Ken Burns makes immensely long documentary films about immensely large American phenomena – the Statue of Liberty or the Brooklyn Bridge, the gloriously empty expanses of such national parks as Yosemite and Yellowstone or the yawning abyss of the Vietnam War. Ernest Hemingway, seen from a distance, would seem to belong in that outsize company. Boozy and belligerent, he embodied the American ego at its most hyper-masculine and hyperbolic, as if modelling for his own chunky bust on Mount Rushmore. Looked at more closely by Burns and his co-director Lynn Novick, he proves to be a quaking, depressive weakling in life, and in literature a pernickety miniaturist.
Burns and Novick make conscientious efforts to honour Hemingway’s work. The trouble is that you can’t help misrepresenting a verbal artist when placing him on display in a visual medium. After a while the camera is reduced to wistfully studying the wobbly keys of an antique Corona typewriter or lingering over a fountain pen as it lolls on a bed of blotting paper. Writing, which Hemingway shut himself away to do during long mornings when he battled to construct and balance his tensely architectural sentences, is not a spectator sport.
A film about Hemingway will inevitably concentrate on the way he behaved in his rambunctious afternoons and rowdy nights, after the serious business of the day was over. Burns and Novick emphasise the meretricious values that led him astray and sabotaged his talent, the virile mystique, boosted by photogenic African safaris and fishing expeditions off Key West, and the barrage of headlines about his battle scars, plane crashes and divorces. Hemingway, the film contends, was ‘the most celebrated American writer since Mark Twain’. So much the worse for him: being celebrated made him a celebrity and as a consequence he took to impersonating a Hemingway hero, playing a tough guy while he drank and self-medicated with synthetic testosterone to atone for his sense of inadequacy and fraudulence. The man who became a public figure was actually fearful of speaking to an audience, and the film’s saddest snippet is a brief television interview he gave after winning the Nobel Prize in Literature. Already brain-damaged by liquor and several concussions, he glances sideways as he haltingly reads out scripted responses from hidden cue cards. In a doped stupor, he even recites the punctuation marks out loud.
The power of Hemingway’s style in his early years was derived from its understatement: he rewrote the end of A Farewell to Arms forty-seven times before getting the right note of taciturn stoicism for the hero, who fiercely controls his rage and grief as he walks back to the hotel in the rain after trying and failing to say goodbye to his dead lover. The later Hemingway, by contrast, was given to loudly, ludicrously overstating. His tall tales multiplied the number of his war wounds, of the enemy combatants he had personally slain (supposedly 122; actually none) and of the Venetian countesses he was concurrently gratifying in bed. He fantasticated a heroic ancestry for himself by claiming to descend from knights who had fought in the Crusades; in addition, he dreamed up a Cheyenne great-great-grandmother to mix a dollop of native authenticity into his DNA. All writers are liars, he shrugged when the facts were checked. Perhaps so, but writing fiction doesn’t usually entail telling such blatant whoppers about your military and amorous exploits, not to mention fabricating your genetic make-up. In any case, by the mid-1950s Hemingway had practically given up writing to act as his own full-time press agent.
Devoting half of their six episodes to three of Hemingway’s four marriages, Burns and Novick expose the combination of brutality and shrinking terror in his attitude to women. ‘Are you a war correspondent,’ he asked his third wife, Martha Gellhorn, ‘or a wife in my bed?’ This gruff bullying covered up some intimate kinks: taking time off from his cult of machismo, Hemingway assumed the female role in sexual games with his next wife, calling her one of the boys and saying that he wanted to be her girlfriend. All the same, he was righteously indignant when his youngest son – later a candidate for gender reassignment surgery – was arrested for sneaking into a female toilet in Los Angeles in drag.
It was smart of Burns and Novick to obtain a testimonial from the late Senator John McCain, who salutes Hemingway against the staunch backdrop of a furled American flag. McCain was a certified war hero, tortured in Vietnam, where he refused to accept a negotiated release from prison so long as enlisted men from his company remained in captivity. ‘I always wanted to be Robert Jordan,’ McCain says of the hero of For Whom the Bell Tolls, but his own record of service surely outshines that of Jordan, whose mission in the Spanish Civil War ends in failure, and is followed by what can only be described as a bid for suicide as he waits to be shot by loyalist soldiers. Although Hemingway often drunkenly poked a shotgun into his mouth, he held back because, he explained, only cowards killed themselves. When eventually he did pull the trigger in 1961, the official version was that it was accidental, a mishap while cleaning his shotgun. Hedda Gabler would not have been impressed.
McCain’s well-meant but over-generous tribute made me wonder about Hemingway’s political principles. Was he a genuine anti-fascist or did the Spanish Civil War attract him as an adventure, and of course as a source of journalistic copy? When Gellhorn later urged him to leave their Cuban retreat to document the D-day invasion, he sulkily malingered; it was literary competitiveness that made him change his mind. After accepting Gellhorn’s challenge, he stole a march on her by talking his way onto an RAF plane crossing the Atlantic while she had to follow far below on a slow Norwegian freighter. He watched the landing on Omaha Beach from offshore and was back at the Dorchester in London for dinner. In a letter quoted in the film, Hemingway grouses that he cares only for liberty and has no use for the state, which exists only to tax his royalties. Nowadays such sentiments would make him a Trump-loving Republican and – given his private armoury and his tally of game birds, lions, tigers, antelopes, gazelles, cheetahs, buffaloes and hyenas gunned down – the National Rifle Association could have no more flattering a figurehead.
Burns and Novick may have been disconcerted to find that the writer they consider ‘iconic’ was something of a false or fallen idol, but their film allows for a bracingly frank debate on Hemingway’s legacy. Mario Vargas Llosa guffaws about the earth moving as Jordan and his Spanish girlfriend copulate in For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Edna O’Brien scoffs at The Old Man and the Sea: ‘Hemingway’s the fish,’ she says wickedly, referring to the gigantic marlin that the old man reels in, which is gobbled up by sharks before he can haul it back to port. It is O’Brien, though, with her breathily enraptured enunciation, who offers the most persuasive assessment of Hemingway. She praises his ‘miracles of prose’ and demonstrates that the phrase is no exaggeration by reading an excerpt from the first page of A Farewell to Arms, discreetly beating time to its cadences as she goes. Thanks to her delivery, an apparently bland, loosely strung-together account of autumn weather and anonymous troop movements proves to be as tight as the Bach fugues that Hemingway admired and imitated, hinting at tragedy while sternly repressing sloppy emotion.
O’Brien similarly says that the brief, almost apologetic statement Hemingway sent to the Nobel committee to explain his absence from the prize ceremony sounds ‘like a prayer’. Forget about his egotism and the straining towards the epic in his later work. His first novels and his finest short stories are assemblages of perfect sentences, and while that might not be enough to sustain a five-hour film, for a writer it is no mean achievement.