Lance Entertainment // 1988 // 285 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // June 15th, 2005
"Never confuse movement with action." -- Ernest Hemingway to Marlene Dietrich (as reported to A.E. Hotchner)
Ernest Hemingway. The name conjures images of manly men, displaying courage under extreme conditions, rejecting the artifice of language in favor of pure bodily experience. From time to time, I teach Hemingway's work, and I still do not know what to make of this figure who cuts across American literature prior to World War II. He is misunderstood, a complex man whose macho myth is as much a product of his own creation as that of countless readers who mistake his embittered protagonists for traditional heroes. He is perhaps overrated, his style easily lapsing into cliché (there is an annual Hemingway imitation contest in honor of his notoriously bare style) and his peculiar psychopathology seemingly more oddball as the years pass.
But whatever you think of Hemingway, you cannot deny that he led a colorful life. It may be even tempting to think of the real Ernest Hemingway as an invention of Hemingway the author: the soldier, the hunter, the frustrated alcoholic, the body-obsessed introvert seeking to compensate for his own fear of death by constantly confronting the outside world in the form of carousing, risk, and egoistic pronouncements about the state of man. Actually, many of Hemingway's early works are based on personal experiences -- so much so that it is hard to tell what to make of, say, his own experiences in Spain being translated into the character of Jake Barnes, the impotent, imagistic narrator of The Sun Also Rises.
But if you are looking for psychological insights into Hemingway's life and work, the 1988 mini-series Hemingway is probably not the place to go. Stacy Keach (who won a Golden Globe for this, apparently) turns in a serviceable performance, if rather lacking in intensity, as the titular hero of the Hemingway myth. A German and American co-production told in three parts (95 minutes apiece), Hemingway traces the author's life from his marriage to first wife Hadley (Josephine Chaplin) in 1922 to his suicide in 1961. The story focuses primarily around Hemingway's relationships with women, which seems odd considering the importance of male relationships in his writing. We track Hemingway through his four marriages (and an occasional dalliance, such as the Italian girl Adriana who inspired some of his later work) and considerable globe-hopping. Perhaps the film's insistence on Hemingway's almost aggressive heterosexuality is meant to address claims in recent years that his peculiar code of masculinity (focusing on sensual experience and sexual ambivalence, at least in his writing) masked a latent homosexuality. Or perhaps the Hemingway estate, which authorized the use of his correspondence as a source for Bernhard Sinkel's script, insisted on portraying Hemingway as husband and father (in spite of the fact that he is not particularly successful as either) rather than writer and adventurer.
Regardless, the film does not gloss over Hemingway's temperamental nature or his occasionally overbearing ego. As with his later novels, this Hemingway is prone to brusque judgments ("I am not the lost generation. I know exactly where I am. I'm in Paris and it's raining.") and sudden fits of pique. For example, early on in the film, Hemingway inexplicably flares up at Ezra Pound (like fellow writers Gertrude Stein, John Dos Passos, and others, Pound is given little personality: if you were not told these were supposed to be a famous artists, you probably could not guess it from the flat characterizations): we see Hemingway's acerbic temper, but we have no idea what makes the man tick. And while Stacy Keach can handle the quieter moments of the character, his Hemingway seems to lack any force or ferocity. Rather, Hemingway comes across as a pretty ordinary guy who jumps into extreme situations for no particular reason.
There are three deeper problems with the script that lends to our inability, even after nearly five hours, to understand Hemingway any better than when we started. The first problem is the story's structure. By focusing almost exclusively on Hemingway's relationships with his wives, and dropping nearly all other relationships far into the background, we mostly see Hemingway reacting to circumstances, which seems odd for a man supposedly committed to action. We see next to nothing of his childhood, his experiences in World War I, and other formative events. When we are presented with events not directly connected to the wives, the scenes are designed primarily as comparisons to events in his books. For instance, a long sequence in Spain, with Hadley lurking in the background, seems constructed to suggest that the characters and events of The Sun Also Rises are simply transposed from real life (with Hadley erased from the fictionalized version). Now, while many of his earlier books do borrow liberally from his experiences (as mentioned above), this seems simplistic. Hemingway's style is far more complex than this movie suggests, his experiences as a journalist prior to his breakthrough as a novelist evolving into a spare and suggestive prose that mirrored the frustrated inarticulateness of his characters. Hemingway would later call this the "iceberg" technique, where far more is implied than ever said. Consider "Hills Like White Elephants," where a tense conversation between a man and a woman over a never-named abortion opens up a wide range of emotional responses stewing beneath the seemingly empty dialogue.
Compare that to Hemingway. The script's second major flaw is its tendency to say what it means rather than to show. An argument with fourth wife Mary (Pamela Reed) late in the film offers pages of exposition, right out in the open (the follow-up scene is even more frustrating: Hemingway directs the doctors trying to save Mary during surgery on how to operate, becoming the hero of his own melodrama). Earlier, Hemingway tells us all about bullfighting long before we ever see a bull. Unlike Hemingway's own prose, Hemingway is stuffed with exposition. From time to time, Hemingway's voice inexplicably pops in to set the scene -- is this movie a flashback narrated by Hemingway? Why does the voice-over appear in some scenes but not others?
Chalk that up to a third flaw in the script: the film's awkward and changing structure. A scene early in Part II might provide a crucial example. On safari in Africa in 1933, where a friend suggests the plot of "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber," conveniently parallel with Hemingway's own fights with second wife Pauline (Marisa Berenson), Hemingway gripes about an abortive hunting trip: "I am just a jerk with a bellyache who wants to get a bigger kudu that anybody else." He gets terribly sick and has a flashback to his father's funeral. This might be a great opportunity to explore Hemingway's relationship with his father (both men committed suicide), although placing this as a flashback is already awkward (especially since the father only appeared for a few seconds in Part I). Then suddenly at the funeral, we get a flashback inside the main flashback, during which Hemingway's father announces, "Only cowards commit suicide." Then Hemingway wakes up from both flashbacks and starts talking to Pauline about his parents' bad marriage -- none of which we ever saw on screen! Worse still, the opening shots of the film, in which the older Hemingway sits down to think about his past, and the occasional voice-overs suggest that the entire film might be meant as a flashback. Then the film suddenly jumps to Key West, where a voice-over tells us where we are but not what year it is. The result is complete confusion, even for a viewer (like me) who knows Hemingway's biography. Between the awkward structure and the film's tendency to tell us information rather than show it, Hemingway tends to be more frustrating than revealing.
Lance's presentation of this mini-series on DVD is no great revelation either. The print is grainy and overexposed, and the extra content is pretty thin. There is a short and inconsequential text biography that reads like a high-school book report: "Hemingway's appeal rests largely on his ability to excite and entertain readers by weaving core values into an interesting story." A few paragraphs by Stacy Keach actually give more psychological insight into Hemingway that most of the film Keach actually appears in, showing that he might have a better grasp of the character than the script he is forced to work with. An annotated bibliography of Hemingway's major works highlights a cynicism also not apparent in the film.
The bibliography makes one thing painfully clear about Ernest Hemingway and this weakly written mini-series: if you want to figure out what makes the real Hemingway tick, try reading his books.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Lance Entertainment
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 285 Minutes
Release Year: 1988
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Hemingway Biography
* Stacy Keach on Hemingway
* Cast and Production Biographies
* Selected Bibliography