For Whom the Bells Tolls (1942)

Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University


For Whom the Bells Tolls (1942) enraged the book’s author Hemingway so much that he threatened to give a press conference to denounce the film
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

When the HUAC hearings began on 20 October 1947, the conservative director Sam Wood, who was president of the MPAPAI. Wood argued: “There is a constant effort to get control of the Guild. In fact, there is an effort to get control of all unions and guilds in Hollywood. I think our most serious time was when George Stevens was president; he went in the service and another gentleman took his place, who died, and it was turned over to John Cromwell. Cromwell, with the assistance of three or four others, tried hard to steer us into the Red river, but we had a little too much weight for that.” Sam Wood had a gentle-looking face that belied an almost obsessive anti-Communism: he made his children swear anti-Communist affidavits or face being disinherited. He had started his career as an assistant to Cecil B. DeMille in 1915, and these long-time colleagues were now strong anti-Communist allies. Wood had become a respected filmmaker in his own right, directing films such as A Night at the Opera (1935) and Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939). His failure to win an Academy Award for his often highly successful films fostered enormous personal spite toward liberals whom he felt were out to discredit him. His strident anti-Communism is thought to have contributed to his death by a heart attack in 1949. Wood and other friendly witnesses had one clear message: Communists were present in Hollywood and were working day and night to wrest control of the industry. When he came to direct a film touching on communism, his political views were on display. For Whom the Bells Tolls (1942) was one film which went against the trend of flattering the communists during the Second World War.  The film was an adaption of Hemingway’s novel about an American who joined partisan fighters in the Spanish Civil War.  Conservative director Sam Wood and Paramount studios changed the word fascist to nationalist throughout the script.  Wood’s one concession to the political situation was a short speech by Gary Cooper who said that the Nazis and the Fascists were just ‘much against democracy as they are against the Communists.  The fascists were testing weapons to get a “jump on the democracies”’.[1]

The screen version enraged its author Ernest Hemingway so much that he threatened to give a press conference to denounce the film.[2]  Critic James Agee in his review of the film for The Nation said there had been denials of political interference in the film from the Franco Government, the Catholic Church and the State Department.  Agee saw the film as depicting Spain as a battleground between ‘dirty communists’ and German Nazis. The political slant of the film may have also stemmed from its original ultra-conservative director Cecil B.DeMille who was strongly considering making the film until 1942, when he handed back the rights to Paramount pictures.  He wrote in autobiography that he had screenwriter Jeanie MacPherson work on the project for six and a half months.  [3]

The Office War Information reviewer said it would hinder the war effort as it showed chinks in the alliance through its depiction of splits within the loyalist camp.[4]  The film was the first cinematic hint that the conservatives in Hollywood were not happy with the depiction of Russia in wartime cinema.

Sam Wood gave full vent to those conservative opinions through the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MAPAI) two years later, of which he was the founding President.  The alliance declared war against Hollywood’s radicals when it stated its principles in 1944.  The group claimed that it was in sharp revolt against the rising tide of ‘communism, fascism and kindred beliefs’.  It resented the takeover of Hollywood by ‘communists, radicals and crack-pots’.  The group demanded that communists and other extremists be removed from the film industry because they were perverting the screen with un-American ideas and beliefs.  It pledged to fight with every possible resource any attempt to ‘divert the screen from the free America which gave it birth. The MPAPAI members were Walt Disney, Cedric Gibbons, Norman Taurog, Louis D. Lighton, Clarence Brown, George Bruce, James K. McGuiness, Borden Chase, Victor Fleming, Arnold Gillespsie, Frank Gruber, Bert Kalmar, Rupert Hughes, Frank Nible Jr., Cliff Reid, Casey Robinson, Howard Emmett Rogers, Harry Ruskin, Morrie Ryskind, King Vidor, Robert Vogel and George Waggner. [5]  The alliance followed up the declaration with a lobbying campaign in Washington which rekindled Martin Dies; enthusiasm for an investigation of Hollywood for communist subversion.

The MPAPAI’s efforts were reinforced by the studio heads’ desire to crush the studio unions and the obtain political favour with the emerging Republican and McCarthyite forces.  The efforts of the alliance were not wasted.  The conflict between the ultra-conservatives and the radicals came to a head at the HUAC hearings into communist involvement in Hollywood on 20 October 1947.  The Washington-based committee planned to interview both communist and anti-communist witnesses for the next 10 days.


[1] For Whom the Bell Tolls, (d) Sam Wood, (w) Dudley Nichols, quoted by James Agee in The Nation, 24 July 1943, in James Agee, Agee on Film, Grosset & Dunlop, New York, 1969, pp. 46 – 49.

[2] Ian Hamilton, Writers in Hollywood 1915 – 1951, William Heinemann, London, 1990, p. 179.

[3] Agee, pp. 46 – 49.  See Donald Hayne (ed.) The Autobiography of Cecil B. DeMille, W.H. Allen, London, 1960, pp. 344 – 345.  The remaining synopses are in Box 1038, Folder 1, Cecil B. DeMille Archive, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, USA.

[4] Clayton R. Koppes and Gregory Black, Hollywood Goes to War: How Politics, Profits and Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies, Free Press, New York, 1987, p. 71.  According to Variety, 3 January 1944, it was also the most popular film of 1943.

[5] A copy of the statement of principles is printed in Nancy Lynn Schwartz, The Hollywood Writer’s Wars, Knopf, New York 1982, p. 206. 

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