The last time Judge Jeff Andreasen went without fish for 84 days, his doctor gave him a vitamin supplement and all was well.
Fishing out of season.
They've often said that The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway's critically lauded 1952 novella, couldn't be filmed. Ha! Shows you how much they know! The Old Man and the Sea actually has been filmed. Thrice! The first was the 1958 Spencer Tracy attempt, then this 1989 telefilm made in Europe, and then in 1999 as an animated IMAX presentation. Many have their issues with the 1958 version. This made-for-TV version isn't bad, but there's too much going on that wasn't present in the novella, and it waters down the presentation to a distracting degree.
Santiago (Anthony Quinn, The Guns of Navarone, Zorba the Greek) is an old Cuban fisherman long regarded as the best in the business. But business has been slow lately, and Santiago's gone without a catch for 84 days. His young friend Manolo (Alexis Cruz, Stargate, Why Do Fools Fall In Love) continues to look after him, helping him when he comes in from his day on the water and palling around with at the local tavern and at his ramshackle hut away from the beach. Manolo doesn't doubt that Santiago is the best fisherman around, having utterly bought into the myth surrounding the man. The other fishermen in the village feel Santiago's got the worst luck there is, and that he should vamoose before he taints the rest of them with it. But Santiago pays them no mind, and resolutely determines to go out again and again until he catches the big one.
This combination of failure and resolve intrigues a visiting writer, Tom Pruitt (Gary Cole, American Gothic, Crusade), who's stuck in the village waiting for his car to be fixed. The blocked writer and his wife, Mary (Patricia Clarkson, The Untouchables, Wendigo), are having problems, problems that are made no better by his sudden fascination with the old man and his lucklessness.
Manolo and Tom Pruitt are not the only ones with their eyes on Santiago, however. His daughter, Angela (Valentina Quinn, Years of the Beast), wants him to move in with her and her husband in Havana. He is old and he shouldn't be putting out to sea every day. He should be able to relax and read and enjoy his last days. She's pushy about that.
But Santiago meets Manolo the next morning and the two prepare Santiago's little skiff for the daily grind. Santiago bids the boy farewell and sets out alone, while Manolo heads out with the boat his father prefers him fish in. The next day, with Santiago nowhere to be found, Tom Pruitt starts asking questions about the old man and his life, Angela wonders if she'll ever see her father again, and Manolo wonders what his friend is doing out there in the vast ocean.
For his part, Santiago has hooked the biggest marlin he's ever seen, and it takes all his strength and considerable willpower to pull it in. But after such a titanic struggle, will Santiago have enough left in him to fend off the sharks and scavengers when they come looking for lunch?
Anthony Quinn reportedly asked for the role of Santiago as a birthday present from producer Robert Fuisz, and he is fantastic in the role. Though not the thin and gaunt Santiago of the novella, Quinn projects not only the weariness of the old man after years of accomplishment and adventure, but also the pride of the same, and the strength of a man who's walked the walk. Watching Quinn battle the marlin on the open sea and listening to his weary delivery as he speaks with reverence to the fish he's struggling with truly brings you close to the character, to the conflict, and to the moment…
And then the film cuts to one of the subplots stapled onto the narrative to pad its run time. The appearance of Santiago's daughter is meant to give added layers to the character, but writer Roger O. Hirson is missing the point: Fishing is Santiago's life. The struggle against the sea and the zen-like nature of his efforts as a fisherman define the man, and give him a mythic quality that's sorely damaged by mention of retirement and hanging out in a nice room in Havana reading papers and drinking brewskies.
The Pruitt subplot is an extraneous annoyance. I like Gary Cole and Patricia Clarkson, and they do okay with the faux-Hemingway dialogue they're expected to deliver here, but, like the dialogue in Frank Miller's Sin City graphic novels, Hemingway's dialogue is meant to be read and not heard. Anyone who's blanched at how ridiculous a lot of the dialogue in Sin City sounds onscreen knows what I'm talking about. Worse, this dialogue wasn't written by Hemingway, so it's doubly atrocious. It's nice that Tom Pruitt cures his writers block, sells his car, and patches things up with his pretty wife, but who cares? This is about the old man and the sea, not Tom Pruitt and a fruity drink! When the narrative cuts from Santiago battling the marlin to Pruitt and his wife moping on the beach, the wind falls completely out of the film's sails, and there's no saving it.
But for the subplots, this is actually an intriguing interpretation of Hemingway's novella, with the titular character brought to glorious life by Anthony Quinn. I love Anthony Quinn and can't take my eyes off the screen when he's on it. His gusto, enthusiasm—his verve—are always present no matter what role he's playing. And no matter what movie he's in, his presence always makes the proceedings that much more viewable. He lifts this movie up despite the many anchors he's tossed: soap opera subplots, a contrived faux-Hemingway script, and a fairly bland technical presentation. Quinn alone is worth spending 93 minutes on The Old Man and the Sea.
The DVD, alas, is as bare as the bones of Santiago's marlin when he sails back into port. No commentary, no trailers, no extras at all. Heck, it doesn't even have subtitles. The video is a mish-mash of halfway decent television quality and washed-out, grainy imagery. The 2.0 Dolby audio is serviceable enough, but it's not going to bowl you over with any intricacy or depth.
This could've been a much better production. The moments when Anthony Quinn is onscreen, and the spellbinding footage of the marlin leaping frenziedly from the sea, make this movie worth the sit. It's a valiant attempt to bring to life to one of the great literary efforts of the last century, but the spurious bloat grafted on to pad the thing to an acceptable running time seriously drags down the quality of the narrative. You're not going to come away from The Old Man and the Sea with anything close to the experience you'll come away from the novella with, but it's as good an interpretation of this classic as you're ever likely to find on celluloid.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Vision
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