“No man is an island, entire of itself… any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” – John Donne
These immortal words begin the film as a bell rings, setting a solemn tone. Then the excitement starts with a bang as Robert Jones (Gary Cooper) blows up a train in the middle of the night. He and his comrades flee from gunfire and into a cave, where they meet with more revolutionists fighting for the republic.
The story is based off the great Ernest Hemingway novel and the setting is Spain, 1937, in the heat of the Spanish Civil War. Robert (Roberto or Inglés to some) was a college professor teaching Spanish and a fierce idealist, therefore traveling to fight in Spain. He and his comrades (a mixed up troop of displaced Spaniards and Gypsies) decide their next target is to demolish a nearby bridge as troops are moving into battle. They have three nights to prepare for this and need to find enough horses so that everyone can retreat quicker after the explosion. That’s also enough time to turn on each other a bit, have to deal with adverse weather and find love.
For Whom the Bell Tolls is so full of great acting it had four acting nominations, one of them winning. Of them are Gary Cooper and Ingred Bergman, where rumor has it that Hemmingway had these two actors in mind as he wrote the novel. Bergman filmed this just after completing Casablanca and willingly cut her hair down to short blonde curls. She plays Maria, the love interest who’s been raped, had her head shaved and her family killed by the troops.
Supporting is Akim Tamiroff who plays Pablo, a big brute of a coward who flip-flops on whether to help with the bridge mission or run and switch sides to rat them all out. His shining scene is where he’s drunk at the table in their cave hideout. With his glassy eyes, menacing grin he becomes more threatening by the minute, like a bear growling in his sleep. Lastly, Katina Paxinou won the Oscar for supporting actress in her fierce portrayal as Pilar, the clever Gypsy woman who fearlessly commands the band, stands up to Pablo at his most volatile state, foresees the future and makes sure Robert and Maria have a magical night under the stars before the big mission. In one of her best scenes she says, “I would have made a good man, but I’m all woman and all ugly,” as she takes a cigarette Robert offers her. She expertly portrays an old woman’s wisdom and her earned dignity.
Unfortunately, I was a lazy literature student and have yet to read Hemmingway’s novel, so I cannot accurately compare the two works. Perhaps that’s best, since I usually despise the film version when I’ve read the book beforehand, (The Da Vinci Code, for example). I encourage all who enjoy Ingred Bergman, Gary Cooper, Hemmingway or have an interest in the Spanish Civil War to see this film.