I’m not an Ernest Hemingway fan. He’s one of America’s most beloved authors. I’m not trying to take that away from him. Also, I would never call his masculinity into question (though the almost absurdly macho nature of all of his heroes makes me question if he has a sexual fixation on the idealized man); he fought in WW 1, wrestled lions (how the fuck is that true?!), and covered other military conflicts as a journalist including WW II and the Spanish Civil War (the latter serving as the inspiration for the novel that the film I’m reviewing was based on). Still, his spartan prose (i.e. minimalistic not Spartan in the Greek sense) and ridiculously idealized heroes and their representation of what a “man” should be have always turned me off to his novels. They’re just far too romantic (in the strange sense of the word that I’m using in reference to Hemingway and idealism). The Old Man and the Sea as well as A Farewell to Arms were two of the most miserable reads of my entire life. I don’t understand why he’s captured the imagination of generations of American readers. Well, I do understand. It’s his mild intellectualism combined with his machismo. It’s an unattainable fantasy for many American intellectual men who wish we could be as manly and poetic as Hemingway and his characters. I don’t buy the escapist fantasy. I just watched the film version of For Whom the Bell Tolls and in addition to needing a good hour of material cut from the film, it’s obvious that the source material is completely flawed and the romance at the heart of the tale is one of the weakest love stories in a so-called serious picture that I’ve seen in ages.
American expatriate Robert Jordan (High Noon‘s Gary Cooper) is a member of the Spanish resistance during the Spanish Civil War in 1937. After successfully bombing a train, he’s assigned to the likely suicide mission of blowing up an important bridge on the eve of a Republican assault against Nationalist forces. With the help of his elderly guide Anselmo, a peace-loving man who has taken up the gun with great reservation, Robert arrives at the camp of Republican forces who are almost nothing better than bandits. Nominally led by the cowardly Pablo (Akim Tamiroff), though actually led by his more charismatic and courageous wife Pilar (Oscar winner Katina Paxinou), the soldiers are a ragtag group of horse thieves hiding out in the mountains to commit the occasional raid against the Nationalist forces. Although Pablo doesn’t want to get his men involved in this obvious suicide mission, Pilar rallies the morale of the men and gets them to follow Robert’s (and the Republican army’s) orders. Still, when a freak May snow storm ruins their ability to acquire enough horses for everyone to make a clean escape after the bridge is blown, the specter of death looms over everyone and everything, including the fledgling romance between Robert and a local girl who’s joined the resistance (Casablanca‘s Ingrid Bergman).
This movie’s a mess in so many different departments that I don’t really know where to begin. First off, the acting is almost uniformly over-wrought. Gary Cooper is the only exception to that rule but he was so stoically masculine and reserved that there was little room for me to believe him as a man with enough charm to lead a group of distrustful foreigners fighting their own Civil War. If his goal was to represent the Hemingway ideal, then he succeeded (which to be fair, likely was his goal). If his goal was to have a complex and nuanced performance, he failed. Ingrid Bergman… Jesus. This movie might have ruined Casablanca a little bit for me. Was Maria supposed to be slow or suffering from some sort of mental deficiency? Because that’s the gist I got from her. She is obviously a grown woman but she acted like a small child (except when she was willing to kill people or to kill herself/Robert in case they were captured). Bergman played her as far too much of an innocent especially considering all of the terrible things that happened to her before the film began (like seeing her father and mother murdered by Nationalist soldiers and then being raped by said soldiers). I don’t even want to talk about her inability to mask her natural Swedish accent as she tried to adopt a Spanish accent. Akim Tamiroff was also a bit of a ham in the role of Pablo which is a shame because Pablo seems to be the only sharply realized character in the whole film. His moral ambiguities and cowardice were the most intriguing parts of the script. I’m not really sure why Katina Paxinou won an Oscar. There wasn’t really anything awful about her performance (though she emoted quite a bit), but there was nothing stellar either.
The film runs for nearly three hours but I felt like a good hour (if not more) of material could have been excised. I actually fell asleep forty minutes through the first time I tried to watch it, and before the first intermission (oh yeah, the movie has an intermission, Gone With the Wind style), I must have asked out loud “Does anything ever happen in this film” like twenty times. I enjoy slower, deliberately paced films. Synecdoche, New York could be incredibly slow at times but I gave it my rare score of “A+“. There just wasn’t anything happening in this film. It was a lot of talking without anyone saying anything interesting, and the characters were as broadly drawn as humanly possible. What do I know about why Robert Jordan was willing to risk his life in Spain to fight for foreigners? What do I know about why Maria seemed to fall in love with Robert so quickly? Why did Pablo go from a heroic leader of the revolution to a coward? I don’t have a definitive (or even partial) answer to any of these questions. The film picked up in the second half but that was because of the abundance of action sequences which at least helped to hammer home the film’s message which is that war is Hell and at times fruitless. Unfortunately, even those moments were bagged down by the romance between Maria and Robert which has to be the least believable screen romance I’ve seen in ages. Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman had absolutely zero chemistry together.
I’ve started a bit of flame war on Facebook with people who usually agree with me 95% of the times on film, literature, and music because of my dislike for Hemingway, so I understand just how much in the minority I am in this department. And honestly, maybe the book could be good. There were aspects of the story that seemed really interesting, but they obviously didn’t translate to the big screen well, and the film’s director obviously didn’t know the first thing about editing. If there’s one good thing I can say about the film, it’s that it had wonderful color cinematography for the time (when color was still sort of a novelty). For Hemingway, Gary Cooper, and Ingrid Bergman fans, I can recommend the movie. I love Gary Cooper even if this wasn’t his best role, and it was very surreal seeing him in color instead of black and white (same with Ingrid Bergman). Still, this film reinforces my belief that Hemingway is incredibly over-rated, and I hope that it’s a while before any other films based on his novels crop up on this list. I didn’t see any on my current Netflix queue so that’s as good a sign as any.
Final Score: C