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There are some novelists who are so gifted at conjuring up their fictitious worlds through the use of evocative language and imagery that their tales turn into movies in your head. Ernest Hemingway belongs in this rarefied group and his 1952 novella, The Old Man and the Sea, which won the Pulitzer Prize, is undeniably cinematic in its depiction of Santiago, an elderly Cuban fisherman, and his epic struggle to capture a giant marlin. Despite the simplistic storyline, Hemingway's novella also works as an allegory, illuminating Santiago's noble battle with Old Testament parallels and symbolizing the fisherman as an alter ego for Hemingway, who was struggling to recapture his former glory and vigor as a writer in his later years. The novella proved irresistible to Hollywood but its journey from page to screen proved to be as difficult and elusive as Santiago's attempts to reel in the giant marlin.
Two years in development and two years in production, The Old Man and the Sea (1958), turned out to be an endurance test for all concerned, as troubled and beset by snafus as 1963's Cleopatra, which seems astonishing when you realize the movie is essentially a one-character movie. When the story was first acquired as a property by agent Leland Hayward with Warner Bros. as the financier/distributor, Anthony Quinn and Humphrey Bogart both lobbied for the role of Santiago before losing out to Spencer Tracy. Among the directors considered for the film were John Huston, Nicholas Ray and Fred Zinnemann, who was assigned the project in the end. Teaming up with James Wong Howe, his former cinematographer on the Oscar®-winning High Noon (1952), Zinnemann sailed into stormy waters almost immediately. Hemingway, whose contempt for Hollywood was well known, was initially open to the participation of Tracy and Zinnemann but balked when he read the first screenplay draft by Paul Osborn, who had adapted John Steinbeck's East of Eden to the screen. Osborne had built up the character of Manolin, the little Cuban boy who idolizes Santiago, eliminated all the flashbacks and the story's narrator, and added new material such as a delirium sequence. Hemingway insisted that Osborn be replaced by Peter Viertel, who had adapted for the screen the author's The Sun Also Rises, a request that was granted along with Hemingway being retained as technical adviser for The Old Man and the Sea (he also appears in a brief cameo).
The first order of business was to shoot footage of the giant marlin that was to figure so prominently in the story. Pouring more than $75,000 into a lavish fishing trip organized by Hemingway, using his own boat, The Pilar, and a full crew of friends and professionals, the studio hoped to capture the footage they needed while filming off the coast of Cuba. When that proved unsuccessful, the Hemingway fishing party tried their luck in the waters off Cabo Blanco, Peru, which was an equally expensive failure. At this point, Hemingway left the project and returned to Havana while Zinnemann and the special effects department decided their ideal marlin would have to be a studio-created prop. "It had a motor inside and could wiggle its fins and tail," Zinnemann recalled in his autobiography. "It was so big that it had to be shipped - on two railroad cars - from Burbank to Miami. Hemingway hated it at first sight and christened it 'the condomatic fish.' When it was put in the Gulf Stream near Havana it sank without trace and was never seen again." It was then decided by Hayward to shoot the close-ups of Tracy at sea in a soundstage water tank and to use a double for the long shots, which would be filmed in Hawaii. At this point, Zinnemann resigned from the picture, which was shut down temporarily, until studio executives convinced John Sturges to take over the direction of The Old Man and the Sea.
Sturges had been reluctant to get involved until he saw some of the stunning ocean footage that James Wong Howe had shot and then he threw himself into the project, convincing Hayward to let him take his crew to Kona, Hawaii for additional sea scenes and then the Bahamas where they photographed the key shark attacks in the film. As for the long sought after giant marlin footage, it was finally acquired and carries the following screen credit: "Some of the marlin film used in this picture was of the world's record catch by Alfred C. Glassell, Jr. at the Cabo Blanco Fishing Club in Peru. Mr. Glassell acted as special advisor for these sequences."
