Sunday, February 18, 2018

For Whom the Bell Tolls

Sam Wood's version of Hemingway's celebrated novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, was released in 1943 as a 170 minute film with intermission.  When I saw the movie many years ago, the picture had been cut to 134 minutes.  Turner Classic Movies has a 168 minute version with the Technicolor restored and, even, an intermission -- a photographed piece of vellum with medieval lettering and an illuminated "I".  At something close to full length, the movie is much better than I recalled, although it is still pretty unsatisfactory.  Curiously, the shorter version seemed duller -- the editing has knocked the rhythm askew and the picture is actually more gripping at its longer length.

Wood was solid, dependable hack director, a guy to whom studios could entrust their most bankable stars without risk that the film maker might harm them in some way.  Gary Cooper as Robert Jordan, the American Spanish teacher (with a specialty in dynamiting things) is wooden to the point of being featureless.  He scarcely smiles throughout the entire film and makes love to the supernaturally beautiful Ingrid Bergman as if it were his solemn and, somewhat, unpleasant duty.  Cooper always seems ancient; he's manifestly too old for Ingrid Bergman who plays a badly traumatized 19 year old victim of rape and torture.  (She has a passionate speech about how her parents were murdered before her eyes and her subsequent gang-rape that is very effective).  But the film's glory is in its secondary roles, particularly the fearsome Katina Paxinos, a Greek actress who plays the female guerilla leader, Pilar.  Paxinou has a lot of Hemingway lines to speak -- a misfortune for any actor because Papa couldn't write plausible dialogue to save his soul.  But she snarls at the camera,and devours the part -- a combination bawdy earth mother and psycho-killer.  The film luxuriates a little too enthusiastically in the deeply sexist Spanish peasant culture -- the women are always expected to selflessly serve the men who brusquely order them about.  But Paxinos Pilar is a force to be reckoned with and she has a great speech about being an ugly woman -- although she is quick to note "I have loved many men."  As with many other aspects of the film, the casting undercuts the characters -- no one could possibly regard the exceptionally handsome and statuesque Paxinos as "ugly."  And she looks great in her raven-black garments firing her carbine at the bad guys.  If anything, Akim Tamiroff is even better as Pablo, a spectacularly gruesome-looking guerilla who has been so brutalized by the war that he is more of an ape than a man.  Pablo's motivations are always unclear -- Pilar condemns him for becoming a coward, but this doesn't describe adequately his curious vacillation, a wavering that is, really, the film's only plot -- Pablo doesn't want to risk his guerilla band in what he regards as a pointless attack on a bridge in the High Sierra.  Throughout the film he subverts Jordan's plot to destroy the bridge and the narrative doesn't really explain his motives -- is he jealous of the suave Hollywood-actor taking over leadership of his gang?  From time to time, the other characters try to urge Pablo into a fight so that they can kill him although he resists the temptation to be provoked -- one of his colleagues brightly announces that they should "blind him" and, then, drag him down into the valley to sell him to the enemy.  Pablo has been a savage fighter and the film shows us a scene that is about as harsh as American film making in the 40's could be -- Pablo's rebels have seized a town and they march the city council out of their chambers, make them run a gauntlet of jeering men with harvests flails, and, then, toss them screaming into a gorge.  This sequence is powerful and effective and Wood does well also with a battle on a mountaintop and, then, the final firefight around the bridge. (I even like the obvious miniature shot of the bridge collapsing and, with it, a German tank plunging into a toy gorge -- it's a pretty little effect.)  The film's politics are inscrutable.  This is because the Spanish Civil War was a jumbled mess with Communists fighting Fascists, anti-clerical Spaniards murdering priests, and foreign intervention -- there were monarchists, loyalists, nationalists, and republicans locked in the fray augmented by various kinds of anarchists, international brigades, and Soviet commissars.  The whole thing has never made any sense to me except as a premonitory orgy of violence, a sort of appetizer before the main entrée that was World War Two.  The film has not political perspective that I can ascertain -- the Catholic Church, an institution that strongly supported Franco, required that all references to "fascism" be excised from the movie.  Therefore, it's not clear what the fighting is all about.  (On a more granular level, the attack on the bridge is coordinated in some way with an offensive and there is an elaborate subplot about someone carrying a message somewhere -- this narration is wholly garbled in the film and I don't have any idea where the attack on the bridge fits into the context of a larger battle or is totally meaningless.)

