A Winning Combination: Hemingway and Groesbeck

Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls has long been one of my favorite war novels. Indeed, one of my favorite novels, period. As he had done in his earlier A Farewell to Arms, the greatest American novelist combined the themes of love and war into a reminder that frequently the pair end in tragedy.

For Whom The Bell Tolls-Original movie poster

For Whom The Bell Tolls-Original movie poster (Click on poster to see enlargement)

Often we remark upon the greatest first sentences of literature and too often overlook the last lines of great writing. One of the finest last sentences ever written was in For Whom The Bell Tolls.

As Robert Jordan, the American guerrilla fighting in Spain, lies trapped on a mountainside, his leg crushed by a fallen horse and unable to escape the enemy soldiers approaching on horseback, he grips his submachine gun, waiting for the lead officer to come into killing range, knowing that he will also die in the firefight.

He could feel his heart beating against the pine needle floor of the forest.

And so the story ends.

Another too often overlooked aspect of American literature and art is the Hollywood studio artist. One of the best was Dan Sayre Groesbeck who had a long and successful collaboration with Cecil B. DeMille at Paramount studios.

Groesbeck (1878-1950), like Hemingway, was self-educated beyond high school. Also like Hemingway, he gravitated in his early career to journalism, working as an illustrator for newspapers and magazines such as the Chicago Tribune, Redbook and Cosmopolitan.  And like Hemingway, he would also move on to more complex forms of work, turning his craft into art.

In 1918-1919, Groesbeck served with a Canadian Army unit in Siberia, where the West was backing Russian imperialist forces fighting a losing battle against the Bolshevik revolutionaries. When he returned to the States, Groesbeck moved to Los Angeles, where he had several successful gallery showings of paintings and prints of Russian subjects.

Soon, he was snapped up by Paramount and his detailed sketches and drawings for DeMille’s epic silent version of The Ten Commandments so impressed the producer that Groesbeck would go on to work with DeMille over the next twenty years, creating art work for films such as King of Kings, The Buccaneer, Union Pacific, Reap the Wild Wind, Unconquered and Samson and Delilah. DeMille so admired Groesbeck’s sketches and drawings that he added many of them to his personal art collection.

For Whom the Bell Tolls movie art by Dan Sayre Groesbeck "Oh." she said.  I die each time.  Do you not die?"

For Whom the Bell Tolls movie art by Dan Sayre Groesbeck
“Oh.” she said. I die each time. Do you not die?” (Click on the sketch to see enlargement)

Thus, when Paramount bought the film rights to For Whom The Bell Tolls and cast Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman in the leads, it was only natural that the studio looked to Groesbeck to create the art work.

The film was nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture and for Cooper and Bergman Best Actor and Actress in leading role (Bergman won instead for her role in Casablanca). And if the Academy had a division for best creative art work surrounding a film, surely Groesbeck would have won.

Recently, one of these works (at right) came up for sale at auction and I could not resist bidding for it as it complimented an earlier purchase of an original poster for the film (above).   The scene is that of the doomed American fighter Robert Jordan, played by Cooper, and the fallen sparrow Maria, played by Bergman, who, in the ugliness of a very ugly war, find the glory of love.

When I look at the sketch, the passage in the novel that immediately comes to mind is the scene right after Jordan and Maria have made love for the first time:

“Oh,” she said. “I die each time. Do you not die?”

“No. Almost. But did thee feel the earth move?”

“Yes. As I died. Put thy arm around me please.”

—He looked at her and across the meadow where a hawk was hunting and the big afternoon clouds were coming now over the mountains.

I also see one of the final passages, after Jordan’s big gray had slipped on a steep hillside, falling on him and snapping his leg bone.  Jordan knows that he can no longer go on and orders Maria and the other members of the small guerrilla band to leave him behind so they can save themselves from the soldiers hunting them.

“Guapa,” he said to Maria and took hold of her two hands. “Listen. We will not be going to Madrid—-“

Then she started to cry.

“No, guapa, don’t,” he said. “Listen. We will not go to Madrid now but I go always with thee wherever thou goest.  Understand?

She said nothing and pushed her head against his cheek with her arms around him.

Groesbeck’s work won’t be found in the Met or the Louvre or the Tate but so what.  It’s on my wall where I can see it ten or a hundred times a day, every day.   And to me, that’s all that counts.  


  1. Max Fraley says:

    Thank you for your writing. You and I come from the same mindset. Groesbeck is one of my favorite artists.
    His huge murals are PARAMOUNT and I don’t mean the studio. If ever in Santa Barbara, CA. do stop by the County Courthouse. You will be most pleased that the artwork you have from For Whom The Bell Tolls is that of a master creator.

    No it won’t be found in the Met or the Louvre or the Tate but that’s their loss… not so with you.

    Best Regards, Admiration and Agreeing Philosophy


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