During the filming, Spencer Tracy had become quite disillusioned with the entire project and it was taking a physical toll on him; his close-cropped hair, which had been dyed white for the role, had naturally turned that color during the shoot. When he first arrived on the set, he was overweight (he had promised to slim down for the part) and didn't look much like the gaunt fisherman of Hemingway's story. As the production schedule grew longer, he began drinking again and often took his frustrations out on the cast and crew (Tracy's on/off struggle with alcoholism was a well known secret within the industry). At one point, the studio placed a call to Ernest Borgnine who was playing golf at the Riviera Country Club. Newspaper columnist James Balcon, who was Borgnine's golf partner that day recalled, 'Ernie went off in the golf cart and came back in about a half hour. He said, 'You won't believe this. Tracy and Hemingway got drunk and smashed up a Havana bar. The bar owner wants $150,000 to repair the damage and Jack Warner won't pay it. So Warner wants me to stand by at a moment's notice to go to Cuba and replace Tracy in The Old Man and the Sea.' (from Spencer Tracy: Tragic Idol by Bill Davidson). Luckily, it never came to that and the film finally entered post-production, where other problems arose.
Dimitri Tiomkin, who had been hired to compose the music for The Old Man and the Sea delivered a lush, symphonic score but felt the film needed a theme song and lobbied for a title tune to be sung by Mahalia Jackson. He was overruled in the end but Sturges still had other challenges to face before he delivered his final cut; most of these involved fixing continuity errors, finessing the sound design and adding numerous optical effects.
When The Old Man and the Sea was finally previewed for a test audience in Pasadena, it received high scores from most of the viewers and Warner Bros. began positioning it as an Oscar® contender that Fall. Most of the critics responded positively as well with The Los Angeles Times calling it "one of the most beautiful pictures ever made" and The National Board of Review named it Best Picture of the Year. Even lukewarm reviews often singled out Tracy's performance for praise such as Bosley Crowther of The New York Times who noted that the actor "looks convincingly ancient, with lank white hair and stubby beard, and he performs with the creaky, painful movements of a weary, stiff-jointed old man. It is an affecting demonstration of primal fortitude, and one's heart may well bleed for this old fellow, as do his line-lacerated hands." The Old Man and the Sea went on to garner three Academy Award® nominations for Best Actor, Best Cinematography and Best Music Score; it won in the latter category. Yet the film was a box office failure in relation to the immense amount of time and money that went into it. Originally budgeted around $2 million, the movie's costs ballooned to over $5 million. As expected, Hemingway had little good to say about it in public and particularly found fault with the child actor (Felipe Pazos) who plays Manolin. He also thought "Tracy looked like he was playing Gertrude Stein as an old fat fisherman."
All things considered, The Old Man and the Sea is an intriguing curiosity and a rare attempt at a major studio art film. The film's merits and faults loom large in equal measure. James Wong Howe's color cinematography and Tiomkin's moving score are often stunning but also inconsistent, revealing bad process shots or unsubtle musical shifts in mood. Viewers seem to be divided over Tracy's performance as well with some defending it as one of his best and others finding it a tired imitation of his earlier work in Captains Courageous (1937). The film's use of religious symbolism is unsubtle and Tracy's voiceover narration often detracts from what could have been more effectively told in purely visual terms. Still, the movie is quite faithful to Hemingway's novella in story and spirit.
The Old Man and the Sea was later remade as a television movie in 1990 starring Anthony Quinn in the title role and directed by Jud Taylor. Hemingway's story also inspired a Russian short film with the same title in 1999 (directed by Alexsandr Petrov) and a Bulgarian film entitled Staretzat i moreto (2002).
Producer: Leland Hayward
Director: John Sturges: Henry King, Fred Zinnemann (both uncredited)
Screenplay: Peter Viertel; Ernest Hemingway (novel)
Cinematography: Floyd Crosby, James Wong Howe
Art Direction: Edward Carrere, Art Loel
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Film Editing: Arthur P. Schmidt
Cast: Spencer Tracy (The Old Man/Narrator), Felipe Pazos, Jr. (The Boy), Harry Bellaver (Martin), Don Diamond (Cafe Proprietor), Don Blackman (Hand Wrestler), Joey Ray (Gambler), Mary Hemingway (Tourist), Richard Alameda (Gambler), Tony Rosa (Gambler), Carlos Rivero (Gambler)
by Jeff Stafford
Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges by Glenn Lovell
Films of Spencer Tracy by Donald Deschner
Spencer Tracy: A Bio-Bibliography by James Fisher
Spencer Tracy: Tragic Idol by Bill Davidson
Fred Zinnemann: An Autobiography by Fred Zinnemann