Reading Ben Shapiro’s Front Page article, “Hollywood Hates Corporations, LovesCorporate Cash” (December 5th) caused me to reflect again on the esthetic, political, and moral gulf between the films of yesteryear and of today. What underscored the reflection was a recent watching of Director/Producer Sam Wood’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, one of my favorite movies. I decided it was time to revisit the role of Hollywood and its decline into the agitprop business
What? That vehicle of communist propaganda is one of my favorite movies? Released in 1943, it may or may not have been propaganda of any kind. I doubt it. Sam Wood was a conservative. So was Gary Cooper, who plays Robert Jordan, the demolition expert working for the Republican side, which, historically, was supported by the Soviet Union. The film may have been intended to be a kind of cinematic “pep talk” for American audiences during World War II. I do not know, nor do I care.
I first saw the film in the Thalia, a small, moldy, slightly odiferous, “revival” movie house off Broadway in upper Manhattan in New York years ago in the 1970’s. The tatterdemalion carpeting was so worn and decrepit that if exposed to the sun, I imagined it would have sprouted mushrooms, or perhaps disintegrated. The cloth on the commodious seats was threadbare, but no one went to the Thalia to judge its comforts and amenities. It boasted a loge about half the size of the front section of seats. This was where the smokers sat, and I am certain that not all the smoke that wafted past the screen emanated exclusively from cigarettes. It certainly did from mine.
I cannot remember the décor of the place, except that it was not gaudy rococo, but “Art Moderne,” which I barely noticed because the place was always so dark. I spent a lot of time in the Thalia, because it featured films that were far more interesting than what was running in regular movie houses. As a rule, the audiences were courteous and quiet – and adult. Most of the films shown were made before my time, or at least while I was growing up, before the Left “occupied” Hollywood in earnest. I spent countless evenings and Saturday afternoons in the Thalia, giving myself an education in cinematography, direction, dialogue, plotting, and story-telling. I still have some of the Thalia’s movie schedules.
The politics of For Whom the Bell Tolls, however, were invisible to anyone who knew anything about the Spanish Civil War, and at the time I knew little about it. They are invisible now. So it was not a political film or an instance of expensive propaganda. I’ve seen many of that kind of film. The Republican guerilla group Jordan joins in the mountains not once yells “All power to the proletariat” in Spanish or English or voices any other Communist slogans. They never say why they are Republicans and fight the Nationalists. But you know that they feel very strongly about it, and the Spanish are noted for their emotional ardor. In the film, that emotion is strong, credible, and almost palpable.
There are no tell-tale ideological price tags fluttering from any of the characters in the film, either, not even from the Nationalists, or Franco’s Fascists, who were supported by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Other than a brief, forgettable statement by Cooper’s Jordan later in the film in answer to a character’s question about why he, an American, is fighting on the Republican side, there is no ideological or political discourse at all. If it weren’t for the spoken Spanish, and the mentions of Barcelona and Madrid, the story could have been set during any 20th century civil war. The film is nearly generic in its historical setting.
The film is based on Ernest Hemingway’s novel, which I read shortly after seeing the film only to note which parts of it made it to the screen. Most of them did, but were essentialized for scripting purposes. I have not read it since and do not plan to. Hemingway was never one of my favorite writers. Later I read up on the Spanish Civil War. A well-made, gripping movie with an historical theme rarely failed to move me to study the period. Movies had been a large part of my education.
It is noteworthy that Hemingway did not like the film, precisely because the film did not include the leftist political content of his novel. Had it been worked into the shooting script, the film would have been far less a success than it was, and then he might have whined about the poor box office and dismissed the movie-going public as a herd of tasteless and ignorant philistines.
I could go on here about the incomparable all-star cast. There is the tiresome, shifty scoundrel, Pablo, leader-presumptive of the guerillas, played by Akim Tamiroff; Pilar, the true head of the gang, an earthy, headstrong woman, but strangely benevolent, played by Katina Paxinou; Rafael the merry, impish gypsy, played by Mikhail Rasumny; and Anselmo, Jordan’s aged and loyal guide, played by Vladimir Sokoloff.
