FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS: Blu-ray (Paramount, 1944) Universal Home Video
In 1940, Ernest Hemingway published his sprawling saga, For Whom the Bell Tolls, charting the perilous exploits of dynamiter, Robert Jordan, an American in the International Brigades, attached to a Republican guerrilla unit during the Spanish Civil War. Along with The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls would quickly become another world-wide best seller for its renown author and go on to be considered among Hemingway’s most prolific and enduring masterworks. Hemingway had, in fact, based Jordan’s journey on his own life experiences as a war correspondent, seamlessly combining fictional characters with those loosely based on real people and actual figures in the war. Hemingway’s wholesale excise of the title of his book from the metaphysical poet, John Donne's Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, in hindsight, typifies the systemic impact of war, broader reaching than the welfare of Spain. Flash forward to 1943, the political timeliness of another European hemisphere already in flames, making director Sam Wood’s cinematic adaptation of For Whom the Bell Tolls even more prescient ‘must see’ entertainment…or so it would seem.
Alas, the picture, lavishly plotted as an overwrought 170 min. roadshow, complete with intermission, is a shamble of talky exchanges and platitude-stricken monologues, some more engaging than others; most, tedious, long and overly melodramatic. Buried somewhere in all these half-bungled efforts we find fleeting and cryptically vague references to the political theorems more straight-forwardly revealed at the crux of Hemingway’s novel; made a mess of mixed messages in the movie, and further bludgeoned by the Production Code of Ethics, seeking to temper war-riddled truths with glossier odes to romantic love and loss. Hemingway had actually written his novel with Gary Cooper in mind as his protagonist. Thus, he exuberantly approved of the central casting of ‘Coop’ and was ecstatic about co-star, Ingrid Bergman for the pivotal role of Maria. Understandably then, Hemingway was equally appalled by the final outcome derived from their efforts: just another glossy/gushing affaire de coeur.
For Whom the Bell Tolls marked Bergman’s debut in Technicolor and she proved, as though proof were needed, that her peerless beauty translated exceptionally well from B&W into its richly saturated hues. Director, Wood affords Bergman an unprecedented series of close-ups throughout the film; one gorgeously lit profile after another; the gentle light, perfectly planing across Bergman’s porcelain facial features. The picture also proved a considerable bell-ringing at the box office, earning $7.1 million and nine Oscar nominations besides. Despite its popularity then, in hindsight Hemingway’s disapproval of the results achieved is well-founded. Settling in for nearly two-and-a-half hours of densely packed contemplation in For Whom the Bell Tolls is about as appealing today as watching ceiling wax cure; cameraman, Ray Rennahan’s overuse of the close-up on two of the most celebrated faces in screen history (perhaps forgivable) attempts to mask the woeful disconnect of footage actually photographed on location with some truly horrendous process plates, rear projection and unconvincing miniatures that, even on smaller screens, belie their origins as minnows behaving like whales.
For Whom the Bell Tolls might have secured a hallowed place in cinema history had its narrative rhythm not been so incredibly faulty. Almost from the outset, Wood’s pacing is less than methodical and very much out of sync with the elemental suspense necessary to incrementally build and hold our interest for what will happen to Robert, Maria and their band of renegades. Given Gary Cooper’s star-making cache and Bergman’s meteoric rise to fame since her arrival in Hollywood it is ironic, and more than a little off-putting, to find the best performance given by Greek stage actress, Katina Paxinou as the feisty rebel, Pilar. Paxinou would go on to win the film’s only Oscar as Best Supporting Actress. In hindsight, she is the life-force and the real star of For Whom the Bell Tolls. When Paxinou speaks, her words bear weight without malice and strength with absolute conviction, a refreshingly unique and earthy perspective on the ‘butch’ gal who recognizes the compromise a pretty woman makes, but astutely is resolved no ugly one should ever entertain, if only to consider herself a woman of genuine merit. Paxinou’s orations, span the breadth of the plot and derive from some inner sense of self, unscripted and affectingly to distill the myth of valor into mere defiance, sticking it out, as it were, for the ‘good fight.’
We give it to Paxinou, heavily pancaked in bronzed skin tones, a shock of wire-brushed jet-black hair deliberately placed to occasionally dangle across her brow. She is a very fine actress, given ample opportunities to transform Pilar into a formidable guide and gal/pal with feminist overtones; perhaps, even a subtle hint of maternal lesbianism as she coddles Maria’s angelic face between her gnarled finger tips. Pilar is the picture’s sage, both stubborn and sober. The glint in Paxiou’s eyes as Pilar rhapsodizes of ephemeral youth, nobody’s idea of a raving beauty, reveals a wily streak of self-satisfaction for not having been born the woman of any man’s dreams and physically, the anathema to his sexual desires. As beauty is very much in the eye of the beholder, Paxiou’s ‘attractiveness’ for the audience, stems from the strength of her unvarnished frankness to shield her from the emotionally-crippling influences of the outside world.
