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For Whom The Bell Tolls (September 4, 2010)

The Spanish Civil War began on July 17, 1936 with an attempted coup by the military in Spanish Morocco against the government of the Spanish Republic. The rising quickly spread to Spain itself, which was divided between the Republican forces, supported by the Soviet Union, and the insurgent Nationalist forces, supported by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, until 1939, when the Nationalists were victorious. From the start, the Nationalist takeover of various regions in Spain was marked by many executions, including, on August 19, 1936, the killing of one of the most significant Spanish poets of the 20th century – Federico Garcia Lorca. Republican governments became increasingly extreme left-wing, with participation by Communist and Anarchist parties, and the Nationalist authorities remained extreme right-wing. As a result, killings of suspected sympathizers of the other side continued on both sides of the conflict through the war.

Ernest Hemingway was a journalist covering Republican Spain off and on from 1937 to 1939. He wrote For Whom The Bell Tolls in 1939. It was a novel about a young American volunteer with the Republican forces participating in an attack on Segovia in June, 1937. The film was made from November, 1941 to October, 1942. Paramount was the studio. Sam Wood directed the movie. It was made in Technicolor. Several actors were considered for the leads, but Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman, reportedly Hemingway’s favorites for the roles, were eventually chosen. This was after some weeks of filming with the German born dancer Vera Zorina in the part that eventually went to Bergman.

Political factors influenced the film and its script, which was written by Dudley Nichols with uncredited work by Louis Bromfield. The film depicts Republican guerrillas. The novel called their opponents “fascists”, but because of concern for relations with the Spanish government, they were labeled as “nationalists” in the movie. By December, 1941 the United States was at war with Germany and Italy, though not with Spain. The movie was not shown in Spain until 1978, after the death of the Nationalist leader Franco. The film talks about killings by the Nationalists, and depicts killings by the Republicans. This equally-critical portrayal of the two sides was quite different from Hemingway’s novel. What Catholics thought of films in the United States at this time was very important at the box office, and the Catholic hierarchy was pro-nationalist. The political views of Sam Wood, the director, were conservative as well. “It is a love story against a brutal background,” Wood said. His amazing conclusion was: “It would be the same love story if they were on the other side.”

The movie did very well when it was released in July, 1943, grossing $11 million against an investment of $2.6 million. Otto Friedrich, in his history of 40s Los Angeles, City of Nets, wrote, “During the famous scene in which Cooper and Miss Bergman made love in a sleeping bag, the one in which she said she felt the earth move beneath her, some enterprising reporter felt hot under the collar and decided to check on the temperature of the theater. He found that the temperature rose several degrees every time the scene was shown.”

Katina Paxinou, the Greek actress who plays Pilar, won the best supporting actress Oscar. Cooper was nominated for best actor, and Bergman for best actress. Akim Tamiroff, who plays Pablo, was nominated for best supporting actor. It was also nominated for best color art direction, best color cinematography, best film editing, best music score, and best picture. After some years of being exhibited in a 134 minute version that eliminated most of the execution flashbacks, the film has now been restored to a 168 minute version, with an intermission. The original version was 170 minutes. I hope you enjoy this 1943 blockbuster, For Whom The Bell Tolls.