Based on Ernest Hemingway's novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls tells the story of American Robert Jordan (Gary Cooper) who has joined the side of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War and has been tasked to blow up a bridge at a crucial moment in time. He is sent into the mountains to hide in a cave with some allies until the correct moment. These allies are led by Pablo (Akim Tamiroff), a self-serving man whose interest in blowing the bridge for the Republicans is only piqued by the idea of it having some benefit to himself. However, the real leader in this place is Pilar (Katina Paxinou), a formidable woman who is far more intelligent and brave than Pablo. Also in the cave is Maria (Ingrid Bergman), taken in by Pilar after she was rescued from a train. Jordan is instantly taken by the short-haired Maria but tries to keep his mind on the task ahead as obstacles are thrown in his way.
While Cooper and Bergman are excellent in their roles, I was captivated by Katina Paxinou as Pilar. From her first scenes she is intriguing and fascinating to watch, stealing the limelight from the two leads. It's no wonder that she won the film's only Oscar for her role, as well as scooping the Golden Globe for best supporting actress. She is phenomenal and, actually, the character I cared most about as the film progressed. Not to say that Jordan and Maria are weak characters. Jordan is shadowy, almost unfathomable, and Maria's past has shaped her, both physically and mentally. There are some excellent moments between them, although I wasn't as taken with their final scene as I perhaps should have been.
This film is eventful, yes, but it trades as much on the potential duplicity of Pablo as it does the objective of blowing up the bridge. This undercurrent, along with Pilar's attitude, is the main strength of the film for me. While there are a few dramatic scenes - the gunfight on the hill, the bridge attempt - most of the tension comes within the cave and the difficult relationships enclosed within it.
Jordan as a hero is credible and Cooper plays his part perfectly. Equally, Bergman's performance is extremely good, especially when she relates what happened to her when her town was captured. Ultimately, Cooper, Bergman and the rest of the cast are thoroughly believable. I never get the sense of acting from any of them and that's due to a combination of an excellent script, empathetic direction and the skill of the actors themselves. It leaves you thinking about war, yes, but primarily about human beings - a profound topic for any film to tackle.