Hemingway on film: 6 films that take him from a WWI hotshot almost to the bitter end

Movies love it when they call on big Papa — for actors from Chris O'Donnell to Dominic West, he's irresistible

Published June 10, 2016 10:59PM (EDT)

Dominic West in "Genius"   (Pinewood Films)
Dominic West in "Genius" (Pinewood Films)

How do you approach portraying a larger-than-life icon like Ernest Hemingway onscreen? You portray the man, not the icon. The great writer—he won the Nobel Prize in Literature—was a macho adventurer who went to war, was a member of the “Lost Generation,” worked as a journalist and war reporter, and was a depressed alcoholic as well as famously suicidal. He married four times. Hemingway lived in France in the 1920s, went on safari in Africa (where he survived not one but two plane crashes!), got drunk in Key West, was mixed up in gun-running while living in Cuba, and ultimately killed himself in Ketchum, Idaho.

A spate of films have featured Hemingway as a character, including Jill Godmilow’s Gertrude Stein-Alice B. Toklas portrait, “Waiting for the Moon,” and Alan Rudolph’s 1920s-set art drama “The Moderns.” Most notably, Mariel Hemingway bravely discussed the legacy of her grandfather, whose ghost is felt throughout the recent documentary “Running from Crazy.”

Here are six efforts—five features and one short—that depict the writer, from his youth as a WWI ambulance driver to his old age in Cuba.

1. “In Love and War”

What should be a sumptuous romantic drama, this adaptation of the book “Hemingway in Love and War” is more of a misfire. In 1918, Red Cross nurse Agnes von Kurowsky (Sandra Bullock) tends to wounded American soldiers. She encounters Hemingway (Chris O’Donnell), who has been injured on the front lines. He went to the front because he didn’t want to do his assigned duties waiting tables. She calls the 19-year-old Hemingway (who claims he’s 22) “kid” and saves his leg from being amputated. If Agnes is attracted to, but initially wary of, Hemingway, he wins her heart by helping fellow soldiers cheat at cards or write a letter home.

Alas, O’Donnell plays the great writer as a young man with an insouciance that is more smug than charming. And when he competes for Agnes’ affections, “In Love and War” becomes risible. The low point has the heartbroken Hemingway wrecking his bedroom. While director Richard Attenborough’s film is supposed to show how Hemingway’s wartime experiences influenced his book “A Farewell to Arms” and his later image as a macho adventurer, this flaccid romance instead features Hemingway crying.

2. “The Last Good Country”

This elegant short film, written and directed by Aidan Brezonick, is set in 1920 Oak Park, Illinois, when Hemingway (Nic Collins) returns home after WWI. He heads into the Michigan woods for some solitary camping—the film is inspired in part by Hemingway’s story “Big Two-Hearted River”—and is haunted by physical and psychological demons. Hemingway talks about the “illusion of immortality” in war and “looking death in the eye,” and he also describes being “broken by the world.” Brezonick captures Hemingway’s thoughtfulness and resourcefulness, but also his demons—a key sequence has the writer putting a gun in his mouth, contemplating suicide. Collins’ performance is sly and involving. In less than 20 minutes, he provides a gravitas to Hemingway's postwar experiences.

Brezonick said in a recent Skype interview that his intention was “to capture the grandeur and adventure that I find so interesting” surrounding Hemingway. “What was young Hemingway like, posturing to his friends or alone in the woods? I was roughly the same age his character is when I made the film. I was dealing with the same things—identity issues, who I was, and the feeling of being inauthentic in my work. His writing is about courage, and this film is about having the courage to act. Hemingway couldn’t be seen by the world in the way he wanted to be seen. When he tells the young men [in the film] what war was like, he fabricated a version of himself no one had seen before. He had been through a lot of trauma before he was 21, and his way of coping with it.”

Watch “The Last Good Country” online.

