondered that automatically assumes that he’s pro-communist. Robert quickly clarifies that he’s both anti-communist and anti-fascist (beliefs that Gary Cooper himself held in real life I may add). The screenplay depoliticized the story so much that outside of a few lines of dialogue, there’s barely any indication of which side the guerilla group is fighting on. I understand doing that while the United States still held its isolationist stance until 1941. Additionally, Robert himself was only involved with the Spanish Civil War to fight for democracy; he didn’t care much about the politics surrounding it. However, the film was released in 1943, and the US was fully involved in a war fighting against you guessed it – fascists! I have a feeling that Sam Wood’s staunch anti-communist beliefs played a part in that (I’m not saying that he was a fascist). 

In addition, the book talks a lot about trauma. A little of this is retained since Marie’s short hair is the result of the forceful actions of fascist thugs. However, the novel explores this more along with Robert’s family history. Robert has inner monologues about what it means to be a man, and he recalls how he wanted to be like his grandfather, who fought in the American Civil War and lived, because his own father took his own life. I’ll let that one slide because Hollywood wasn’t (and still is to a degree) exactly comfortable talking about mental wellness issues at the time.

Also in the book, Robert monologues to himself about whether or not he’s willing to die for the cause since he feels that all hope is lost on the anti-fascist side. This theme is echoed throughout the book. For example, when El Sordo and his men are fighting on top of the hill, the fascist officer at the bottom of the base wants one of his soldiers to climb up to see if they are dead. That man refuses because he doesn’t want to die. In addition, this theme comes full circle when Robert is dying by a tree after his leg gets crushed by the horse he was riding. He spots another fascist soldier and gets his gun ready, and the book abruptly ends. At first, I thought that was odd, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Hemingway purposely made it ambiguous to let how Robert deals with that soldier up to the reader. In the movie, a lot of that discussion on whether or not it’s worth dying for the cause is primarily contained in the El Sordo fighting scene. Missing that aspect throughout the film makes the ending less justified in its abruptness and adds more annoyance to the viewers.

What about the performances? I found a majority of them to be dull. I normally enjoy Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman, yet their performances were bland. Granted, their characters in the book are already mostly boring to begin with, but great actors can bring depth and dimension even to characters who are not known for those things. I’m not saying Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman are not good actors (the latter had finished shooting Casablanca, which contains one of her finest performances on screen, when she accepted the role of Maria). What I am claiming is that they could’ve done more with those characters. Cooper is doing his usual strong silent type with no real variation, while Ingrid is a little too happy playing a woman who recently had a traumatic experience. With the latter, she seemed more concerned with her hair than with dealing with the trauma that is associated with the short tresses. In fact, everytime she appears on screen, Bergman touches her hair at some point, even when Maria becomes more comfortable around Robert. It’s as if all of her trauma would go away if her hair grew.

Now, let’s discuss Katrina Paxinou. She won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her part as Pilar in the film (the sole award that the film won out of 9 nominations). Film critics have decreed it as one of the worst Best Supporting Actress wins, and I can’t say that I disagree with them. Paxinou’s performance is basically “I’m a strong, confident, and ugly woman, hear me roar! Roar, roar, roar!”

Granted in the book, her character doesn’t have a whole lot to do besides show off how much of a better leader she is than her husband Pablo is. Additionally, The 300 Passions Podcast host Zita Short was right when she said that as Pilar, Paxinou moves and talks with purpose and always has a goal. Nevertheless, the issues that I have with Cooper and Bergman apply with her too. She doesn’t elevate the role outside of what the script calls for. It’s a shame because I was really looking forward to seeing how Pilar would be depicted on film after reading the book.

And last but not least, we must discuss the why. What is the why in this case? I’m glad you ask: it’s the brown face. All of the guerilla members that aren’t Robert are caked with brown face to make them look more “Spanish.”

Now, of course, I understand that there are some people, especially Americans, that don’t realize that a lot of Spaniards actually have a variety of skin colors, including pale. This is mainly because of the notion that white people have that Spanish-speaking people have brown skin. I easily comprehend this ignorance on Wood’s end for that decision, yet I’m not letting him off the hook. However, half of the blame for that problematic element is Hemingway himself. Throughout the novel, he describes the supporting characters as having brown skin even though he went to Spain as a foreign correspondent to cover the Spanish Civil War, so he knew what Spainards looked like. And yet, he still chose to depict the Spanish characters with brown skin. It doesn’t help that the movie has the more flawed supporting characters with darker brown skin as opposed to Marie, who is nice and beautiful and possesses a lighter hue. 

It’s because of this decision that I couldn’t take the performances of the supporting cast seriously. This is especially true of Paxinou, who won an Oscar for that role! In addition, while I was watching the film, I noticed that there was a clear line of where the brown makeup ended on her neck, and I could see a bit of her naturally pale skin below that. It frustrates me to know that the film wanted these characters with pancaked brown skin to be taken seriously. However, not only is that makeup extremely uncomfortable, but it’s also a bad job.

See the bad and obviously problematic makeup in its full glory!

Given all of my criticisms, For Whom the Bell Tolls is not the worst movie adaptation of an Ernest Hemingway work. That distinction goes to the film version of Hemingway’s short story The Snows of Kilimanjaro starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, and Susan Hayward. That one is a dirge with a capital D with uninteresting visuals and characters that I didn’t care about for one second. At least, the former tried to make me care about the people involved in blowing up the bridge, and that was successful…sometimes.

Overall, the movie version of For Whom the Bell Tolls is dull with a capital D. It has some good visuals and music, but they don’t save it from its length, the amount of talking, the lack of nuance the book had, the bland performances, and the brown face. At face value, I wouldn’t recommend this movie, but if someone wants to watch it for Oscar season or for curiosity’s sake, I’m not going to stop them. If anything, the film is a good example of why filmmakers shouldn’t try to include everything that happens in the novel they’re adapting.

If you haven’t already, go listen to The 300 Passions Podcast, where I discuss the film in more detail with Zita Short!

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Published by emilymalek

I work at a public library southeast Michigan, and I facilitate two book clubs there. I also hold a Bachelor's degree in History and Theatre from Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, MI; a Master's degree in Library and Information Science from Wayne State University in Detroit, MI; and a Graduate Certificate in Archival Administration also from Wayne. In my downtime, I love hanging out with friends, play trivia and crossword puzzles, listening to music (like classic rock and K-pop), and watching shows like "Monty Python's Flying Circus"!

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