On the flipside is Akim Tamiroff, utterly superb as the thoroughly sullen Pablo, once an enigmatic freedom fighter, since consumed by guilt, self-doubt and strong drink; the antithesis of Gary Cooper’s clear-eyed crusader for the 'then' modern age. The Armenian Tamiroff, a name regrettably mislaid today, was one of Hollywood’s most extraordinarily gifted character actors, appearing in 136 films between 1932 and 1969. He could play comedy, drama and virtually any nationality convincingly. Herein, he serves up a thoroughly conflicted, moody and oft unsettling pseudo-villain, not above thievery, plotting against Robert’s plan to blow up the bridge, or even, committing cold-blooded murder of the three mercenaries hired to aid in the demolition, simply to free up a trio of horses for his planned escape across the craggy terrain. Tamiroff would be Oscar-nominated for only the second time in his career for Pablo (his first nod in 1937’s The General Died At Dawn) and losing out both times (to Charles Coburn in 1944 for The More the Merrier, and, Walter Brennen in Come and Get It respectively).
For Whom the Bell Tolls begins in earnest with the derailment of a train; dynamiter, Robert Jordan narrowly escaping capture from Franco’ fascists, forced to shoot his wounded accomplice, Kashkin (Feodor Chaliapin) to spare him the indignation of being taken prisoner. Retreating to a nightclub, its patrons fleeing in panic from another air raid, Jordan is reunited with Gen. Golz (Leo Bulgakov) who assigns him the arduous task of sneaking behind enemy lines to detonate a critical outpost. The bridge connects a perilous chasm and is one of the main arteries the fascists will cross their troops, tanks and other artillery. Golz encourages Jordan to seek out a small, but accomplished band of local anti-fascist guerrillas to accomplish his mission. On his trek across this rugged and mountainous terrain, Jordan meets Anselmo (Vladimir Sokoloff), an aged freedom fighter who will serve as his liaise with the others. Anselmo introduces Jordan to the Republican rebels led by Pablo, a seemingly untrustworthy ally at best. Although Pablo appears to command this small army of renegades, the real lifeforce of the troop is his wife, Pilar. Born of a fiery disposition, Pilar takes an immediate liking to the handsome Jordan whom she rechristens as ‘Anglaise’.
Not long thereafter, Jordan becomes acquainted with the others who will valiantly take up his cause; Agustín (Arturo de Córdova), the comedic simpleton, Rafael (Mikhail Rasumny), noncommittal Fernando (Fortunio Bonanova), hot-tempered courier, Andrés (Eric Feldary), El Sordo (Joseph Calleia), lookout, Primitivo (Victor Varconi) and María, whose past would suggest some terrible crime kept locked away in her heart. In spite of his personal mantra to remain apart and above it all, Jordan cannot help but fall in love with María. Gradually, she confides in him the tattered remnants of her past; bearing witness to the public execution of her parents, and much later, in a more tearful confession, revealing the particulars of a gang-rape by the Falangists (fascist coalition) – a revelation she is certain will put an end to Jordan’s passion for her. He is not dissuaded. In fact, Jordan grows more in love with Maria for telling him the truth.
Jordan’s newly unearthed lust for life and his strong moral compass repeatedly clash with Pablo’s reluctance to partake of their bridge-blowing exercise on the grounds. As far as Pablo is concerned, it is a fool’s errand, certain to end in death and destruction for them all. Pilar displaces her husband’s waning authority as their group’s leader and pledges the guerrillas to the good fight. She is deeply disappointed in Pablo, viewing him as a terrible weakling and coward. Sometime later, Pilar’s heart is softened. She quietly shares with Jordan the tale of her husband’s folly. Having taken one of the fascist’s strongholds by force, his short-lived victory unravels into abject mob chaos, the villagers murdering the vanquished by tossing them, one by one, over the side of a steep precipice. The incident resulted in Pablo losing his nerve and his thirst for freedom. Instead, he steadily retreated into strong drink to drown his bitterness and anxieties.
Daily, Jordan and the guerrillas are threatened by fascist army troops crossing the snowy tundra on horseback, unknowingly passing within only feet from the cave where Pablo and his men have set up their command post. Arguably, the middle act of For Whom the Bell Tolls is where the greatest narrative transgressions occur, weighed down with a clumsier reconstitution of Hemingway’s philosophical exposition. In the novel, these debates were formed and founded in Jordan’s first-person perspective, anchoring the multi-layered story with background and a rare glimpse into each character’s motivations. Regrettably, the core of the picture is similarly stifled, the plot brought to a complete halt by this contemplative jargon. To be sure, there are moments now and then where Dudley Nichols’ screenplay crackles with a sincere spark and nod to Hemingway’s brilliance and vitality; chiefly the odes and monologues enigmatically discharged by Paxious’ Pilar – ranging from smiling-eyed remembrances about the strength of a woman’s beauty, Pilar's momentary envy of Maria’s youth, and finally, her flirtatious ‘come hither’ inferences that, if only the times were suited to l'amour she would waste not a moment pursuing ‘Anglaise' on her own terms. These densely packed monologues counterbalance the darkness of rivaling ambitions situated elsewhere and prove a most pleasant distraction in lieu of the plot, already come to a full stop. Too much is slavishly devoted on the espousal of careworn platitudes. Did an audience from 1943 really need lessons on the ‘futility of war’?
