Spencer Tracy was a tremendous actor, but he was as badly miscast as Hemingway’s Cuban fisherman in the 1958 version of “The Old Man and the Sea” as John Wayne was as Genghis Khan (“The Conquerer,” 1956). Anthony Quinn is much more believable, and the producers of this 1989 made-for-TV version at least got that part right. But the other things they tried as they attempted to bring Hemingway’s “unfilmable” Pulitzer Prize-winning novella to life were far less successful.
Ernest Hemingway lived in Cuba for many years in a small town outside Havana, near the quiet fishing village of Cojimar. He loved Cuba, and Cubans love him. Hemingway gave his Nobel Prize medal to the people of Cuba, and his house is now a national museum. In Cojimar, a bust of the American author sits in the center of a shrine above the harbor, cast from the propellers of fishermen who donated them so a tribute could be made. They knew him well. When the first version of “The Old Man and the Sea” was filmed in Cojimar, Hemingway even had a hand in arranging some of the boats and trying to hook big fish for the crew to film. So it’s more than a little disappointing that this movie was filmed at a time when the U.S. Government was not giving permission to film companies to work and spend American dollars on the Communist island.
You can’t blame the producers for not filming in Cuba, but you can certainly question their choice of location. This version was filmed in the British Virgin Islands, and in the absence of native Spanish speakers we get a variety of accents to contend with—including some which sound decidedly more Mexican than Cuban. And there’s a mariachi band which is also more Mexican than Cuban, the cumulative effect of which is to cast a hokey net over the whole production.
To the filmmakers’ credit, they dared to add a subplot involving an American writer and his wife in order to take some of the strain off of the old man and the gigantic marlin he fights on a hand-line from his small rowboat. After all, unless you had someone like Tom Hanks, who’s able to carry a one-man show for two hours, filming a straight tale like this is a sure ticket to boredom. On the page, it’s compelling. But Hemingway’s story was set almost entirely adrift in the Gulf Stream, with a single character talking to himself, to birds, and to fish, while thinking about the boy who had attached himself to him (played here by Alexis Cruz), and about Yankee’s slugger Joe DiMaggio. Readers are invited to ponder existentialist questions and contemplate such things as winning and losing, luck and fate, or youth and age.
It’s hard to create space for such contemplation in a film, and even harder to bring Hemingway’s stylized dialogue into the spoken realm. Hemingway himself once tried to take his famous clipped, short, adjective-less exchanges and turn them into spoken lines, but his only attempt at a play, “The Fifth Column,” was a resounding failure. Too much of the action, as with Hemingway’s fiction, was implied (offstage), while the dialogue, lifted from the page, sounded silly at times. The same thing happens here with the writer and his wife. Though it seems far-fetched and contrived, the device is actually a good one, considering that many of Hemingway’s short stories (e.g., “Hills Like White Elephants,” “A Canary for One”) have as principle characters-observers an American couple, often with the man being a writer. It’s just that a little imitation Hemingway dialogue goes a long way, and Gary Cole (“The Brady Bunch Movie”) is a tad too weasely and excessively WRITER to be believable. I mean, this guy sits on the edge of a pier gazing intently at the ocean with pen and paper in hand, and has papers in his hand even when he’s sitting waist-deep in the water taking a “sea bath.” And here are sample exchanges between Cole and Patricia Clarkson, who plays his wife:
“‘Time is relevant.’ Einstein.”
“‘Time discovers truth.’ Anonymous.”
“You made that up.”
“Perhaps I did.”
“So, you think we should just do nothing?”
“We’re not doing nothing. We’re waiting. Like the boy, we’re waiting and trying to understand. That’s something, isn’t it?”
Cole sits up all night in the dark staring at the open sea, having adopted Santiago as his subject, and keeps prodding the proprietor of The Terrace (a nod to the real “La Terraza” in Cojimar, which was frequented by Hemingway and his captain, Gregorio Fuentes, whom many feel is the model for Santiago). And we get this exchange between the writer and Lopez (Joe Santos, who, in trying to act Cuban, also acts simpleminded):
“Why are you so interested in this man?”
“Because he hasn’t caught a fish for 84 days, and he hasn’t given up. There’s a dignity there that’s . . . extraordinary.”
“Writers think that way, I suppose.”
Maybe. But that sounds more like a parody of Hemingway than the real thing.
There’s another problem with the writer-wife device. Director Jud Taylor keeps bouncing back and forth between the old man and the couple, and it begins to feel as if we’re watching a tennis match with predictable bounces back and forth. The old man, Santiago, is a luckless fisherman who’s 84-day drought ends when he rows far away from the others and snags the biggest fish he’s ever seen. And, typical of many Hemingway characters, he wins for losing. Though sharks attack and leave him with only a skeleton, rather than a marketable fish, when the villagers see the size of the remains Santiago’s stature grows to its former heroic size. But the size of the battle between the man and this great fish is greatly diminished by Taylor’s insistence upon showing the writer waiting, like the wife of a sea captain, for the fisherman’s return. With less continuity and shorter chunks of the fight, Santiago’s struggle doesn’t seem nearly as epic. And the introduction of an adult daughter for Santiago adds nothing to the film.
Video: Not surprisingly, the aspect ratio for this color film is 1.33:1. But it is surprising that for a film made as recently as 1989 that the quality isn’t better. Especially when the camera goes hard-focus on a subject in the foreground and the background goes into soft-focus, we can see the graininess of the film and occasional flickers of grit. The colors also look washed out in the bright light on some of the sea scenes. There’s nothing so bad that it makes the movie-watching experience unbearable, mind you, but you do notice.
Audio: The audio is Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, and the sound quality is slightly better than the video.
Extras: There are no extras.
Bottom Line: After the disappointing 1958 attempt, everyone thought “The Old Man and the Sea” an impossible novella to film. By adding a writer subplot, Taylor stays in the Hemingway realm and finds a way to break up the fisherman’s one-man show. But it’s too bad that the director went overboard with diversions. Quinn is fantastic as Santiago, and the marlin footage provided from Jim Walpole and an Australian film crew shooting off the Great Barrier Reef is superior to the fish scenes from the 1958 version. We’ll never know, but I think that with just a little less writer and his wife—which ultimately feel like caricatures of a Hemingway couple—and more continuity in the marlin battle, “The Old Man and the Sea” might have actually played off the page. Though Quinn is exceptional, the overuse of three additional characters and two sideplots is both an innovation and an unwelcome distraction.