Reminiscing with Hemingway

Last night i watched Gregory Peck et al in the 1952 production of Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”.

Hemingway was in his mid 30’s and on his second wife when he wrote the story.. He already had  published two successful novels, and had made a name for himself. But those stories take place in Europe. Hemingway wanted something more raw.  In 1933, he went on safari in East Africa and used his experiences from this trip to create a number of stories. Perhaps “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” is the best of that lot. It was first published in Esquire in 1936.

Here is the thing — Hemingway was a relentless self promoter. None of the above stuff was done without the goal of getting material to publish and further glorify the life of Ernest Hemingway. He knew he was tapping into a character that would be immediately embraced. This was a fusion of the brash American sportsman and exotic danger.

So, to the story.! The  plot device in the story is illness (gangrene) caused by injury. These force the man of action (writer Harry Street) into reflection – as it turns out, a rather stressful activity. BTW, Hemingway used this plot device many times, in fact, whenever he wanted to add a bit of depth to a character, he got them to start reminiscing about their difficult past. It always ends badly.  Hmmm … that sort of tells you something about the author, n’est ce pas?

Remember – tough guys always have troubled pasts. It is simply part of the formula.

More than many writers, Hemingway sought out these troubles his real life As it turns out,, illness and injury were things that Hemingway knew a thing or two about. Here is a list of his various more serious misfortunes

  • 1918, seriously wounded by mortar fire while serving as an Italian ambulance driver
  • 1928 a skylight falls on his head in his Paris apartment after he yanked on the cord thinking it was a toilet flush
  • 1930 a car accident leads to a broken arm
  • 1933 while on safari in East Africa he contracted amoebic dysentery that led to a prolapsed intestine
  • 1944 suffered a concussion from a London car accident
  • 1944 pneumonia prevented him from covering the Battle of the Bulge
  • 1945 in Cuba, a car accident, he “smashed his knee” and sustained another “deep wound on his forehead”
  • 1946  – 49 – severe headaches, high blood pressure, weight problems, and eventually diabetes—much of which was the result of previous accidents and many years of heavy drinking
  • 1954, while in Africa, Hemingway was almost fatally injured in two successive plane crashes
  • 1954 from a brush fire,  sustained second degree burns on his legs, front torso, lips, left hand and right forearm
  • From the end of the year in 1955 to early 1956, Hemingway was bedridden.  He was told to stop drinking to mitigate liver damage, advice he initially followed but then disregarded
  • 1056 on a trip to the Basque  Country Hemingway became sick again and was treated for “high blood pressure, liver disease, and arteriosclerosis

Wow! This — and especially the very, very heavy drinking — caught up with him. The dude was only 62, when he shot himself. By then he was a physical and mental wreck. He had played the part of adventurer all too well.

But it seems that back in 1952, Hollywood was not buying ALL of the Hemingway persona.  In Hemingway’s version of The Snows of Kilimanjaro,, the main character, Harry, hallucinates at the end, believing that a plane is carrying him off to safety. But no such luck… Saving Harry would be too “sugar coated”. Nope. Harry Street had to go.  And he does. in his cot in the middle of nowhere. Bonk. Dead.

Hollywood producers would have none of that. At the end of the film, Gregory Peck, playing Harry Street,  is out cold, near death,  and a plane  REALLY DOES arrive to save the day.  And not only that,  Harry also falls in love with his rich wife again.  Ta Da! A happy ending!

This is what Daryl Zanuck thought film audiences want ed to see back in 1952. That was apparently ok with Hemingway. He made no huge complaint about the film (later he would make a stink about the 1957 film version of his novel, The Sun Also Rises).

And this is were things get interesting for me. Hemingway thought he was breaking from a “sentimental” tradition. He was telling things more like they really were. he was “authentic”.His style was “new”. While the tough guy character lives on (think Rambo), we do not expect the tough guy to be sophisticated or honest enough to “tell it like it is”. To the contrary, the tough guy image is now more fantasy than reality (as in superheroes). We look elsewhere for authenticity — and heaven forbid, often to female characters!

And of course, this would have made Popa Hemingway rather unhappy.


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