3. “Midnight in Paris”

Woody Allen’s delightful piffle has Gil (Owen Wilson), a writer from Pasadena, in the City of Light in the 21st century, being magically transported to 1920s Paris. He meets Hemingway (Corey Stoll) at the Polidor restaurant when F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston) takes him there. Gil effuses about Hemingway’s work, and the great writer dispenses wisdom about what war does to men and offers his opinions about truth, courage, nobility and bravery. Always spoiling for a fight, Hemingway asks if Gil wants to box. Gil declines the offer but asks Hemingway to read his novel, which prompts Ernest to explain why he will hate it for either being bad writing, or for being better writing. He also (later) tells the anxious Gil, “You’ll never write well if you fear dying.”

Stoll’s lusty, comic performance reflects how folks want to view or remember Hemingway, which is why his portrayal is so terrific.

Moreover, when Hemingway later recites this passage

The assignment was to take the hill. There were four of us, five if you counted Vicente, but he had lost his hand when a grenade went off and couldn’t fight as could when I first met him. And he was young and brave, and the hill was soggy from days of rain. And it sloped down toward a road and there were many German soldiers on the road. And the idea was to aim for the first group, and if our aim was true we could delay them.

it sounds like one of his books or journalistic accounts. Even Hemingway’s philosophizing on sex and death, which he expounds to Gil, is Woody Allen’s sly homage to the great writer:

I believe that love that is true and real creates a respite from death. All cowardice comes from not loving, or not loving well, which is the same thing. And when the man who is brave and truly looks death squarely in the face, like some rhino hunters I know, or Belmonte, who’s truly brave. It is because they love with sufficient passion to push death out of their minds, until the return that it does to all men. And then you must make really good love again. Think about it.

 Hemingway rarely gets to be funny on film, but in “Midnight in Paris,” he is.

4. “Genius”

In this drama (out in theaters today), set in 1929 New York, Scribner editor Max Perkins (Colin Firth) develops a co-dependent relationship with author Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law). At one point in the film, Perkins is seen proofing Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms.” The illustrious author himself, however, appears in only one scene, when Perkins goes fishing with Hemingway (Dominic West). As they prepare to pose with a big fish they caught, Hemingway talks about going to Spain to cover war, not bullfighting, and waxes eloquent about “Lucha por la vida,” or “The struggle for life,” as the talk turns to Wolfe. The macho posturing is there, but it’s thankfully without bluster, which makes this cameo a welcome, not forced, moment in this very literary film.

5. “Hemingway & Gellhorn”

Philip Kaufman’s beached whale of an HBO epic chronicles Hemingway’s (Clive Owen) relationship with his third wife, Martha “Marty” Gellhorn (Nicole Kidman), from their meeting in Sloppy Joe’s bar in Key West through their divorce. Upon seeing Hemingway, Gellhorn describes him as a “dirty man in disgusting, soiled clothes.” And yet, they still flirt over rum drinks. She gets interested in going to Spain as a war correspondent for Collier’s while he goes abroad to film “The Spanish Earth,” fight the Fascists, and source the material for writing “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”

Gellhorn may enter Madrid in a tank, but it’s Hemingway who bulldozes his way through the film, challenging a Russian general (Robert Duvall) to Russian Roulette, and making love to Gellhorn as their hotel is bombed. Their bodies writhing in slow motion as the ceiling rains down on them is particularly ridiculous, but the film is full of ludicrous moments, most notably when Hemingway’s wife Pauline (Molly Parker) wrestles mounted animals’ heads off the wall and throws them at her husband as she confronts him about his infidelity. The inclusion of the actors in newsreel footage is laughable, and the dialogue is often truly abysmal. Hemingway offers bad bon mots about writing, such as “Writing’s like Mass. God gets mad if you don’t show up,” and he explains his Catholicism as being a cure for his impotence, claiming he would kiss John the Baptist if it would give him an erection. It is painful even to Gellhorn’s ears.

While the film is Gellhorn’s story, Hemingway gets most of the big moments. He answers a critic with a punch after baring his hairy chest to show what a man he is, and in the film’s coda, Hemingway is seen in Ketchum, Idaho, fingering his shotgun as the screen fades out (denying viewers the money shot). The dreadful “Hemingway & Gellhorn” never provides much insight into the writer, and Owen just adequately captures the robust appeal of the man or his myth. He also has little chemistry with Kidman. Yet viewers may still be able to enjoy this bloated, boring biopic by having a drink every time Hemingway takes one. Being inebriated may be the best way to make it through all 155 minutes.

