Directed by Sam Wood
Written by Dudley Nichols, based upon the book of the same name by Ernest Hemingway
Starring Gary Cooper, Ingrid Bergman, Akim Tamiroff and Katina Paxinou
Hollywood has a long, distasteful history of white actors playing ethnic characters. Rock Hudson played a Native American in Winchester 73, Luise Rainer won an Oscar playing Asian in The Good Earth, and in perhaps the most odious example, Mickey Rooney donned bucked-teeth to play the Japanese photographer, Mr. Yunioshi in the otherwise-charming Breakfast at Tiffany’s. In some instances, the portrayal is largely benign – H.B. Warner plays a beatific Tibetan in Lost Horizon – while others are far more rotten, see Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Much of the blame for white actors playing ethnic surely falls at the feet of the studio system. After all, they were in the business to make money and kept stars on payroll who’d help them make money. Unfortunately, there weren’t many stars of color in days of yore, likely owing to a paucity of star-making parts in studio films for people of color, and so there weren’t exactly a lot of stars of color under studio contract. So, in a very self-fulfilling way, there weren’t a lot of stars of color because there weren’t a lot of star-making roles for them, and since there weren’t a lot of star-making roles for them, there weren’t many stars of color.
The solution? Slap makeup on a white guy and call him Mexican.
For Whom The Bell Tolls is an example of a studio product laden with racially miscast actors:
- Ingrid Bergman is Swedish but wears a darkish-bronzer to plan a Spaniard.
- Katina Paxinou has her skin more-than-bronzed to play a Spaniard – she’s made up so dark she looks almost like a corpse. All this despite the fact she was Greek.
- Akim Tamiroff, also playing a Spaniard, was dirtied and scruffy to hide the fact he was Armenian.
Of course, Paxinou and Tamiroff were not classically ‘white’ actors, a fact Tamiroff would use to his advantage. At least, he wouldn’t let it hold him back, winning a Golden Globe for his performance in this film, then later portraying the Mexican crime boss, Joe Grandy, in Orson Welles’ other masterpiece, Touch of Evil.
But, while Tamiroff would turn his history to his advantage, Anthony Quinn – who is not in this film, even as he could have been – would turn it into a cottage industry. Despite having been born in Mexico he’d go on to play Greek in Zorba The Greek, an Arab in Lawrence of Arabia, Italian in La Strada, a hun in Attila, and many others. Ironically, he would win one of his two Oscars for playing the white-Frenchman, Paul Gaughin, in Lust for Life.
Sadly, while I’d like to argue we’ve made such strides over the last 100 years in terms of our racial attitudes – notwithstanding Emma Stone playing a ¼ Chinese, ¼ Hawaiian woman in Aloha! – nothing is ever really fixed. Afterall, while racial casting was an issue before, as of late the new frontier is with respect to non-LGBTQ actors playing LGBTQ characters.
As they say – everything old is new again.
What’s It About?
The Spanish Civil War. An American teacher (Cooper) bands with Anti-fascist guerillas to blow up a bridge, in order to prevent troop movement by Francisco Franco’s army. Along the way a love connection is made, leading to an ending both tragic, and triumphant. It’s an epic film that takes place largely in a cave.
Prestige Picture Incorporated
It’s clear that Paramount Pictures, the studio behind For Whom The Bell Tolls, meant for it to do big box office and big awards. After all, it stars one of Hollywood’s brightest leading me – Gary Cooper – playing opposite a real up-and-comer – Bergman. Not content to rest on those laurels, Paramount let the film roadshow at an epic length – 2 hrs 45 min. Last, it would make the film in color, just a few years removed from Color and Black & White being granted separate categories for things like Cinematography and Art Direction at the Oscars, which was still a time when color films definitely cost more.
In other words, Paramount spent big and expected big resulte.
