Papa & Marty at the movies: Hemingway & Gellhorn

September 15, 2012

HBO's Hemingway & Gellhorn tracks the relationship between Ernest Hemingway (Clive Owen) and war correspondent Martha Gellhorn (Nicole Kidman) as Gellhorn begins to develop her voice as a war correspondent, beginning with the Spanish Civil War. Photo HBO.

At worst, Hemingway & Gellhorn is the best bad movie you’ll see all year. It has two stars–Nicole Kidman and Clive Owens–at the top of their game and the chemistry between them incandesces. There’s a great supporting cast too: David Strathairn as the crushable John Dos Passos; Tony Shalhoub as Mikhail Koltsov, the Stalinist journalist in Spain who provided the model for Karkov in For Whom the Bell Tolls. There’s even Robert Duvall in a small but juicy cameo as a lustful Russian general. The sex is hot. The scope is global. The cinematography and editing are masterly and include some of the most sophisticated digital compositing you’ve ever seen, letting the actors run around within archival footage, mingling reenactments with historic footage, and recreating iconic photos from Robert Capa’s portfolio, amidst other magic. And the sound track is great too, proving the old saw that the Republicans had the best songs.

Why did I say then that it is a bad movie? Because that’s what I thought it was the first time I saw it, and a lot of critics felt the same way. In my case it was the former English major that was outraged–outraged!–at this glossy, strident, insanely romantic yet stereotyped portrayal of Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, their life and love affair. There’s definitely a paint-by-numbers quality to the use of Hemingway’s dialogue. You soon start playing “spot the quotation” and wondering if certain scenes weren’t just set up so Hemingway can pontificate about “grace under pressure.” The flaming romance between Papa and Marty breathes harder than a telenovela, and the symbolic elements are as subtle as a marlin thudding onto a deck.

But the second time I watched this movie, I relaxed. I realized that this is a Roy Lichtenstein, not an Andrew Wyeth; a Classic Comic version done with high craft, a seductive and even moving parodic depiction of two melodramatic lives lived by two highly dramatic characters who reveled in their own fame and public presentation. Hemingway was among other things a genius of self-promotion who played the media of his day, and Gellhorn was no slouch either as her own PR person–except for one thing. After her divorce from EH she refused to become a “footnote” to his story and steadfastly refused to retail the tale of their marriage. On the other hand she was one of the world’s great letter writers as well as a terrific journalist, so her personality was open for inspection.

Ernest Hemingway with Ilya Ehrenburg and Gustav Regler during the Spanish Civil War. Ernest Hemingway Collection. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

Everybody has waited years for Hollywood to do a great movie about the Spanish Civil War, and while this one may not satisfy that yearning, it’s still a respectable shot at the project. Joris Iven’s classic documentary The Spanish Earth could almost be called the second subject of this movie: big chunks of it are used as found, and in other times it serves as background for composited shots of Hemingway and Gellhorn, Capa and Dos Passos running around Spain and the battle of Madrid. The integration of new and old footage is seamless and eerie. And the film doesn’t flinch from beloved clichés, like the Brooklyn boy with the guitar (“this guitar kills fascists”) who sings “there’s a valley in Spain called Jarama.”

The last third of the movie–the death of the love affair and the decline and death of Hemingway–is darker and less bombastic. As Hemingway is unpeeled in his treachery and vulnerability, Clive Owen keeps Hemingway’s magnetism and charm alight for a long time despite revelation after revelation of the writer’s mean-spirited jealousy. In point of fact Hemingway did not fall apart as soon as his marriage to Gellhorn dissolved. He managed to get a Nobel Prize and wrote some damn good books too. But this is a movie and in the end it’s Gellhorn’s movie, not Papa’s. She is the triumphant survivor.

Judith Rascoe is a screenwriter based in San Francisco. Her credits include The Bang-Bang Club and Who’ll Stop the Rain.


5 Responses to “ Papa & Marty at the movies: Hemingway & Gellhorn

  1. Carl Silverman on September 25, 2012 at 9:51 am

    The Volunteer,

    Both fact and fiction have their own places. Fiction perhaps should entertain; educate; and uplift. The audience has the last word; not the critics! That’s my idea of democracy and freedom.

    Carl Silverman

  2. Alan Warren on September 27, 2012 at 6:13 am


    When will a dvd version of the film appear? I am curious to see it and make my own mind up. What especially intetests me is the merging of clips from “Spanish Earth” and the actors in black and white!

    Any ideas of availabilty gratefully received. I just want the chance to be my own film critic!

    Regards from Catalonia.

