Pras On World Films: HEMINGWAY & GELLHORN

Hemingway & Gellhorn, the HBO original film written by Jerry Stahl and Barbara Turner and directed by Philip Kaufman about the gusty, lusty romance of Ernest Hemingway (Clive Owen) and Martha Gellhorn (Nicole Kidman), the pioneer war correspondent who became Mrs. Hemingway #3. It follows the writers, lovers and eventual spouses Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn to the Spanish Civil War, Cuba, Chiang Kai-shek’s China and D-Day.Martha Gellhorn defied the U.S. military’s rules during World War II barring women from combat zones, and became one of the first journalists to witness and report on the D-Day landing in Normandy in 1944.The movie spans the entirety of their relationship.

Gellhorn, who died in 1998, huskily narrates the whole affair in flashback, beginning with her and Papa’s first encounter in the Key West bar Sloppy Joe’s, where the famous author — still spattered with blood from a Marlin he’s caught — snappily says, “Big game’s no fun if it just wanders up to you”,  until she ends up divorcing him in Europe in the midst of World War II. Along the way the two end up in multiple global conflicts where their relationship is tested and will ultimately fail.

The main narrative surrounds the central couple bonding as they chronicle the heroic struggle of anti-fascists in Spain, where they’re joined by writer John Dos Passos (David Strathairn), among others. The love story plays organically. We see them meet as feisty colleagues with a healthy banter. The passion that develops is natural.

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After Gellhorn walked into Sloppy Joe’s bar on that day in 1936, her life, like that of the novelist, was fundamentally altered. Hemingway — married at the time to Pauline Pfeiffer, his second wife — urged Gellhorn, still establishing herself as a writer, to go with him to cover the Spanish Civil War. There the two began a romance, and they were later married in what proved to be a passionate but often difficult union. By the end of the marriage, things had gotten emotionally and physically brutal. But along the way, the two went on a wild ride, both as lovers and as witnesses to history, including the early stirrings of the Chinese Revolution.

For Hemingway, WWII doubles as the opportunity to ditch Gellhorn, just as the Spanish Civil War provided his escape hatch from Pauline. Hemingway meanly takes Gellhorn’s slot as war correspondent to cover the allied invasion of Normandy–as world-famous novelist, he outranks her–and links up with an attentive, peppy pixie named Mary (Parker Posey), who will be Hemingway’s fourth and final wife.

Kaufman comes across as an intelligent, conscientious liberal humanist with a gift for mood, intimacy, laconic humor, and history on a human-impact scale. Interestingly, the most engaging aspect of “Hemingway & Gellhorn” is its most boldly artificial. Shot entirely in and around San Francisco, the film hides its budget — modest for an international mini-epic of war and romance — by integrating the actors “Zelig” style into old newsreel footage, sliding from color into monochrome and back again. Sometimes, you don’t notice the trick at all, but even when you do, it can be sort of charming: It gives the film a kind of picture-book quality not out of step with its self-dramatizing subjects.

The lifestyle of wartime is interesting, though some of the best scenes feel like they’re plopped into the story inorganically. Gellhorn’s bargaining with a gypsy for pillaged clothes portrays the stark reality of wartime survival with snappy dialogue. However, The steadfast focus on the squabbling duo’s globe-trotting, tumultuous relationship wastes what could have been a splendid supporting cast, including Molly Parker as Hemingway’s censorious first wife, Tony Shalhoub, Peter Coyote, Parker Posey and Joan Chen as Chiang Kai-shek’s English-speaking wife. Robert Duvall also turns up in an uncredited cameo as a nutty Russian general.

For HBO’s upcoming ‘Hemingway & Gellhorn,’ the Bay Area stood in for Spain, New York, Finland, Cuba, Shanghai and other locations. Although the movie takes place in nine countries, it was shot over 40 days last spring entirely on location within about 20 miles of the Northern California city. Filmmakers usually go to San Francisco because they want to capture the city’s unique look and historical landmarks, such as the Golden Gate Bridge or Fisherman’s Wharf. In this case, the city and surrounding communities stood in for Spain; Finland; Cuba; New York; Shanghai; Key West, Fla.; even Ketchum, Idaho, where the author took his life in 1961. 

Typically, a film with so many foreign locations would have been shot overseas. But with a tight budget — less than $20 million — producers ruled out shooting in Europe. They considered Puerto Rico but settled on San Francisco, partly as a practical matter. Director Phil Kaufman (“The Right Stuff” and “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”) lives in the city, as do many of the actors, including Joan Chen, who plays Madame Chiang Kai-shek. 

A rickety pier and wooden houses in China Camp State Park east of the Golden Gate Bridge provided the backdrop for scenes set in Key West and Cuba, with the help of a few palm tree props. The salt flats in the South Bay represented the rice paddies of China in the 1930s.

An old railway station in Oakland covered in graffiti and bird droppings was cleaned up to look like a hotel in Madrid, while Spanish Civil War scenes were filmed in an arid, flat area of Livermore east of the city that bears a remarkable resemblance to the Spanish countryside. Shanghai of the 1930s was re-created in the back alleys of Chinatown, while Finland was represented by a Finnish church in Pacific Heights.