And Paramount’s efforts were repaid when For Whom The Bell Tolls became one of the highest grossing films of the year and pulled in nominations for Best Picture and for each of it’s leads in each of the acting categories – Ingrid Bergman Best Actress, Gary Cooper for Best Actor, Akim Tamiroff for Best Supporting Actor and Katina Paxinou for Best Supporting Actress. All in all, even if it would only win Best Supporting Actress for Katina Paxinou, it had to be considered a success.
While the film itself got some solid love from the Academy, as well as the cast, the one man conspicuously missing from the party is director Sam Wood, skipped over in the nominations for Best Director. And while Wood was the producer on the film, arguably giving him that Best Picture nomination for his troubles, one must remember that until the 1950s the Best Picture Oscar went to the studio, not the producer. So, even if the film had won Best Picture, he still would have gone home empty-handed.
For Whom The Bell Tolls is actually the second Sam Wood film to figure in this project in recent weeks, having been the director of 1940’s Our Town (LINK). Tellingly, just as his direction would be overlooked here, it was overlooked there. And why is this telling? you ask. Because his lack of a nomination seems to reflect the fact that of the directors whose films received Best Picture nominations that year – and there were ten Best Picture nominees in both years – he has the least amount of style. As a director Wood seems to prefer stationary cameras and minimal movement. Does not use interesting angles, and offers no flourishes of any kind. If he prefers anything at all it is to stuff the frame full, corner to corner with people and props, filling foreground and background alike. Sometimes, the frame is filled to emphasize the claustrophobia of the surroundings. Sometimes it’s meant to help a place feel cozy. Sometimes it merely defines the limits of the world. In the end, while his use of over-stuffed frames seems consistent from film-to-film, I can’t help wondering if it was an artistic choice, or a commerce choice. After all, if the most expensive part of your film is the people acting in it, there’s an incentive to put them on screen as much as possible, as big as possible, so as to get the biggest bang for the buck.
Better Than Best?
For a war movie, For Whom The Bell Tolls is rather long on talk and short on war. Indeed, aside from a short battle sequence at the beginning, and a bit longer sequence blowing up the bridge at the end, the middle is nearly two hours of talking devoid of tension and drama.
Now don’t misunderstand – talky films can have their own tension. Perhaps the most talkative director in history was Quentin Tarantino, who managed to wring great tension out of scenes were nothing much seems to happen. The difference is Tarantino understands that even in inaction there must be a hint of danger, or edge, or what is the point? So even when nothing happens in his films, everything is happening. Unfortunately, For Whom The Bell Tolls came around a mere 50 years before Tarantino was making films, forcing it to miss out it’s true calling.
That said, there are little jewels in the film to make it worthwhile. Cooper is strong of jaw and blunt as always, even as he literally looks uncomfortable speaking on film whenever he opens his mouth. And Paxinou and Tamiroff certainly earn their money as the headstrong woman and the Weasley rebel.
But are those enough to make in necessary a body to see it? Probably not. And does it make it good enough to beat Best Picture 1943 Casablanca? History says no, and so do I. After all, Casablanca is widely regarded as one of the greatest ever made, and even if I ranked it the #22 Best Picture of all time in my final Best Picture Project rankings, many others would rate it much higher. That said, the key difference between the two films is when I finished Casablanca I didn’t wish it was different in every way from what it was, whereas with For Whom The Bell Tolls I did.
See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.
 Please understand that by not mentioning examples of blackface that I’m overlooking it. Rather, given the fraught history of blackface, coupled with my own whiteness, I’m not sure I have the skill to effectively address it and so to avoid giving offense I note it as a subject for a better writer to tackle, and move on. Nevertheless, the original Birth of A Nation does contain some of the most disgusting blackface ever captured on film.
 Sure, the film would be cut now and then over the years, before being restored, but that’s neither here nor there.
 If only Paramount saw fit to spend on location shooting – too much of the film is shot with rear-projection, making one wonder whether they did any location shooting for it at all.
 Akim Tamiroff didn’t exactly go home empty-handed that award season – he might’ve lost the Oscar but won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of an untrustworthy rebel.
 Despite three noms for Best director between 1939-1942, Wood would never score an Oscar of any type.