(One trivial note about the film I can’t pass up: Duncan Renaldo, who was Romanian, and who briefly appears as a rather foolish Nationalist officer, later went on to star in the TV series, “The Cisco Kid,” one of my favorite childhood shows.)
But the performance that for me is the most endearing, the most captivating, and the most enthralling, is Ingrid Bergman’s, as Maria. I have not always liked Bergman’s films or her roles, but I have always liked her. I loved her in this role. Her performance makes the rest of the story nearly irrelevant. The Spanish Civil War setting and the relationships depicted among the other characters seemed to be mere excuses to showcase Bergman at her best.
And her best was to portray a young woman who was forced to watch her parents and townsmen shot by the Nationalists, then to have her head shaved, and finally raped in her father’s office. She is rescued from a prisoners’ train blown up Republican guerillas, and taken to the mountain hideaway. There she earns her keep by cooking. Pilar becomes her protective confidante. Bergman portrays a tragic character, yet one who has remained undefiled.
When Robert Jordan (Cooper) appears at the hideaway with his instructions to blow up an important bridge, Maria’s face lights up. One doesn’t yet know her past and when one does, it doesn’t seem to matter. For Bergman manages to convey element of hero worship – and hero desire – I cannot recall seeing in the face of any other actress in cinema, and I have watched thousands of movies. At least, it does not appear in such an undiluted form. She even bests Alida Valli, the actress who plays Kira, the equally passionate and convincing heroine of the 1942 Italian film version of Ayn Rand’s We the Living. Whether the film is in color or in black-and-white is irrelevant. That unsullied, uncorrupted element is there and nearly overwhelms Gary Cooper’s response to it.
Cooper does his best to convey a reciprocation of emotion and value, but his character and masculinity are wooden, almost two-dimensional. Together they are convincing, but stiff and tentative. I would say “tolerable.” Cooper looks the role – he looks and acts and speaks like the kind of man Maria ought to fall in love with – but he can’t match Bergman’s performance.
Bergman projects in Maria an irrepressibly ecstatic and clean sexuality, and an unconditional devotion to Jordan. Jordan twice calls it “shameless,” and Maria admits it, boastfully, almost as though she doesn’t know the meaning of the term. Cooper at times looks uncomfortable in the role of a hero in Maria’s eyes, but he manages to sound sincere in his parting words to Maria in the final scenes. They are the desperate, yet convincing words of a man who wants to preserve a value – Maria. And Maria’s cries as she is torn away from him are unforgettably heart-rending.
If you’re half a man, that is the kind of woman you want to want you.
Then you look at most contemporary actresses – the so-called sex symbols, the Oscar Night figures in their self-consciously outrageous gowns frolicking in what actor George C. Scott called a demeaning “meat parade” – and while one often can see their beauty, their sexuality is vapid, empty, contrived – at best corrupted – and their appeal is only skin-deep. At times, only superficially glamorous. There is no spirituality in their faces, not the spiritual purity one sees in Bergman’s Maria. There are very, very few exceptions to that rule, and Hollywood is not making films that have any place for the kind of thing created and projected by Ingrid Bergman in that film.
The Left cannot or will not convincingly project heroes or hero-worshippers. To the Left in Hollywood, individuals do not exist to be happy and to live their own lives, to reach for a plateau of happiness far above the mob and out of reach of OccupyWall Street groundlings. Heroes, says Hollywood, exist to “give back” to society or to act as selfless role models or to pose as cynical, anti-capitalist mentors in incredible “slices of life,” such as Brad Pitt in Killing Them Softly, discussed in Ben Shapiro’s article. Individuals, says Hollywood, by themselves are just clueless dorks or helpless products of their “class” or “race” or “gender” who can’t manage their love lives, their careers, their families, or anything else without screwing it up and needing societal input and analysis.
Hollywood has largely become the agitprop arm of the collectivists, statists, and the anti-freedom trolls in American culture. When the Left triumphed and occupied Hollywood, the bell tolled for Tinsel Town.
It’s time for Americans to tell Hollywood that the show is over. It’s time for Americans to tell the Left to just leave it all on the cutting room floor.