    Alan Warren

  3. wadi-rum on November 11, 2012 at 9:26 pm

    Hemingway did not fight with a handerchief in his mouth against a sovietic general. He fighted against Juan Modesto, colonel member of 5ª regimient, in a night they were drunk an fighted for tue love of Martha Gellhorn in Florida hotel in callao square, near telefonica in Madrid

  4. Fred Shira on November 30, 2012 at 1:27 am

    From just around the corner
    The HBO movie ,“Hemingway and Gellhorn”, is an introduction to Martha Gellhorn. We all know Ernest Hemingway because we had to read The Old Man and the Sea in Tenth Grade English. She, perhaps, is one the most overlooked writers of the Twentieth Century. She wrote several novellas and novels in addition to being the first woman to be labeled a “War Correspondent” covering every war from the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) to the Invasion of Panama (1989). But, mostly she is remembered as Ernest Hemingway’s third wife: the one he couldn’t control, the only one to leave and not be left.
    The bulk of the story centers on their coverage of the Spanish Civil War when Generalissimo Franco rebelled and overthrew the elected Republican Government establishing the fascist regime that ruled over Spain until 1975. With Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman in the title roles the film is as uneven as the lives that it portrays.
    The movie is introduced by an older Martha Gellhorn who proclaims herself to be the “worst bed partner on five continents. Sex is so important to the man who desperately wants it that to withhold it is like withholding bread, an act of selfishness. And all that bread is not worth a hoot in hell.” She shows herself to be a remarkably strong woman in a men only world. After visiting Berlin in 1937 with her father and witnessing fascism first hand, she arrived in Spain with a knapsack, fifty dollars, and a fake letter from an editor at Collier’s Magazine saying she was an official correspondent. When she’s told that she will never be allowed in the war zone, she dupes a guard with her fake papers and goes to war. Martha Gellhorn went to report war, not from some hotel lobby or barroom writing out secondhand accounts. She disguised herself as a nurse in order to get to Europe during WWII then as a stretcher bearer to get on the beaches at Normandy.
    Nicole Kidman the actress who gave us such brilliant performances as Ada Monroe in “Cold Mountain” and as Virginia Wolfe in “The Hours” rises to the occasion to present us with a thoroughly convincing Martha Gellhorn. Not so with Clive Owen. The character of Ernest Hemingway is not much more than a bundle of adjectives: selfish, self centered, narcissistic, priggish, and controlling. He is surrounded by a group of lackeys who serve as cheerleaders for his outlandish ego. Hemingway is not much more than a caricature in the backroom working as a foil to Gellhorn. In trying to control her, he even goes so far as to lock her in her hotel room while the rest of the journalists go to the battlefield. Then later after she has established herself as a talented journalist, he, in a blatant act of pure selfishness and controlling cruelty uses his power and reputation to convince the editors at Colliers to make him their correspondent thus stealing the job away from her.
    Aside from the segments in Spain the rest of the film is just watching Hemingway and Gellhorn travel around the world. They visit Chaing Kai Shek and Chou En Li in China. We’re not told why they are there; we can only assume they are there to write a story, but there is no evidence of this in the script. It is like name dropping. They visit Eleanor Roosevelt at the White House as a sidebar. Martha Gellhorn had an ongoing relationship with the First Lady. Mrs. Roosevelt sought and valued her council.
    There is one redeeming sequence when Gellhorn is present at the opening of Dachau. We see her reactions to the horrors of the concentration camp not as a hard core journalist but as a real human being. The directed spliced in stock footage of the holocaust and horrors to make a poignantly powerful statement. One bit of camera work that is impressive: taking famous photos from the Spanish war and animating them into the action shots.
    Ernest Hemingway deserves his place in history. He made a significant impact on the American cannon. It’s hard to imagine that the man who gave us the iconic hero, Robert Jordan, in For Whom the Bells Toll and the sensitive Jake Barnes in the Sun Also Rises could be this person we see in this movie.
    Tales have been told about Hemingway’s death. How in 1967 he shot himself, some say because he had been emasculated by age and so identified sexual prowess with his manly existence that he felt life had lost its meaning. We get a glimpse of this idea in The Sun Also Rises where Jake Barnes had been rendered impotent by a war wound. Hemingway wrote Jake an incomplete life where he could not have a relationship with a woman. In the closing lines when Lady Brett Ashley tells Jake, the lover she could not have, “Oh, Jake we could have had such a damned good time together.” “Yes,” he said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
    In February 1998 at the age of eighty nine, Martha Gellhorn enfeebled and totally blind took an overdose of sleeping pills and left us. But her legacy lives on in her many essays, stories, and novels.
    I have a bookshelf full of books on the Spanish Civil War. I checked indices and found Ernest Hemingway in almost everyone and Martha Gellhorn in just a few. Even Hugh Thomas in his eleven hundred page tome only mentions her in one footnote.
    And so it goes.

  5. Foro por la Memoria de Guadalajara on January 5, 2013 at 10:13 am

    Nos hemos sentido avergonzados por tan terrible pelicula. Insoportable colección de tópicos sobre la guerra civil y sobre España. Lo más delirante, el Robert Duvall como asesor soviético, vestido de uniforme soviético y el tanque T-34. Ya le hubiera gustado a la República tener T-34 !!