When I saw the movie years ago, I was appalled by the fact that half of the film is clearly shot in a studio.  At least two-thirds of the stilted Hemingway dialogue is expelled from the lips of the characters in a dimly lit, rather Rembrandt-tinted cave.  This is where the men are forever gruffly ordering Pilar or Bergman's character, Maria, to serve them cheese and wine.  A number of outdoor sequences rely upon fairy-tale-like rear projections of mountains and sinister, precipitous gorges.  Most of Cooper and Bergman's love scenes are set in a luminous rocky bower with starry skies painted behind them, some stylized snow-capped peaks and a big luminous tree, its boughs decked with implausibly pale and sticky snow -- this set is operatic and it just glistens with gem-like highlights and it's a beautiful location for the rather awkward romantic scenes between the two stars. (The obviously middle-aged Gary Cooper would be a more plausible match for Pilar -- as she herself proclaims -- than for the dewy, dreamy-eyed Maria; Paxinos was 42 and Cooper was 41 when the film was shot; Bergman was 27.)   I would have objected to this kind of thing twenty-five years ago -- now, I find the glamorous set rather charming:  the film pauses and puts its lovers in a strangely warm winter wonderland atop high and crystalline mountains.  It's a distancing effect that I think is quite stunning.  Much of the actual outdoors footage in the film seems to have shot in the Sierra Nevada somewhere uphill of lake Tahoe -- there are immense slabs of granite everywhere and the landscape, which is austere and terrifying, plays an important role in the action: the guerillas struggle up boulder-filled ravines full of waterfalls and there are huge fields of house-sized boulders lying under the snow-covered summits.  It's the same landscape that we see in Raul Walsh's High Sierra and similarly effective in this film. 

At the climax of the picture, Jordan who is paralyzed from being shot off his horse, bids Bergman's Maria to flee.  His speech to her would have pleased Gertrude Stein, indeed, at this point Hemingway's dialogue, probably was vetted by Stein:  Cooper says:  "If you go, I go.  We go together.  So you must go so I may go.  For I go with you forever."  The speech is actually much longer than this and, of course, in real life, Maria's response would have to be something like "What?"  But weeping and screaming, she goes and he goes with her and together both go where both must go even though they go apart.  Jordan lies alone in a defile and as the bad guys approach he fires his machine gun right into the camera -- then, the title bell tolls in some space far from the narrative in the film.  Seen at its full length, the movie has a kind of warped splendor.  Furthermore, its salutary, for once, to be reminded of a time when the United States was not an International Bully and when our country stood for something approximating justice.  I'm tired of seeing trailers in the multi-plexes for films about well-nourished American soldiers, backed by the planet's largest and most powerful army, heroically fighting with Afghans, representatives of the weakest and most backward nation on the face of the earth.  (In recent movies, the filmmakers painfully aware of the irony of making movies about a powerful, well-armed and fantastically wealthy nation beating the crap out of a small medieval country whose only export is heroin, have tried to somehow even the odds -- for instance, one recent film shows American "heroes" riding into battle on horses; this is supposed to be some advance guard of special forces approaching something that could possibly, if for only a moment, be construed as a fair fight.  But those dozen troops improbably riding on horseback have behind them tens of thousands of Tomahawk missiles, a flotilla of missile-armed battleships, fifty-thousand helicopters, and limitless squadrons of bomb-laden fighter jets protecting their back.  I assume future features will involve brave cadres of American Special Forces compelled to fight with one arm tied behind their back or, maybe, para-olympic troopers who are all blind and deaf.  Jordan's lonely death in For Whom the Bell Tolls resonates as a gesture of solidarity with the world -- recent pictures about American's fighting in the middle-East are empty exercises in self-congratulation and, ultimately, profoundly isolationist in import as well.

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