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The title card reads: "Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea," and the film begins immediately after it. All other credits appear after the film, beginning with the statement: "This picture was directed by John Sturges." Within the credits the following statement appears: "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."
Voice-over narration by Spencer Tracy, who also portrays "Santiago," is heard throughout the film, interspersed with occasional dialog. As described in the Los Angeles Times review, "Tracy speaks alternately in both the 'I' and 'he' persons, in what is the most literal, word-for-word rendition of a written story every filmed." According to an October 1958 San Francisco Chronicle article, Hemingway was considered for voice-over narration, but Tracy's voice was used to maintain the "unity" of the film.
In addition to being published in book form, The Old Man and the Sea appeared in its entirety in the September 1952 Life magazine. According to the Motion Picture Herald review, many expected that the sale of the book would be jeopardized by its appearance in serial form, but both the magazine and book publishers profited, and Hemingway was awarded the Pulitzer for his work, in addition to being awarded the Nobel prize in 1954 in recognition for his achievement for The Old Man and the Sea and the body of his life's work. The short novel was the last of his novels to be published in his lifetime.
According to a August 2, 1952 Los Angeles Times news item, Gary Cooper had "a deal" with Hemingway to make the film; however, that project never reached fruition. An April 1953 Variety news item reported that producer Leland Hayward had acquired film rights to the novel, as well as Hemingway's service in preparing the script. According to the news item, Tracy was interested in playing the role of Santiago and was being considered, and because the star was on contract at M-G-M, it was expected that that studio would release the film. Hollywood Reporter reported in April 1953 that Hemingway would personally supervise the film's fishing scenes. An M-G-M studio memo dated June 1953 that was found in the file for the film at the AMPAS Library reported that the studio was planning to release the film that would star Tracy and be produced by Hayward, the memo also stated that Hemingway would write the script. Then, according to a September 1953 Variety news item, the picture was being delayed until 1955, after Tracy's contract with M-G-M ended. Hollywood Reporter production charts dated 9 September-September 23, 1955 report filming in Havana, Cuba and list Hayward, Tracy, assistant director Don Page, art director Art Loel and director of photography Hans Koenekamp as working on the film, but no director is listed on these charts. Although background shots May have been filmed at this time, it is unlikely that principal photography took place in 1955. According to an October 8, 1955 New York Times news item, Peter Viertel had just completed a screen treatment and had not yet written the final script. Also, according to the news item, director Fred Zinnemann made an "unpublicized trip" to Cuba about this time to discuss the deal with Hemingway, but he had "not yet affixed his signature to the necessary papers." A October 17, 1955 Daily Variety news item reporting that Zinnemann would direct The Old Man and the Sea also stated that filming would start after the completion of the film, The Spirit of St. Louis , which Hayward was producing.
Although 1956 Hollywood Reporter production charts report that the film was being made in CinemaScope and widescreen, later charts did not and the film was released in standard format. According to a May 1956 Hollywood Reporter news item, portions of the film were shot on location near Cojimar, Cuba, which was the actual setting of the original story and where Hemingway kept his own boat, and Boca de Jaruca, Cuba. An early 1956 New York Herald Tribune article added Santa Maria, Cuba as a location site. A second crew filmed near Talera, Peru, attempting to capture footage of a large black marlin. Modern sources report that a mechanical marlin was constructed and used in some scenes. A March 1957 Newsweek article, noting the trouble the crew had in finding sharks and marlins to film, reported that a unit began around May of 1956 to capture footage of sharks and marlins, but, by July, only had ten minutes of usable film. A June 1956 Hollywood Reporter news item reported that Art Rosson would direct a second unit shooting at Nassau.
Meanwhile, Hemingway accompanied a crew to the west coast of South America to look for marlins and found three large ones offshore from Peru. A March 1957 Newsweek article reported that in November 1956 a crew filmed fish while sailing around Panama and the Galapagos Islands. A June 1956 Hollywood Reporter news item reported that, after forty-two days of shooting, principal photography was almost completed and that Hayward and Zinnemann "abruptly co-announced" that Zinnemann was leaving the picture. According to 1956 Hollywood Reporter production charts, filming took place in Cuba and Nassau between late April-late July in 1956.
According to a September 1956 New York Times, which noted the replacement of Zinnemann by John Sturges, principal shooting was being postponed until 1957, when interior sequences would be shot at the Warner Bros. studio. Hollywood Reporter production charts note that production resumed in July 1957 and continued until late Aug. Sturges, in an October 1958 San Francisco Chronicle article, stated that night scenes were filmed at the studio because of the difficulty in lighting those sequences on location. According to the Times review, a tank the size of a football field was constructed for close-ups of Tracy on the skiff, and a July 1957 Hollywood Reporter news item reported that frogmen were added to the technical staff where they were shooting on stage 7. In February 2005, the former Eastman Kodak engineer Arthur Widmer, received an Oscar to honor a lifetime of cinematic achievements. As noted in a
Feb 2005 article on CNN.com commenting on the award, The Old Man and the Sea was one of the first films to use a "bluescreen" compositing technology invented by Widmer that combined actors on a soundstage with a pre-filmed background.
In the San Francisco Chronicle article, Sturges reported that Glassell caught a marlin in Peru and that several fish used in the film were caught as far away as Panama. A June 1957 Hollywood Reporter news item reported that a unit would be filming near Honolulu and Kona. According to the April 1958 Times article, sea and sky footage was filmed around Hawaii.
Although their appearance in the film has not been confirmed, July 1957 Hollywood Reporter news items add Ronald Velo and Roque Ybarra to the cast. A modern source adds that Hemingway's wife Mary and assistant director Don Page (who acted under the name Don Alvarado) to the cast. The character "Martin," who is portrayed in the film by Harry Bellaver, is only spoken about in the book. A May 1956 Hollywood Reporter news item reported that Santiago Puig, who was purportedly the inspiration for Hemingway's story, acted as a technical advisor to the film.
According to an April 1958 Times article, the film was budgeted for $2,100,000 and ended up costing about $5,000,000. As noted in a December 1958 Los Angeles Times news item, the artistry of the film and the way it translated the novel almost verbatim onto the screen was somewhat controversial and garnered mixed reviews. Although the New York Times review was generally unimpressed, the Los Angeles Times review called it "one of the most beautiful pictures ever made." The Los Angeles Examiner critic called the film "a poem among pictures." Although the Hollywood Reporter review described the film as "a beautiful piece of visual poetry," the reviewer doubted that it could retrieve at the box office the outlay spent in producing it.
The Variety review criticized the fact that, although the film had artistic integrity, "the screen has a certain responsibility to itself, i.e., that it can go too far in borrowing from other media and neglecting its own requirements. Word pictures, with their intermingling of thoughts and description...tend to hold the reader's attention a lot longer than those same images on a screen."
Dimitri Tiomkin won an Academy Award for his scoring of The Old Man and the Sea. Tracy was nominated for Best Actor, but lost to David Niven in Separate Tables , and James Wong Howe, who was nominated for Achievement in Cinematography, lost to William H. Daniels of Gigi (see entry above). According to a June 1959 Hollywood Reporter news item, the film was screened at the film festivals in Brussels, Venice, Brazil and Stratford, Ontario, Canada. In 1989, Anthony Quinn starred in a televised version of Hemingway's novel, which aired on NBC.