For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943)

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Released 18-Nov-2003

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Drama Theatrical Trailer-1.33:1, not 16x9 enhanced, Dolby Digital 2.0 (2:06)
Rating Rated PG
Year Of Production 1943
Running Time 158:31
RSDL / Flipper RSDL (84:20) Cast & Crew
Start Up Language Select Then Menu
Region Coding 2,4,5 Directed By Sam Wood

Universal Pictures Home Video
Starring Gary Cooper
Ingrid Bergman
Akim Tamiroff
Arturo de Córdova
Joseph Calleia
Katina Paxinou
Case Amaray-Transparent-Secure Clip
RPI $19.95 Music Victor Young

Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame Full Frame English Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio None
16x9 Enhancement No
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.37:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English
Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

    So was this the film that made Casablanca a classic? It is well known that there was some disappointment regarding the use of the theme song As Time Goes By for that film and Warner Brothers wanted to reshoot some scenes with Ingrid Bergman and substitute a new song in its place. By then, however, Ingrid Bergman had already cut her hair in preparation for For Whom The Bell Tolls, so any reshooting was impossible until after shooting for For Whom The Bell Tolls wrapped up - far too long to wait in those days. Casablanca was left the way it was made and became one of the greatest films of all time.

    But what of For Whom The Bell Tolls? Based upon the novel by Ernest Hemingway, one of his best works, this seemed to have everything going for it. Great story, great (and topical) central theme and a virtually hand picked cast with the leads being those that Ernest Hemingway wanted. Indeed, it is said that he wanted Ingrid Bergman to play Maria even whilst writing the novel. Yet despite garnering nine Academy Award nominations in 1944, why does this seem to be a film that has not achieved a status along the lines of say Casablanca? A lot of that may be to do with the cast itself, and perhaps Gary Cooper is the place to start. Apparently Ernest Hemingway's choice for the part of Robert Jordan, unfortunately I find his performance at times stilted and lacking conviction. His relationship with Maria is to me very unconvincing and only really works because of Ingrid Bergman - although this is hardly as convincing a performance as her role in Casablanca. With that central problem, the rest of the film struggles to my mind to really work and the characterisations of the Spanish Republicans at times seems very over-the-top and as a result lacking in substance.

    Given that the film is very centrally based upon Robert and Maria, the problems that there are in the performances are hard to overcome and Sam Wood really does not do so. Whilst the story is at least coherent in this near-original length, something that apparently the shortened version was not necessarily noted for, the lack of strong characterisation from Gary Cooper really means the film barely sustains itself over the course of its near 160 minute length. Perhaps under a more assured hand the whole film would have been a little tighter and the performances a little stronger, which would have certainly aided the film overall.

    The story is based in Spain during the Civil War (drawing heavily upon Ernest Hemingway's time as a war correspondent in that conflict) and the American Robert Jordan who is a demolition expert. Aiding the Republican rebels in the fight against the Nationalists, he is given the task of destroying a vital road bridge in a major offensive planned by the Republicans. He heads into the mountains with guide Anselmo (Vladimir Sokoloff) to check out the bridge and to find the small band of rebels headed by Pablo (Akim Tamiroff) who are supposed to help him in the task of destroying the bridge. Pablo is not quite as enamoured with the idea as perhaps Robert was expecting, given that he is a foreigner helping out the locals in their Civil War. High in the hills though, Robert also finds something he was not expecting - Maria, an escapee from some horrors who has found a home of sorts with the rebels. Whilst Maria is smitten from the outset, the single-minded Robert is not as open to the possibility of a relationship, but as he spends time with the rebels, he might well be changing his mind. Indeed, the time spent with the rebels is quite eye-opening, not the least due to the fact that the somewhat wavering Pablo turns out not to be the real leader of this band - that in fact is Pilar (Katina Paxinou), a strong-willed woman who certainly ties together the motley collection of rebels, as well as providing a pillar of common sense in the mountains. What continues throughout the film is the planning, preparation and execution of the plan to destroy the bridge.

    Aside from the excellent performance of Ingrid Bergman, the supporting cast give this film its strong base. Notable amongst the cast is of course Greek actress Katina Paxinou, who having escaped Europe during the war found this her first feature film role. She walked away with the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1944 for her performance. Whilst having doubts as to the fact that the performance was quite that good, she is certainly worthwhile watching. However, she is but one of an ensemble of strong character actors who do a fine job - not the least of which are both Akim Tamiroff and Vladimir Sokoloff.

    For Whom The Bell Tolls is not one of the great classics of the cinema but it certainly is a worthwhile film. A film that I have been looking forward to seeing for some time, I am glad that I have now seen it. However, I have to say that the expectations were not met in this instance. Still, it is worthwhile seeing and at the price that you can pick this up for at the discount stores, it is worth investigating.

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Transfer Quality


    The transfer is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1, close to the theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1. It is of course not 16x9 enhanced.