Pablo is torn between loyalties to Spain and his powerlessness to make a difference, wallowing in self-doubt and pity. His intermittent investment in Jordan’s plan is further crippled when another band of anti-fascist guerrillas led by close ally, El Sordo are surrounded by on a nearby mountaintop and ruthlessly butchered. Returning to the cave in haste, Pablo destroys Jordan's dynamite detonator, hoping to prevent further reprisals. Alas, he will come to regret this decision and return, contrite and willing, to partake of the assignment. Regrettably, the enemy is apprised of the guerrilla’s pending offensive and are preparing an ambush. Nevertheless, Jordan is blindly committed to the demolition, as it will delay fascist reinforcements from overwhelming the allies. While Pablo, Pilar and the others launch into a rifle attack on the outpost, Jordan and Anselmo make their way to the bridge, improvising an alternative method to detonate the charges using hand grenades and wires, attached to pins that can be pulled from a distance.
Even as they feverishly work to plant the charges, the fascist forces are on the march. Jordan narrowly completes rigging the bridge to blow, ordering Anselmo to pull the pins as the first army tank appears. In the hellish explosion that follows, the reluctant and fearful Anselmo is struck and killed by falling debris. Fernando and Rafael are also lost; the rest, hurriedly making their escape. Pablo, Pilar, Maria and Jordan must cross a perilous expanse on horseback, under constant fire from the army’s rifles and tanks. One by one, they scatter across the open terrain, unprotected and vulnerable. While Maria, Pilar and Pablo run the gauntlet unscathed, Jordan is severely maimed after a mortar shell cripples his horse out from under him. Having lost all feeling in his legs, and quite unable to ride to safety, Jordan gallantly orders a tearful and frantic Maria to leave him behind. Before their departure, Pablo leaves behind his Lewis machine gun as Jordan’s last defense against impossible odds, knowing he will not survive the deluge. The movie concludes with Jordan firing directly into the camera, a cloud of dust filling its lens before the screen fades to black.
Shortly after its roadshow engagement, For Whom the Bell Tolls was pruned from 170 to 134 min. for its theatrical run – a common practice back then. Until the mid-1990’s this shorter version was the only one revived on TV and theatrically; the longer cut, thought to be lost long ago. But then, archival elements surfaced, already in a somewhat perilous state. Universal elected to reinstate the absent footage, the newly restored cut clocking in at 168 min. as no original ‘intermission’ was discovered. Universal Studios, the custodians of Paramount’s pre-fifties back catalog, also voted to salvage what they could; For Whom the Bell Tolls becoming the recipient of a photo-chemical restoration performed on its badly deteriorated original camera negatives. Given the limitations of the technology at that time, the results achieved were still considerable, though hardly perfect; the 3-strip Technicolor, frequently suffering from grotesque mis-registration. This resulted in glaring halos of the yellow and blue record.
Flash forward to Universal Home Video’s newly minted Blu-ray release and we are still left to grapple with the work done by the studio nearly 35 years earlier. No attempt has been made to go back to these flawed elements to re-composite them using better alignment software and correct the aforementioned registration errors. Worse, the photo-chemical work done in the nineties already shows signs of extreme color fading. As no color correction has been applied to this 1080p release, color density varies greatly, not only from scene to scene, but shot to shot. The image veers from some generally impressive sharpness to downright muddy and blurry moments where fine detail all but vanishes, compounded by an artificial amplification of the natural grain structure. This instead appears harshly digitized at times and additionally, to suffer from slight edge enhancement. Short of a complete re-evaluation in time and monies, there is no way of getting around it.
This is a fairly ugly video presentation of a movie that, given its reputation and popularity over the years, ought to have been deserving of far more attention paid. But no, Universal has once again gone the ‘quick and dirty’ route and the results are abysmally subpar. The DTS mono audio is plagued by a slight hiss during quiescent moments. Again, Universal has done absolutely NOTHING to advance the preservation work performed in the mid-nineties. Worse, they have authored a Blu-ray with only bare-bones consideration. This disc immediately loads and plays with no chapter stops or main menu and ejects from one’s player after the feature is finished. There are no extras. A very ‘piss poor’ offering from Universal indeed. The studio ought to be sincerely ashamed that, in an era where its competition is at least applying some due diligence to ensure deeper catalog releases are being represented adequately on home video, its studio mantra continues to lag far-far behind and has adopted the philosophy of ‘who cares?’ and ‘let ‘er rip!’ Give it an 'F', then...and it doesn't stand for 'fantastic'! For shame! Is there anyone over at Uni interested in ‘quality control’? Bottom line: pass…and be extremely glad that you did!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)