Borrowing a technique Kaufman employed for his 1983 movie “The Right Stuff,” producers also made extensive use of archival footage from the Library of Congress and other sources. And they used advanced green-screen technology to insert actors into footage from late 1930s Spain, World War II and other periods.

CREDITS:

Filmed in San Francisco by Attaboy Films and Walrus & Associates. Executive producers, Peter Kaufman, Trish Hofmann, James Gandolfini, Alexandra Ryan, Barbara Turner; co-executive producers, Nancy Sanders, Mark Armstrong; director, Philip Kaufman; writers, Jerry Stahl, Turner.
Martha Gellhorn – Nicole Kidman
Ernest Hemingway – Clive Owen
John Dos Passos – David Strathairn
Zarra – Rodrigo Santoro
Pauline Hemingway – Molly Parker
Mary Welsh Hemingway – Parker Posey
Koltsov – Tony Shalhoub
Robert Capa – Santiago Cabrera
Joris Ivens – Lars Ulrich
Maxwell Perkins – Peter Coyote
Madame Chiang – Joan Chen
Sidney Franklin – Saverio Guerra
Mrs. Gellhorn – Diane Baker

Hemingway and Gellhorn Review

GELLHORN: A Twentieth-Century Life; by Caroline Moorehead; Henry Holt: 464 pp Caroline MOOREHEAD’S biography of pathbreaking journalist Martha Gellhorn is subtitled “A Twentieth-Century Life,” and a quick look at Gellhorn’s friends and intimates suggests why: They included Robert Capa, Eleanor Roosevelt, H.G. Wells, Leonard Bernstein and Ernest Hemingway (a husband). But it’s the places she wrote about as an eyewitness that reveal much more: Spain and China, during their civil wars; the American South, crushed by the Depression; Czechoslovakia, betrayed by the great powers; Finland, invaded by Russia; Dachau, on the day the Germans surrendered; Israel, soon after its declaration of state; Vietnam, bombarded by America.

Gellhorn’s life was a 20th century one in other ways too, for she epitomized what Doris Lessing dubbed, albeit with irony, a “free woman”: Gellhorn had numerous love affairs, two marriages and several abortions, and she raised an adopted child on her own. Moorehead’s “Gellhorn” is the study of a fascinating woman, so how could it fail to be fascinating too? Indeed, it often is. And yet it shies away from contemplating the most interesting questions raised by Gellhorn’s life and work.

“Happy children have no history,” Moorehead writes, and Gellhorn’s early years were blissfully undramatic. She was born in 1908 in St. Louis to parents who enjoyed what Moorehead calls “a singularly happy marriage.” Her father was a prosperous, progressive doctor, her mother a suffragist. From her father, Moorehead writes, Gellhorn learned “about justice, independent thought, and compassion,” and she remained extraordinarily close to her mother throughout her life.

After dropping out of Bryn Mawr, Gellhorn embarked on a career in journalism and began the restless travels that would become her signature. In 1930 she arrived in Paris, and there, it may be said, her life began. She was 21, tall, blond, rebellious, self-confident, and she plunged: into the political debates of the prewar left, her education conducted “in the smoky meeting rooms of the poorer Parisian districts”; into a four-year affair with journalist Bertrand de Jouvenel, a former lover (and stepson) of Colette; and into learning the craft of writing. “Already,” Moorehead writes, “the bones of what was becoming her particular style were being laid: the subject pinned down by the memorable and seemingly insignificant detail … which would later turn into a talent for describing the ordinariness in tragedy, the horror of war framed by the smallest of scenes.”

Gellhorn’s style in men was forming too: Like virtually all her loves, de Jouvenel was married when she met him, and, as with virtually all her paramours, she was neither deeply in love with nor sexually drawn to him. “A man is of no use to me,” she once wrote, “unless he can live without me.” For better or worse, her womanhood would be more eventful than her childhood.

The Spanish Civil War was Gellhorn’s Rubicon. It made her into a writer, brought her and Hemingway together and transformed her from a pacifist into an anti-fascist. Spain, she later succintly explained, is “the affair of us all, who do not want a world whose bible is Mein Kampf.” Spain broke her too, for the Republic’s defeat shattered her belief that the “angry sound against injustice” would ultimately be heard. Beyond all this, though, I would argue that Spain and the Spaniards gave Gellhorn something priceless that present-day journalists often sorely miss: a vision of courage and solidarity as simultaneously heroic and quotidian.

After Spain, Gellhorn moved to Cuba with Hemingway and enjoyed an idyll that combined what Moorehead calls “the two aspects of life she most valued — loving the right person and doing the right work.” (There was also a beautiful old house and lots of sun, which Gellhorn adored — she preferred to write sitting outside, naked.) But Gellhorn wasn’t good at idylls; as she wrote to journalist John Gunther, “Where I want to be, boy, is where it is all blowing up.” So she returned to a blown-up Europe to cover its liberation, perfecting what Moorehead terms “her particular trademark, the ability to weave the daily scenes of war into an infinitely large picture made up of history and memory and hope.” Hope, though, became harder to come by. The discovery of Dachau, Gellhorn would write 25 years later, created an unhealable wound: “I have never again felt that lovely, easy, lively hope in life which I knew before, not in life, not in our species, not in our future on earth.”


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