The Catholic Church, the Franco government and the State Department were all afraid that the film of Hemingway’s great novel about the Spanish Civil War would take too strong a stance against fascism. They didn’t know Hollywood.
Horses may send their children to For Whom the Bell Tolls without fear. That offensive word “stallion” (not to be confused with Joseph Stallion) which appeared in Mr. Hemingway’s novel and even in Dudley Nichols’s original script has been changed, in the finished production, to read “blazed face.”
Human beings should proceed more cautiously; else they are liable to be misinformed. When f-sc-sts [ed. note: appears like this in original review] are actually mentioned, the one time they are, the context makes it clear that they are just Italians who, in company with German Nazis and those dirty Russian Communists, are bullyragging each other and poor little Spain, which wants only peace and quiet. In the same speech, if you are not careful, you may easily get the impression that Gary Cooper is simply fighting for the Republican Party in a place where the New Deal has got particularly out of hand. The next speech, which suggests that not all Americans have Mr. Cooper’s disinterested historical foresight, appears in the Nichols script but not on the screen. There is, on the other hand, General Golz’s joke about how full of accents Spain is these days, which I suppose can be regarded as a small triumph by screen workers defeated enough to seek their victories through microscopes. There is a faint hint that Gary Cooper (strictly in character) favors Russian cigarettes; I suppose if it were any more specific the run on Novotnys would be excelled only by the Norway-rat stampede of the millions to fling themselves at Earl Browder’s feet. Miss Bergman is allowed to use the International Brigade’s Salud once when Mr. Cooper says g’by, but when Mr. Cooper is saving a comrade from capture by shooting him through the head, neither of them can bear to say more than adios, though the script read differently. A line of Mr Nichols’s invention, “I come from Stalin,” as it is excitingly delivered by Konstantin Shayne in the best use of a bit in years, may cheer some excitable sectors, I thought it highly ambiguous and, except as a piece of acting, unimportant. Mr. Nichols’s original script is fairly riddled with the word fascist. The release script and the production prefer the word nationalist. I thought I once caught the word phalangist, but it may have been fuh land sakes.
Paramount, in other words, has crashed through. It has covered itself, too, against any pink nigglers who might bring the accusation of dodging political issues. The speech in which Mr. Cooper mentions fascists and the grand old party so misleadingly does at least–and with abominably clumsy hindsight–go on to say that Spain, as the old phrase went, is a proving ground, a dress rehearsal for a greater war. But even this has no more organic connection with the film as a whole than a Gideon Bible has with a hotel bedroom.
There is, on the other hand, Ingrid Bergman. Miss Bergman not only bears a startling resemblance to an imaginable human being; she really knows how to act, in a blend of poetic grace with quiet realism which almost never appears in American pictures. Hemingway’s conception of Maria is partly adolescent I think, and for a while her understanding of the role seems still more so. She seems never to have dreamed that a young girl who has seen death and suffered gang rape cannot in all reason bounce into her role looking like a Palmolive ad. But in many moments of the early love stuff–in flashes of shy candor and in the pleasures of playing femme esclave–she does very pretty things, and later on she does some very powerful ones. Her confession of the rape is an exquisitely managed tearjerker. Her final scene of farewell is shattering to watch. Not that it’s perfect. But its sources and intention are so right, and so astonishingly out of key with the rest of the production. She seems really to have studied what a young woman might feel and look like in such a situation (not a moving picture) – half nauseated and ninetenths insane with grief, forced haste, and utter panic. Semi-achieved though it is, it is devastating and wonderful to see.
A lot of other actors ought to be mentioned if there were space. Katina Paxinou’s Pilar is sometimes stagy, but she does have style and grandeur. Akim Tamiroff’s Pablo would have been a great performance, I believe, if only it had had the chance. The best of Vladimir Sokoloff’s Anselmo has real sweetness, as against the stock-company naive cuteness to which the production reduces his conscience over killing Frank Puglia’s Captain Gomez and Fortunio Bonanova’s Fernando are solid and very likable, and a young Cuban named Lilo Yarson gives a gentle, fine performance as Joaquin. Gary Cooper is self-effacing and generally a little faint, like the character he plays, but the faintness has its moments of paying off, and his general support of Miss Bergman is nearly as good as the law will allow.
That is more than can be said of the coarse-grained general tone of the show. Mikhail Rasumny, who might have made a good nature symbol of the amoral gipsy, is reduced to a D. W Griffith comic with overtones of a fine-arts survey course. Joseph Calleia’s El Sordo, by no likely fault of his, is just a blend of Wallace Beery and Tally Marshall; and the famous stand on the hill, which needs mathematical coldprocessing, is nearly illegible. Hemingway perhaps crowded in more grandscale characters than he could handle, but at least they had the benefit of the whole of his great talent and intention; here, though they talk forever, they are just a mush with mica flashing on it, half-developed, nervously tossed aside, incoherent. One single shot of the desperate love and hopeful intuition which prompts Agostino to strike his leader could have given that scene intact terror, even greatness, as a tragic image of appeasement; as it is, it is like a fine dog running on three legs. The suspensive intercutting of the long last night, sedulous as it is in its derivation from Intolerance, where that was invented, only increases my reverence for the old picture; the new has all the suspense of a clothesline swaybacked with wetwash. The suspense at the bridge as dynamite is laid is boldly protracted to the point of ridicule. I sympathized with the boldness and was had by the suspense but could no help realizing that, properly conceived and cut, it could have been ten times as exciting in half the footage. The rhythm of this film, in fact, is the most defective I have ever seen in a superproduction.
The Technicolor is even unluckier It is as good as the best experts, at this stage, can make it; which still means the rankest kind of magazine-illustration and postcard art. Color is very nice for costume pieces and musical comedies, and has a great aesthetic future in films, but it still gets fatally in the way of any serious imitation of reality.
Of all the rumbling rumors and denials of political interference on the part of the Franco government, the Catholic church, and the State Department, it has been possible chiefly to find only the clogged-drain smell which the picture bears out. Franco’s ambassador tried to get the State Department to suppress it and was refused. The San Francisco consul, Francisco Amat, saw the script and objected to everything you might expect him to, and was reputedly disregarded. Adolph Zukor says, “It is a great picture, without political significance. We are not for or against anybody.” Other Paramount executives have delivered lines almost as distinguished. On the question whether the opening was delayed from March to July because Robert Jordan–pardon me, Murphy–had work to do in Spain, the State Department declines comment. There are people in Washington, however, who are not eager to tie their names to it, who say that the whole affair is ‘too hot to talk about.” Why, is any man’s guess. And how this production could possibly have offended anyone politically, except a few million powerless characters who retain some vestige of moral nerve, is beyond any guessing.
Mr Hemingway’s sleeping bag, by the way, is so discreetly used that you can never at any moment be sure who is in or out nuendo.