For a film made in 1943, For Whom the Bell Tolls is relatively progressive in how it treats its film characters. However, the sexism of the time period still leaks into the story. Even though our main female characters are fighting alongside the men, they are still on a different level than their male counterparts.
Ernest Hemingway, who penned the original novel, created this feminism/sexism dichotomy in his writing. However, movies of the time period also embraced this dichotomy, leaning more towards sexism. Even though we had a strong female lead in Ingrid Bergman, there are still moments where her male costars overshadow her.
For Whom the Bell Tolls is a mix of both progressive feminism and stagnant sexism. Yet, progressive feminism is pleasing to see in a movie from this time period.
After Pablo (Akim Tamiroff) refuses to help Robert (Gary Cooper) with his plan to strategically blow up a nearby bridge, his partner Pilar (Katina Paxinou) takes over his role as leader. Though she is only one of two women in the small guerilla group, the men respect her due to her tenacity and knowledge. There is never a debate on if she can lead as a woman; all the men agree that she is the best person to take over after Pablo’s cowardice.
If anything, the men of the group trust Pilar more than they do Pablo. She takes no nonsense from them and is brutally honest. She’s the first to take up a gun when trouble comes; there are no qualms about a woman invoking violence. Pilar is just another one of the group. The men would follow her into battle if they had to. She is not just a woman to them — she is a leader.
No one contests when she takes over Pablo’s role. The men of the group are on board with her taking over after Pablo shows his reluctance to do the right thing. They would rather follow Pilar in her unabashed confidence than a coward.
The Roles of Women
While Pilar does have a commanding lead over her little troop, she still performs what are considered more traditional female roles for the time period. Maria (Ingrid Bergman) and her are the designated cooks for the group. None of the men ever offer to help with this duty and demand it from the two women without much gratitude.
Additionally, the two women act as makeshift nurses, tending to any injuries in the group. The men have the capability to help but choose to let the women take over these duties. It’s interesting that, in a time of crisis, the men would not also step up.
For Whom the Bell Tolls is a love story as well as a war one. Maria and Robert fall into ill-fated love. Maria’s character is portrayed as a typical emotional woman who is subservient to her beau. Though she is a strong woman who has been through multiple trials, her character is still shown to be naïve and less knowledgeable about the world than Robert.
Beauty and Ugliness
There is a scene where Pilar, Robert, and Maria must travel to a nearby camp to discuss acquiring horses for the group. On the way there, they speak about their relationships. Somehow, the topic of beauty is brought up. Pilar says she is ugly but that Pablo still loves her because love blinds a man. There’s no discussion to the contrary; no one tries to tell Pilar that all humans are beautiful and instead, Robert and Maria just smile and laugh.
Later, Maria apologizes to Robert for her short hair. She says she knows it makes her unattractive but she’s going to try and grow it out for him. Again, Robert doesn’t try to refute and tell her that he loves her no matter what she looks like. He just nods and accepts her explanation.
For Whom the Bell Tolls, for all the power it gives to its female characters, still treats them as less than men. Their worth is based on their beauty and if a man loves them. These attitudes are a product of the time in which this was written, but it’s still quite shocking to see how women are reduced to just objects of beauty.
Carrying the Gun
To fight against the fascism ravaging the country, everyone must take up arms in For Whom the Bell Tolls. This includes women like Maria and Pilar. Despite war being considered mainly a male-dominated arena in this time period, women join the ranks of the armies. Maria and Pilar both wield guns during this film in order to protect their group.
Compared to other movies made in the 1940s, this is rather progressive. Most other movies portrayed women as delicate beings who couldn’t be involved in violence. Of course, there are notable exceptions to this stereotype; however, the trope was used enough that it became a stereotype.
The fact that the women not only take up arms but are encouraged to do so is telling of what kind of story this is. It’s not necessarily the most feminist tale, but it does give our female characters some substance. They aren’t just love interests — they are characters.
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