I suppose you could give this film a secondary title like Ernest ‘Papa’ Hemingway and Mrs Martha Gellhorn Hemingway Go To War. That would be correct in both the literal sense as well as the figurative.
It seemed like bombs were bursting from the moment they first laid eyes on one another in 1936, at Hemingway’s favorite Key West haunt, a bar called Sloppy Joe’s, then continued through the Fascists shelling of Madrid’s Hotel Florida during the Spanish Civil War, and from there, even more bombs were falling around them during the Japanese invasion of Shanghai, China.
As Gellhorn said, “We were good in war, and when there was no war, we made our own.” You see the film was as much about their globe-trotting years of living dangerously, as it was about their conflicts as man and woman.
Directed by Philip Kaufman and starring Clive Owen as Ernest Hemingway and Nicole Kidman as Martha Gellhorn, HBO premiered its Hemingway & Gellhorn for those in attendance at the Cannes Film Festival recently, then unveiled it for the rest of us on TV a few nights ago.
The film utilizes a framing device of having an elderly Gellhorn tell us about her life and times with Papa Hemingway. The opening image is a stark closeup. You know Kidman is in there, somewhere, beneath the makeup, prosthetics, the serious mien, and a gray wig, but it is hard to see her. In fact you can’t see that it is Kidman. This framing device of Gellhorn talking about her adventures appears intermittently through the film, and only at the end do we come to realize that she’s being interviewed.
Let’s have a look. Clive Owen as Hemingway is fresh off the boat, so to speak. He’s just back from an open water fishing bout with a huge marlin, and he looks suitably unkempt. But Gellhorn is no shrinking violet. She can handle a flirt even one who is the epitome of macho such as Mr. Hemingway. Nothing much happens past introductions and a certain sizing up done by each of them. He’s a world renown author, and she’s also an author, with press clippings to prove it.
We rejoin them in Spain. The Spanish loyalists are at war with fascist Franco and his supporters. Hemingway and his friends which included John Dos Passos played by David Strathairn, famed photographer Robert Capa played by Santiago Cabrera, and the Dutch film director Joris Ivens have decided to cover the war by shooting a documentary film about it. It would serve as a rallying cry for the Spanish loyalists. Into their midst arrives war correspondent Martha Gellhorn who is covering the war for Colliers Magazine.
While virtually the entire film was shot in Northern California, with an old Oakland Railroad Station dolled up to look like the fancy Madrid Hotel Florida, director Kaufman found a way to save money, not that HBO was offering. So if he couldn’t bring his production to Spain for on location shooting, he brought Spain to his production offices. Our modern-day actors were inserted into archival newsreel footage ala Zelig or Forrest Gump. Filters were added to make the resulting imagery look either sepia toned, or newsreel-ish.
It was admittedly gimmicky. Hem and Marty were seen at the Spanish Front, which was often just blocks away in downtown Madrid, or on the beaches of Normandy, in Finland, or in China, or even in Cuba. Hem was there for his machismo and he actually wrote For Whom The Bells Toll while standing in his hotel room in Madrid. Gellhorn claimed to have writers block at times. At least until Hemingway told her that writing was as easy as, “You stand at your typewriter and then bleed.”
Sometimes this kind of visual trickery worked and sometimes it was a bit too gimmicky, especially when black and white changed to sepia then to HD color. But it was always interesting. Watch for Martha Gellhorn chatting with Eleanor Roosevelt while Ernest exchanged pleasantries with FDR.
Of course, as the bombs fell, the at-the-time married Hemingway, and Gellhorn gave their passions free rein. No body doubles were used. No full frontal nudity either but don’t let that fact make you think they weren’t unclothed. But they gave it their best even when the bombs were exploding and the plaster from the falling ceiling landed on them. And you thought acting was easy! However, watching Kidman and Owen going through motions, as in simulating sex, a few times would have been plenty. But four times – give me a break!
While in Espaná, Gellhorn was on the job. Hem was doing his thing too, even when trading insults with a Russian General (Robert Duvall in an uncredited role) after this guy propositioned Gellhorn at the bar in the Madrid Hotel. This led to a game of Russian Roulette, not quite played to a conclusion, no pun intended, but a cooler head in the form of Tony Shalhoub, as a Russian spy, prevailed, especially when a bottle of Vodka was the prize for calling off the very localized hostilities after one off-screen click of the hand guns’ hammers was heard.