    Aside from the obligatory soft focus whenever Ingrid Bergman is in close-up, the transfer is reasonably sharp given its age. Indeed, at times, the transfer demonstrates a little too much sharpness as the background comes up obviously as back projection. Detail is reasonable too, but shadow detail is generally less than average - even allowing for the age of the film. Grain is a problem at times, especially in the back projection scenes. All this results in a transfer that is hardly the clearest you will ever see. For a restored film, this is a very disappointing transfer.

    Apparently the first Technicolor film that Ingrid Bergman was in, at times you would barely notice that it was a colour film. To say the tones are underdone at times is a definite understatement. There is also a fair degree of variability in the colour. At its best though, the skin tones are well handled and the colours are quite reasonable. That, however, does not diminish the fact that the colour could have been better - I have seen older films than this that look a lot better. There are no problems with oversaturation and colour bleed does not seem to be a problem at all.

    There did not appear to be any significant MPEG artefacts in the transfer. Film-to-video artefacts in the transfer are pretty much confined to some minor aliasing that only rarely draws attention to itself - such as at 93:02 in the trees. Unfortunately, the transfer is let down rather obviously by the copious film artefacts, which certainly do little to dispel the notion that the restoration of the film could have been little more than perfunctory. There are rather obvious coloured dots all over the place whilst reel change markings get a decent run as well. Add to the equation plenty of dirt spots, one or two hair marks and what looks like some emulsion damage at times, and this really is not a pretty sight at times.

    This is an RSDL formatted DVD with the layer change presumably coming during the intermission - possibly at 84:20. Whilst I couldn't detect the exact placing, obviously its location in the intermission means that it does not cause any disruption to the film.

    There is a reasonable selection of subtitles on the DVD, although the only one of use to me is the English effort. They are reasonable enough but miss a bit of the dialogue at times. Nothing really major but a little disappointing nonetheless.

Video Ratings Summary
Shadow Detail
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts


    There is just the one soundtrack on the DVD - an English Dolby Digital 2.0 effort. In all respects it is a singularly unspectacular effort indeed.

    With the dialogue being such an important part of the film, it should of course be easy to hear and understand, so it is a pity that it really is not. Most of the time it is fine, but there are places where things go a little awry. Some of this may of course be residual damage caused by the years, and certainly there are indications of some background problems. Once or twice I thought the sync was a little out, but this may be connected with the reintroduced footage having not been in the best of condition.

    The original music score comes from Victor Young and it really is a rather good effort too. It does a fine job of supporting the film and sets the tone of the film quite well.

    There really is not a fat lot of action going on in the soundtrack - nothing more than we would expect of a basically mono soundtrack of this age. Whilst the blemishes show up rather obviously at times, mainly in some fluctuations in the sound, there is nothing really that bad with what we have here.

Audio Ratings Summary
Audio Sync
Surround Channel Use


   Given that this is one of the classic films of all time, the abysmal assemblage here is barely worthy of describing as an extras package. A lamentable effort all round.


   Not exactly great and hardly well themed.

Theatrical Trailer (2:06)

   Presented in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1, it is not 16x9 enhanced and comes with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound. The sound is a bit hissy, quite noticeably so once the trailer has ended and silence reigns. The transfer is blessed with a few film artefacts and it is poorly contrasted at times, but otherwise this created expectations regarding the technical quality of the film that were not met.


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R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    Funnily enough, amongst the available sites included in the excellent DVD-Basen site, only one has a review for the Region 1 version of the DVD. According to that review, the Region 4 release misses out on:

    Another review was eventually located of the Region 1 DVD that basically confirmed the details as being accurate. Given that the transfer seems to be at least the equivalent of ours, and arguably better looking, it makes the Region 1 release in theory the version of choice, even given the price advantage held by the Region 4 release.


    For Whom The Bell Tolls is one of those classic and near-classic films that I had always missed out on watching but was always high on the list of films that I wanted to watch. Since I have not seen the film previously, I cannot readily attest to the extent of the changes wrought by the restoration of a sizeable chunk of the footage lopped from the film after its initial release. However, DVD finally gives me the chance to watch the film and I have to say I am a bit ambivalent about it all. Part of the reason for that may be in the fact that I am no great lover of the works of Ernest Hemingway, but I doubt that is the only reason. I really cannot put my finger on exactly what else it is about the film that leaves me with this ambivalence, but the fact remains that this, whilst by no means a disaster, was certainly not as good as it could have been. Certainly the transfer is disappointing considering this was supposedly fully restored in the late 1990s, and the raves it receives in the Region 1 reviews simply do not accord with my views of the transfer. Guardedly recommended.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Ian Morris (Biological imperfection run amok)
Saturday, December 20, 2003
Review Equipment
DVDPioneer DV-515, using S-Video output
DisplaySony Trinitron Wega (80cm). Calibrated with Video Essentials. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Video Essentials.
AmplificationYamaha RXV-795
SpeakersEnergy Speakers: centre EXLC; left and right C-2; rears EXLR; and subwoofer ES-12XL

Other Reviews NONE
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