For Whom the Bell Tolls: The Hemingway Scene That Inspired Metallica’s Famous Song

For Whom the Bell Tolls: The Hemingway Scene That Inspired Metallica’s Famous Song

Image for postGary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman in Hollywood?s 1943 Adaptation of For Whom the Bell Tolls

Fidel Castro said For Whom the Bell Tolls was his favorite novel. He read it in a prison in Santiago in the early 1950s.

But don?t let his opinion make you think this is a novel for communists. In 2008, Arizona Senator and then-Republican presidential candidate John McCain said of For Whom the Bell Tolls, ?It is my favorite novel, and its hero, Robert Jordan, the Midwestern teacher who fought and died in Spain, is my favorite literary hero.?

But if McCain?s politics turn you off as well, maybe you?ll be interested to hear that Barack Obama also adores the novel. He called it one of three literary works that changed his life (the other two were Song of Solomon and Shakespeare?s tragedies).

This video is based on the essay you?re reading now.

These politicians all love the main storyline of the novel, where American Robert Jordan defines for himself what it means to a life of duty and honor, and then he lives it.

But some other famous admirers of the novel like a different storyline.

Heavy metal fans hear the title ?For Whom the Bell Tolls? and don?t think of Hemingway, but rather, Metallica, whose 1984 song of the same name is one of the great tracks in the history of metal.

And this song isn?t inspired by the Robert Jordan storyline, with its themes of living in the present, of being better than you were, of allowing imminent death to help define a life well lived.

This song is about other characters in the novel. It is about El Sordo and four of his soldiers who make a stand against the fascists on the hillside, one that is valiant, futile, and pointless all at once.

El Sordo was making his fight on a hilltop. He did not like this hill and when he saw it he thought it had the shape of a chancre. But he had had no choice except this hill and he had picked it as far away as he could see it and galloped for it, the automatic rifle heavy on his back, the horse laboring, barrel heaving between his thighs, the sack of grenades swinging against one side, the sack of automatic rifle pans banging against the other, and Joaquin and Ignacio halting and firing, halting and firing to give him time to get the gun in place.

Image for postFor Whom the Bell Tolls is a story of anti-fascist rebels holed up in the mountains during the Spanish Civil War

In the novel, five men, including El Sordo, take the hilltop, and fight off the fascists in an effort they know to be futile.

They all know they are going to die. Their position is good for a shootout, but there is no getting down, there are too many enemies, and they know that in a matter of minutes or hours, a plane is going to race through in the sky and destroy them.

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When the shooting started he had clapped this helmet on his head so hard it banged his head as though he had been hit with a casserole and, in the last lung-aching, leg-dead, mouth-dry, bullet-spatting, bullet-cracking, bullet-singing run up the final slope of the hill after his horse was killed, the helmet had seemed to weigh a great amount and to ring his bursting forehead with an iron band.

Image for postThe lyrics of For Whom the Bell Tolls are attributed to all four members of Metallica. While all four were avid readers, it was bassist Cliff Burton who brought both classical music theory and a literary sensibility to the band?s early work. For Whom the Bell Tolls opens with one of the most famous bass riffs in the history of metal.

El Sordo and his men are a subplot in the novel, and the themes of their story are very different than those surrounding the main plotline.

In the main plotline, Robert Jordan learns a kind of stoicism in the face of certain death, a stoicism that would later inspire Castro, McCain, Obama, and millions of other readers.

El Sordo and his men have a different experience. In the heat of their battle, the brutality of war strips away all of their humanity except for ?the will to be,? before taking that away too.

Metallica recognized that El Sordo was a more compelling subject for a metal song.

El Sordo lay now on his good side and looked up at the sky. He was lying on a heap of empty cartridge hulls but his head was protected by the rock and his body lay in the lee of the horse. His wounds had stiffened badly and he had much pain and he felt too tired to move.

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He was covering the down-slope edge of the boulder with his automatic rifle and he was thinking: when I see him he will be running already and I will miss him if I am not careful. I could shoot him all across that stretch. I should swing the gun with him and ahead of him. Or let him start and then get on him and ahead of him. I will try to pick him up there at the edge of the rock and swing just ahead of him. Then he felt a touch on his shoulder and he turned and saw the gray, fear-drained face of Joaquin and he looked where the boy was pointing and saw the three planes coming.

Image for postDust Jacket For First Edition of For Whom the Bell Tolls

Lying flat on his belly and looking up into the sky watching them come, Ignacio gathered the legs of the tripod into his two hands and steadied the gun.

Then, through the hammering of the gun, there was the whistle of the air splitting apart and then in the red black roar the earth rolled under his knees and then waved up to hit him in the face.

When the battle is over, and the planes have killed El Sordo?s men, Hemingway takes us to the point of view of the lieutenant who led the fascist fighters at the base of the hill. He walks up to a dead body, one of his own men.

He looked down at him but did not touch him. ?Que cosa mas mala es la guerra,? he said to himself. ?What a bad thing war is.?

In the earliest days of Metallica, the other members invited Cliff Burton to join the band because he was a virtuoso who could play the bass unlike anyone they?d ever seen.

From a history of Metallica titled The Frayed Ends of Metal:

By the time Metallica came courting, Cliff was playing in [a metal band named] Trauma, attending a local junior college, and studying piano. Cliff was well known for his distinctive, gleefully out of fashion bell bottoms. His literary tastes ran to horror, with HP Lovecraft a particular favorite.

?The bass player was completely outrageous,? drummer Lars Ulrich said of their first viewing of Cliff on stage. ?We just looked at each other and said, ?That?s our new bass player.??

Metallica?s For Whom the Bell Tolls starts with an unusual, completely original chromatic riff where Cliff Burton plays the bass as if it is a lead guitar.

In the early 80s, no one was playing bass in quite the way Cliff Burton was.

?He used to carry around an acoustic classical guitar that he detuned so that he could bend the strings,? guitarist Kirk Hammet said of Cliff. ?Anyway, when he would play that riff, I would think, ?That?s such a weird, atonal riff that isn?t really heavy at all.??

?I remember him playing it for James (Hetfield, vocals), and James adding that accent to it and all of a sudden, it changed,? Hammett added. ?It?s such a crazy riff. To this day, I think, ?How did he write that?? Whenever I hear nowadays, it?s like, ?OK, Cliff?s in the house.??

Cliff Burton playing the ?crazy riff? that opens For Whom the Bell Tolls from a concert in 1985. Cliff Burton died the next year when Metallica?s tour bus careened off the road one night in the South of Sweden.

Here are the lyrics to For Whom the Bell Tolls by Metallica, a truly great American work of art that becomes even more profound after you?ve finished reading Chapter 27 of Hemingway?s novel:

Make his fight on the hill in the early dayConstant chill deep insideShouting gun, on they run through the endless greyOn they fight, for the right, yes, by who?s to say?For a hill men would kill, why? They do not knowStiffened wounds test their prideMen of five, still alive through the raging glowGone insane from the pain that they surely know

For whom the bell tollsTime marches onFor whom the bell tolls

Take a look to the sky just before you dieIt is the last time you willBlackened claw massive roar fills the crumbling skyShattered goal fills his soul with a ruthless cryStranger now, are his eyes, to this mysteryHe hears the silence so loudCrack of dawn, all is gone except the will to beNow they see what will be, blinded eyes to see

For whom the bell tollsTime marches onFor whom the bell tolls

The legendary studio recording of Metallica?s For Whom the Bell Tolls


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