Friday, 18 August 2017

A Bell for Adano (1945)

In my on-going series of articles about war films made in 1945 the first three films were of actual combat, Ford's They Were Expendable (in the Philippines), Walsh's Objective, Burma! and William Wellman's The Story of G.I. Joe (in Italy). This post is about a film set behind the front line, Henry King's adaptation of A Bell for Adano, originally a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by John Hersey. That way the post combines three of my major research focuses of late: war films from 1945, 20th Century Fox and Henry King.


Hersey was a war correspondence for the magazines Time and Life and in 1944 he was in Sicily where he visited the small town of Licata. After the Allied invasion of Italy the previous year the fascists mayors were removed from power and replaced by officers from Britain or the US. In Licata, an U.S. Army Major called F.E. Toscani was put in charge and one of his first tasks was to replace a 700 years old bell that the fascists had taken and melted down to make weapons. It was not Toscani's own priority to replace it but it was what the villagers wanted, not least as a symbol that the years of war and dictatorship were over. Later Hershey wrote a book about it, but a fictionalised version, renaming the town Adano and calling the major Joppolo instead of Toscani. (As indicated by the names both the real major and the fictional one were of Italian ancestry. The parents were born there and had come to the U.S. as economic refugees.)

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The film opens with a shot with the camera up in the town looking down at a car driving through the countryside. It continues up a hill, past the harbour and through the town until it stops on the main square. It is done in one excellently timed long take and immediately creates a strong sense of place. In the car are Joppolo, played by John Hodiak, and his sergeant, played by William Bendix, and while they seem to be the only people around, soon they will have their hands full with people coming at them from all directions, primarily asked for food and water. In the beginning the Americans, and in particular the captain in charge of the MPs, are rather contemptuous towards the Italians. But Joppolo, despite being overwhelmed by his assignment, does not succumb to such feelings. He remains committed to fairness and justice. This is what eventually leads to his downfall.

The cast is a combination of American, Italians, Italian-Americans and the French actor Marcel Dalio, also playing an Italian. The Czech-born Hugo Haas plays a priest. Henry Morgan plays the MP who is, in a way, the villain in the film. Gene Tierney plays Tina Tomasino, an Italian woman with whom Joppolo has some sort of a relationship although he is married and she is engaged. His wife is home in America and her boyfriend is missing, perhaps dead or in a prison camp, so they are united in their loneliness. It is a sweet section of the film but Tierney does not feel right. Tina wants to be different from the other women in town, and she dyed her hair to become a blonde to stand out from all the others with black hair, but there is something stiff about Tierney's performance. Many of the Italians are otherwise portrayed in a somewhat exaggerated manner, which gets tiresome on occasion.

Dalio between Hodiak and Bendix.

While not shot on location on Sicily but at Brent's Crag in California (the same place where a few years earlier Ford had made How Green Was My Valley (1941), also for 20th Century Fox) King and cinematographer Joseph LaShelle try to do what they can to create a feeling of realism. Unusually for a film by King the mise en scène looks somewhat haphazard and improvised, and the lighting is sometimes rather dull, but this might be deliberate in order to make it look less staged. There are also several very powerful sequences, such as one when the men of the town, who had been imprisoned by the Allied, one day returns home. First we see the women leaving their houses, sisters, wives and mothers, and then we see the men walking, tired but happy, towards them. Then there is a sudden cut from street-level to a camera placed high above the square where all the men and women meet in one big frenzy of tears and hugs. When seen from a distance all the combined emotions from all these people becomes very moving. The recurring use of the 1944 romantic song Lili Marleen also contributes to the feeling of the film.

A Bell for Adano is peculiar for the angle from which the story is told. This honourable man, Joppolo, is doing the best he can but he is hamstrung by the bureaucracy and pettiness of the U.S. Army. Considering the war was still going on when the film was shot it is remarkable how it sides with the Italians, ostensibly the enemy, against the army and the thinly disguised general Patton. I do not think there are any similar films set in Germany or Japan; that came later. But it does perhaps relate to one of King's recurrent themes, which is forgiveness and acceptance. (Here that the Italians and the Americans should aim for this together, and to move forward together.) This does not mean that the Italian fascists are forgotten. Many of the Italians in the film are shown to have supported the fascists, with different levels of sincerity, and the former major, an unrepentant fascist, is publicly humiliated before the townspeople. But the film's sympathy lies with the poor and hungry civilians. By siding with the townspeople and going against his own people Joppolo wins the locals' trust but at the same time it raises his superiors' suspicions and disappointment. The film ends with Joppolo being dismissed and relocated, at the very day the locals have thrown him a big party. His sergeant cannot bring himself to tell him the news and instead gets drunk and then collapse in tears, so Joppolo is able to enjoy the party without knowing it will be the last time he will ever see these people. The beautiful last shot shows Joppolo, in the early morning mist, get into a jeep and drive away through the empty streets.

The ending is typical for the war films of 1945, it is not triumphant but melancholic. While A Bell for Adano is not the best of them, or the best of Henry King, it is both interesting and moving.

Tierney and Hodiak.

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A Bell for Adano was edited by Barbara McLean, one of King's most important partners. They made close to 30 films together.

My earlier article about Henry King is here.

Here are the articles about They Were Expendable, Objective, Burma! and The Story of G.I. Joe.

After the book and film came out there was some friction between the real major, Toscani, his wife and John Hersey due to the part about the woman whom Toscani allegedly had an affair with.

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