November 16, 2017
For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943)
Grade: 63/100

Director: Sam Wood
Stars: Cary Cooper, Ingrid Bergman, Akim Tamiroff

What it's about. Based on one of famous author Ernest Hemingway's best-known novels. Set in Spain in 1937, during their Civil War. Gary Cooper is an American saboteur volunteer for the Republicans against the Nazi-backed Nationalists. Reminiscent of Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), he is assigned to blow up a bridge just as fascist tanks are crossing. He is aided in this mission by a motley group of rural Republican insurgents, led by tough middle-aged Pilar (Katina Paxinou) and her troublemaking former lover Pablo (Akim Tamiroff).

Because it is a movie, one of the insurgents is gorgeous young Ingrid Bergman, who remarkably lacks any romantic interest from any of the several men that share Pilar's hillside hideout. But the vulnerable and achingly nice Bergman does fall for Cooper upon first sight, and as she throws herself at him, he is predictably unable to resist.

The mission beckons, and after a drawn-out soap opera involving the commitment of Pablo to the Republican cause, Cooper and company find themselves at the bridge. The Nationalist guards are soon disposed of, and Cooper courageously installs the explosives. But can they escape the angry beehive of fascist troops?

How others will see it. For Whom the Bell Tolls was a box office smash for Paramount studios. In fact, it was the top-grossing film for the year, beating out several other movies with an anti-Nazi theme, such as Hitler's Children, This is the Army, and a film well-known to today's cinemaphiles, Casablanca.

For Whom the Bell Tolls was also critically acclaimed, judging by its nine Academy Award nominations, including three major nods, Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Actress. But it won only a single Oscar, in the Best Supporting Actress category. Katina Paxinou, making her feature debut, commanded the trophy, while the much more celebrated Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman went home empty-handed.

How I felt about it. I guess I don't understand the ending. If the saboteurs succeed in blowing up the bridge, how can the Nationalists quickly pursue them with artillery? Surely they will be on the wrong side of the late bridge.

But there must be a tragic ending, foreshadowed by Pilar's palm reading. Also foreshadowed is goofy gypsy Mikhail Rasumny's conquest of a tank, and Pablo's unseemly massacre of three redshirts without speaking lines.

The Cooper-Bergman romance is boring. The cinematic pot is stirred mostly by supporting actor Akim Tamiroff, who can't seem to make up his mind whether he is a hero, an antihero, or a villain. He is called a coward, but real cowards keep their mouth shut, or at least know how and when to lie to cover their tracks. But Tamiroff has a gift for alienating his companions, and it's a miracle he makes it through the film alive.