6. “Papa Hemingway in Cuba”

Director Bob Yari’s film, set in 1957, may be the most ambitious of all the Hemingway movies, but it also captures the man at his most authentic and complex. “Papa” recounts the true story of Hemingway's (Adrian Sparks) friendship with Ed Myers (Giovanni Ribisi). When Ed’s girlfriend Debbie (Minka Kelly) sends a letter Ed wrote to Hemingway, it prompts the author to call the reporter at his desk and invite him to go fishing, one of several “Old Man and the Sea” references. The men instantly become buddies.

Ed explains how Hemingway’s books were “like a friend” to him, and helped him to learn to write. Papa teaches Ed, whom he calls “Kid,” how to fish, and dispenses wisdom like, “The only value we have as humans are the risks we are willing to take.” Hemingway, who is dubbed “the biggest tourist attraction in Cuba,” takes Ed on an adventure when Castro’s rebels stage shootouts in Havana. He also shows Ed how to write a story in six words, introduces the pleasures of skinny-dipping, and proffers relationship advice.

Sparks’ barrel-chested Ernest in “Papa Hemingway in Cuba” is seen here as a wise but troubled man. He contemplates shooting himself twice in the film, and is dealing with the American government breathing down his neck. Moreover, the 59-year-old Ernest in “Papa Hemingway in Cuba” suffers from writer’s block, is sexually impotent, and fights with his wife Mary (Joely Richardson). Yari’s film is notably set and shot at Finca Vigía, which was Hemingway’s Cuban home and now a museum. It even features a cameo by granddaughter Mariel as a lunch guest. Sparks is superb in the title role, and he captures Hemingway’s warmth as well as his irascible nature.

Sparks, who has also played the writer on film and in the one-man stage show “Papa,” by John DeGroot, talked in a recent interview about how he came to play Hemingway and the way he sees playing the iconic writer:

What are the challenges of playing a real-life character who is so well-known?

The core of the issue is that Hemingway is one of the first to understand the power of celebrity and creating a persona for himself. When you do a biopic, you go with a huge set of expectations. If you are going to spend two hours with Hemingway, you think you will see a mucho tough guy. But that’s not who he was. If you can’t set those expectations aside, you miss the whole boat. The bulk of our relationship [as readers, viewers] with Hemingway is based on this absolutely false persona he projected to create a market for himself. The man underneath was a multi-leveled character, a complicated man. There is so much going on in him. He lived back in the days before we had bipolar, manic-depression; he was alcoholic and diabetic at a time when the treatment for that was electro-shock therapy.

How do you play the man, not the myth?

Portraying him, you have all these layers—his own personality and his public personality. “Papa Hemingway in Cuba” takes place during the most identifiable period of Hemingway’s life, yet we know so little about who that man was. What attracted me to the film was taking off the mask. The other challenge is finding a likability to him—and I mean that with no disrespect. He did not have all the filters we have. He had an extreme personality, with fits of rage that were volcanic. Evan Shipman (Shaun Toub) says in the film, “He was the meanest son-of-a-bitch, but the best friend I ever had.” Someone else said about Hemingway, “If you knew him long enough, you got socked in the face.”

How did you absorb the writer’s life, art, and mindset to play him?

There’s a paternal feeling about him—profoundly so in Cuba. That was one revelation; it gave me a completely new level of understanding. He was free in Cuba. I spent 4-5 years walking around in Hemingway’s shoes, getting a deeper understanding of him. This is a man who experienced life on many levels and shared that experience. So the process of an actor is finding all those experiences, and working with the director to create a balanced picture. Who is Hemingway? It depended on the day. He could be the sweetest softest man, or he could throw you in the swimming pool, as he did to a magazine photographer who caught him on a bad day. As an actor, you integrate all these levels with compassion, not judgment. I read everything from the biographies to his fat FBI files. It brought a full-bodiness to my experience on screen that I hadn’t had on stage. Then, of course, we shot in his [Cuban] home, and I was given Hemingway’s typewriter as a prop.

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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