The Lives and Deaths of Ernest Hemingway: Masculinity and Mortality on Film

Ernest Hemingway, Paris, circa 1924/Photo via <a href=JFK Library, Boston" />
Ernest Hemingway, Paris, circa 1924/Photo via JFK Library, Boston

Undoubtedly one of the most celebrated and interesting American authors, Ernest Hemingway left behind an alcoholic, reckless, and even suicidal legacy. One of the reasons his stories still resonate is the ability and need in each of us to tap into our own inner Hemingway. If Mark Twain popularized the phrase “Write what you know,” then Hemingway championed it. His stories were his life, reflecting his participation in World War I and The Spanish Civil War, gallivanting around Spain and France, or even his boating and fishing in the Caribbean. Consequently his main characters resemble Hemingway himself. So in celebration of his birth on July 21, 1899, and his death on July 2, 1961, let’s look at a few of the characters that embody the author’s celebration of masculinity and his view of mortality in the many different movie adaptations of his work.

For Whom the Bell Tolls
Debatably his most famous novel, the film adaptation from 1943 stars Gary Cooper, Ingrid Bergman, Akim Tamiroff, and the Oscar-winning Katina Paxinou. According to Hemingway, this version embellishes the love story and depoliticizes his involvement in the Spanish Civil War. Regardless, Robert (Cooper; the film’s embodiment of Hemingway) is embedded in the conflict on multiple levels and ultimately meets a tragic end, sacrificing himself for the cause, for the woman he loves, but more out of personal vanity.

From his first exchanges with Maria (Bergman), Robert claims, “I can’t be involved in anything serious.” Ironically, everything about his situation is serious. He falls for Maria, clashes with the capricious drunkard Pablo (Tamiroff), and is knee-deep in a war. The most logical way out is a suicidal stand against Franco’s men -- a stand to save his love that seems valiant and selfless by historical terms, but as Robert’s last lines of the movie reveals, “What I do now, I do alone.” For himself. Robert’s masculinity is based on solitude and -- knowing Hemingway -- on lubrication. In an amusing quip by Pablo, “Intelligent men drink so that they can spend time with fools.” Pablo drinks to nullify his past; Robert allows himself to be killed. Aren’t they both the same?

To Have and Have Not
Hemingway’s 1937 novel To Have and Have Not about a down-on-his-luck fisherman forced into rum-running and smuggling to Cuba has actually had two major Hollywood releases, a fact that often eludes most casual fans. The first -- and most popular -- is of course the Humphrey Bogart/Lauren Bacall duet from 1944 aptly titled “Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not.” Naturally, the John Huston-directed version focuses more on the Bogart/Bacall chemistry and less on the dire circumstances of the main character Harry Morgan.

The second adaptation -- oftentimes forgotten -- is Michael Curtiz’s "The Breaking Point" (1950) starring John Garfield, Patricia Neal, and Juano Hernandez. Certainly more faithful to the original novel, this film captures the broken spirit of Harry Morgan (Garfield). Morgan is a vulnerable man who, while trying to earn some money to support his family, lands in the middle of a botched smuggling scheme -- and is forced to kill. His Cuban first mate, Wesley (Hernandez), is slain and though Morgan ends up with a couple bullets in his stomach, he survives. After this incident in the most telling scene of the film, Harry is tended to by the police and his wife and children. Wesley’s son is also there. The boy is lost in the crowd looking for his pa, looking for answers. In the final shot of the film, the camera pulls away from him as he stands alone on an empty dock.

The Killers
The 1946 version of The Killers is directed by renowned film noir master Robert Siodmak, starring Ava Gardener and Burt Lancaster in his film debut. The original short story takes place solely in a café. Enter two hit-men searching for The Swede (Lancaster) with plans to knock him off. As described by Hemingway, Siodmak’s adaptation was a well-integrated version of the story, a respectable addition to the film noir genre, taking on a life as if finished by Hemingway.

The Swede is killed in the first fifteen minutes of the film, and the question resonates throughout: Who was the Swede? Justifying his fate, his last words were: “Once I did something wrong.” Through a series of flashbacks told by friends and acquaintances, the search for what he did and who he was begins. Each scene reveals the Swede’s multilayered identity -- a complex, alcoholic ex-boxer who slipped into the crime world before trying to disappear from his no-good-for-him girl Kitty Collins (Gardner). Slowly, the audience forms an evolving identity for who the Swede was. They are left to answer the question: What did he do wrong? Did he fall in love with the wrong girl? And, what kind of man was he really? Was he depressed over a failed boxing career? Was he as alone as he seemed? The correlation between the Swede and Hemingway is purely coincidental at that point. But it seems their deaths highlighted the mystery of their lives.

The Sun Also Rises
In 1957, Hollywood pulled out all the stops tying down stars Tyrone Power, Ava Gardner, Mel Ferrer, Eddie Albert -- oh, and let’s not forget Errol Flynn. Casting aside, there is no shortage of luxury in this adaptation, with much meandering about the streets of Paris, drinking, fishing from fresh springs, and watching the bullfights at Pamplona. At the same time, the film operates as a continuous metaphor. This incarnation of Hemingway, Jake (Power) is a bull. And all the people around him, specifically Brett (Gardner), are matadors. They wave their flags, but especially in the case of Brett, when he’s close, they pull them back and prick him with a saber.

At the beginning of the film in Paris, Jake is out drinking Pernods, enjoying the company of a prostitute, when Brett jumps into the ring. Symbolically dressed in a bright red blouse, she waves her flag and pulls Jake away from his date. But it’s only a tease. She pricks him with the blade of her engagement to Mike (Errol Flynn) and again with her affair with Robert Cohn (Mel Ferrer). Each cut weakens Jake to the point of impotence -- like the impotence from his old war injury. This adaptation upholds the themes of Hemingway’s original text (although it loses some of its luster); Jake’s romanticism and dependence on others is what makes him weak and impotent. He is a bull, masculine and powerful, chasing down and mauling men in the streets of Pamplona, but ultimately, the matador kills the bull.