Hemingway managed to shed his 2nd wife, Pauline played by Molly Parker. He got his mitts on a divorce decree despite Mrs. Hemingway’s Catholicism and her vow to not divorce, come what may. But she hadn’t counted on Hem’s absolute need to make Gellhorn an honest woman, and his 3rd wife.
So in 1940 Gellhorn and Hemingway got hitched. It lasted five years. Gellhorn dragged Hemingway off to China rather than have a standard honeymoon. There they met Chiang Kai-Shek and Madame Chiang (played by Joan Chen).
They also were taken to a secret hideout of Chou En-Lai who would eventually succeed Chairman Mao. Chou was well versed in who and what the Hemingways were about. He even made a comment about the film made from Hemingway’s book A Farewell to Arms. He didn’t much care for Helen Hayes as Catherine Barkley. As Chou correctly presumed, the Hemingways took a message back to FDR that the Communists would win and control China.
Later, after WWII was up and running with all parties involved, Gellhorn decided to head off to Finland where there was lots of wartime action. She also arrived (for a bit) on the beaches of Normandy during the Allied Invasion on or right after D-Day.
Back in Cuba, Papa was entertaining a new woman, when he wasn’t trolling the Cuban waters on the lookout for German U-boats. Mary Welch was played by Parker Posey. The two of them got into an auto accident one night, and sure enough, when Gellhorn arrived there was Mary offering her best t-l-c in the hospital. Gellhorn announced that she was back, for a divorce.
In a bitter argument with Papa Hemingway, a lot of strong words were exchanged. Feeling a surge of his testosterone, and smarting from the vituperative words being tossed his way, Papa slapped Gellhorn hard. She said “I know you. You couldn’t discuss this. You had to strike back by hitting me.” Papa said, “If you really knew me, then you’d know how badly I needed to do that.“
So it went. Papa and Mrs. Hemingway (the 3rd one of those) went to war. Each was strong. A picture of Ernest Hemingway might have been found if you looked up ‘macho‘ in the Harvard Lampoon Dictionary of those times. But Gellhorn was as tough as they come too. Papa even said at one point, that ’Gellhorn had more man in her then some of the men I know‘.
As passionate as they were in bed, or in a Havana night club’s dressing room, or a Madrid hotel, they were just as passionate about their lives and their work.
In the TV interview at the end, Gellhorn said that “… she would not be a footnote to someone else’s life.” Unfortunately, in the case of Ernest Hemingway, she was just that.
Strengths: Great costumes, music, and action. You’re swept up in the arc of history even if it is told to you by the self-absorbed Ernest Hemingway and the equally self-absorbed Martha Gellhorn. The movie magic of having the Hemingways and company inserted into real newsreel footage was marvelous. As was the mock-up of the Madrid Hotel.
Weaknesses: The script was woeful. Papa Hemingway said some strange lines. ‘Let me tell you about writers. The best ones are all liars‘, was but one of the worst. While Clive Owen can be tough and menacing in action roles, here he was asked to be tough and menacing and macho to all and sundry except that they made him resemble Groucho Marx. The framing device of beginning and ending with the now older version of Gellhorn looking back at what happened while being interviewed showed us the wonderful world of screen artifice, but a simple voice-over and flashback would have sufficed.
Weaknesses Part II: David Strathairn was wasted as the writer John Dos Passos. At the fund-raiser for the movie that his group was involved in, he was forceful and determined. But that was the last we saw of that. Dos Passos wilted under the heat emanating from the macho Hemingway.
Weaknesses Part III: Too much of the transition of Papa and Marty inserted into newsreel footage, was taken up with transitions or transformations from b&w, to sepia, to full color. We got the point and applaud the techno-wizardry, but it got distracting. Then they went way over the top, when Gellhorn visited Dachau. Sure that was upsetting. But Gellhorn was then transformed into a concentration camp victim herself. Yes it was a dream, or an inescapable reaction to seeing the dead Holocaust victims in person. But it added nothing to the film dramatically. Gellhorn’s revulsion would have been enough on its own.
Summary: I can’t bring myself to use the ‘epic’ for this film as HBO is touting it except to say that it was not epic. When David Lean did the bio film Lawrence of Arabia – that was epic. The Bridge over the River Kwai (also by Lean) was epic. But Hemingway & Gellhorn – at 154 minutes, this is a film to watch on a long flight across an ocean and then forget once you’ve collected your luggage. Three point zero is my rating.