Friday, October 11, 2013

Man Against Nature

I suppose there were two names that hovered over John Sturges' project, "The Old Man and the Sea," which premiered on this day in 1958 — Ernest Hemingway, who wrote the original novella, and Spencer Tracy, a much–beloved actor, possibly the most beloved of his generation, who played the Old Man in the movie.

Little needs to be said of either, I suppose. Hemingway has been admired for decades for his writing style, so accessible to ordinary readers, in no small part because he continued to follow the style rules of the Kansas City Star, the newspaper for which he worked as a teenager — "Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative."

(I find that credible. I spent many years working for newspapers, all of which followed Associated Press style religiously. I haven't written for a newspaper in quite awhile, but I still write in AP style. It's a part of me now.)

Anyway, I guess that accounts, at least in part, for the popularity of the book — although I wouldn't underestimate the story and the brilliant character study of the Old Man, whose name in the book was Santiago.

And what can one say of Tracy? He was a legend nominated for Best Actor nine times — an accomplishment in that category that has been matched only by Sir Laurence Olivier.

In the movie Tracy was called Santiago by The Boy, but my memory is that most of the time he was simply called the Old Man. It's been awhile since I read the book, but in Hemingway's novel, I believe he was referred to as Santiago more often. He was still called the Old Man but not as frequently.

Well, anyway.

Both the book and the movie told the story of the Old Man's solitary battle with a marlin. The Old Man was a Cuban fisherman who had gone 84 days without landing a fish and had gained a reputation for being extremely unlucky. Because of this, the Boy had been forbidden to go fishing with the Old Man and was encouraged instead to go fishing with the more successful fishermen from the village.

(By the way, the Boy had a name in the book, too, and it may have been mentioned a time or two in the movie, but I don't remember for certain.)

The Boy continued to visit the Old Man, though. He brought him food and talked about baseball with him.

Early on the 85th day, the Old Man once again set off in pursuit of a fish, and the rest of the movie was really more of a character study than a telling of his battle with an enormous marlin. Still, the battle played an important role. After hooking the marlin, the Old Man was dragged farther into the Gulf Stream in the next two days and nights than he ever intended to go.

On the third day, the marlin was visibly tiring, and the Old Man was practically delirious. He managed to pull the fish close enough that he could stab it and end its life, but he called it "brother" even as he did so.

Ever since I first saw the movie, I have marveled at how calm the seas were. There were hardly any waves for Santiago to face. He was able to devote all his attention to his struggle with the marlin. I don't remember now if that condition was mentioned in the book — or if it was a by–product of filming on a Hollywood set.

Nevertheless, an epic struggle it was. For Santiago, it was his ultimate test as a man — and, after he won it, he pondered the price the magnificent fish would bring as he turned his boat for home. In the book, though, during his battle with the fish, the Old Man had decided that the marlin had proven himself, and no one would be worthy of eating him.

That was not a problem because sharks were drawn to the carcass by the blood in the water, and they devoured most of it even though Santiago tried valiantly to fight them off. He lost his harpoon in the process and tried to fashion a makeshift harpoon by tying his knife to an oar, but that, too, was lost.

When the sharks had been repelled, though, the Old Man spoke to what was left of the fish, even though it could not hear him (and would not have understood him if it could). He explained that he had gone out farther to sea than he had intended, and he apologized to the marlin.

Only a skeleton remained when the Old Man finally returned to shore. Exhausted, he collapsed in his bed in his modest shack and fell into a deep sleep. While he slept, a group of fishermen congregated around the boat and looked at the skeleton.

In the years since I first saw "The Old Man and the Sea," it occurred to me that it was reminiscent, at times, of two other movies.

It reminded me of "Jaws," obviously, because of the role other sharks played in the story — although they weren't the focal point of the story (and the shark footage was real — no mechanical sharks were used in the '50s).

And it reminded me of "Cast Away" — a story of a man struggling against the elements (and talking to an object that was incapable of responding).

Tracy was nominated for Best Actor, but he lost the Oscar to David Niven. The other nominees were Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis — pretty formidable lineup.

I always thought Tracy was ideal for the role. I doubt that anyone else could have been plausible in it.

Hemingway's book, a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1953, was well received, coming on the heels of what may have been his most disappointing work. It was also his last book to be published in his lifetime.

Most of the time, writers aren't particularly pleased with movie adaptations of their work, but my understanding is that Hemingway was pleased with this movie. Leland Hayward, the producer, reported that Hemingway was even complimentary of Tracy — and the two of them were known to have argued.

Sturges, however, was not as pleased with the final product. TIME reported he called it "technically the sloppiest picture I have ever made."

We should all be so sloppy.