Documentary Captures the Real ‘Hemingway’

Ken Burns’s film avoids hagiography as it weighs a writer’s virtues and flaws

‘Hemingway’, a new documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick airing on PBS, seems unafraid of tempting the wolves of cancel culture. It presents an unvarnished portrait of a beloved author, celebrating his ambition, his achievements, his influence on so many writers who followed, and his place in the canon, even as it admits glaring artistic and moral failings. Even those who have read Ernest Hemingway for decades will find surprising facts and insights in the course of nearly six hours of footage and commentary.

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

A popular movie about a man of letters can be a mixed blessing. It may kindle or renew interest on the part of many thousands of viewers in a literary figure. At the same time, it will unavoidably simplify the writer’s ideas and themes and the cultural, social, and political context in which he wrote. Another risk is that the filmmakers may sugarcoat or leave out less savory aspects of the author’s character and behavior. That’s not the case here. While ‘Hemingway’ may be guilty of oversimplification in places, it’s blunt about Hemingway’s alcoholism, opportunism, bellicosity, use of slurs, and neglect of his kids—not to mention the unevenness of his writing—even to the point of making its subject downright odious at times. 

Clearly, a lot of people were enthused at a chance to share their thoughts about Hemingway on camera. There are appearances here by writers such as Tobias Wolff, Edna O’Brien, Tim O’Brien, and Mario Vargas Llosa, biographers Mary Dearborn and Verna Kale, numerous literary critics and scholars, a psychiatrist, and Hemingway’s son from his second marriage, Patrick, who is now ninety-two. The filmmakers dig up footage of the late John McCain talking about how much he likes For Whom the Bell Tolls. There are voice-overs of Hemingway’s more evocative prose, newsreels from both world wars and the Spanish Civil War and from the bullfights he loved to watch and write about, and hundreds of color and black-and-white stills of places where Hemingway lived and hung out and of his manuscripts.

When it comes to recognizing Hemingway’s achievement and influence, it’s Wolff who sets the tone early on. Hemingway, as Wolff puts it, rearranged the furniture of modern literature. We may still have a choice as to where we sit, but the configuration is largely Hemingway’s legacy. Wolff refers to the blunt, pared-down, instantly recognizable style that Hemingway put to use whether writing about fathers and sons in the rural upper Midwest or depressed fugitives hiding out from killers in dismal hotel rooms or bullfights or soldiers fighting and dying in the mud. 

It may surprise some viewers to learn that the terse, epigrammatic style Hemingway made famous appears to have had its origins partly in a style sheet he had to follow as a reporter for the Kansas City Star in the early days of his career. The sheet required writers to make every word count and to drop adjectives where possible, letting nouns and verbs do the work of narrative and description. 

Maybe it’s hard to rise to lyrical heights when writing blunt prose about bar fights and shootings and stabbings in Kansas City, but luckily for the ambitious young Hemingway, the planet is going quickly to hell and there will be opportunities to write more broadly and become one of the highest-paid correspondents covering overseas turmoil. He serves as an ambulance driver in Italy during the First World War, where he nearly dies, before fixating on the vibrant literary scene of Paris between the wars and going on to become a correspondent in the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War. 

Along the way, we become well acquainted with Hemingway’s romantic interests and his four wives, Hadley Richardson, Pauline Pfeiffer, Martha Gellhorn, and Mary Welsh Hemingway. All these relationships have their ups and downs, but perhaps none is more poignant than Hemingway’s dalliance with Agnes von Kurowsky, the nurse who takes care of him during his convalescence after his near-death in Italy, calling him “Kid,” and whom he harbors vain hopes of marrying.

The autobiographical bent of so much of his work is nowhere more evident than in A Farewell to Arms, which chronicles the doomed love between American lieutenant Frederic Henry and British nurse Caroline Barkley, though Henry’s action-hero persona may strike some as a rather ludicrous exaggeration of its source. But the novel is anything but a Rambo-like fantasy. Maybe the real-life Hemingway’s failure to end up with Agnes inspired one of the most quietly resonant denouements of any novel, as Henry, having learned of the deaths of both Caroline and their baby, walks back to the hotel in the rain. 

Hemingway and Stalin

While Hemingway’s physical courage as an ambulance driver and war correspondent is not in doubt, his moral courage is another matter. The documentary details how he vocally objected to America’s entry into the Second World War on the grounds that there was no need to relive the carnage of the previous one. His conduct during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 is atrocious in a different way. The Soviet Union’s intervention in Spain went far, and the role of Stalin is well known. As the documentary notes, Stalin had far more on his agenda in Spain than defeating Franco’s fascists.

Stalin devoted huge efforts to abducting and murdering everyone on the loyalist side who might pose a perceived threat to his supreme authority, such as anarchists, socialists, syndicalists, and of course Trotskyites. Torture and killings without trial abounded. Stalin’s agents abducted and killed people who believed they had acted only in good faith as members of the loyalist cause but who in some way displeased Stalin or made him feel a threat to his domination. 

That’s all in the documentary. With full knowledge of these crimes, Hemingway dines often with Soviet officials, including the one responsible for overseeing the executions, but resists saying anything negative about what is going on, feeling it would not serve the cause of anti-fascism to do so. The really shocking part is that after Stalin’s agents order the execution of one of fellow writer John Dos Passos’s friends, Hemingway tells Dos Passos not to say anything to anyone. Dos Passos feels strongly that it is necessary to let the world know, but Hemingway is too afraid of losing points with left-leaning members of New York’s literary establishment. In current parlance, Hemingway’s fear of cancellation overrides any moral considerations. His stance prompts Dos Passos’s wife to exclaim, “Why Ernest, I’ve never heard anything so despicably opportunistic in my life.” Scratch one friendship. 

And that’s not all. “I believe completely in the historical necessity of the Cuban Revolution,” Hemingway says later about an event that turned a prosperous if flawed island nation into a hellhole with secret police and concentration camps.

Uneven writing, alcoholism, and mental illness

Hemingway’s literary output ranges from fine novels and stories to work that you couldn’t pay some people to read. While acknowledging the eloquence of books like The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, and For Whom the Bell Tolls, and the enduring interest of his account of literary life in Paris, A Moveable Feast, and certain of his works on bullfighting, the documentary does not try to hide how the quality of his writing went off a cliff. 

Ernest Hemingway, drinking.

After a trip to Venice, Hemingway undertakes work on a novel about a fling between a middle-aged officer and a teen girl much like one Hemingway has fallen for. The much-awaited, hugely disappointing Across the River and Into the Trees comes out in September 1950. The documentary is blunt. “Hemingway had convinced himself that he was writing better than ever. He was not.” It quotes a review from the Saturday Review of Literature calling Across the River and Into the Trees not just terrible on its own terms but a synthesis of everything rotten in Hemingway’s writing in general. 

Hemingway goes on to make a comeback of sorts with the publication of the hugely popular short novel The Old Man and the Sea in Life magazine in September 1952, which some critics love and Mario Vargas Llosa calls a masterpiece about the struggle between man and nature, but here too the documentary’s assessment is nuanced. Edna O’Brien damns the book’s flat and pedestrian prose: “It doesn’t work for me because it’s so ordinary. It’s adolescent. It’s schoolboy writing.” Indeed, one wonders who would publish The Old Man and the Sea, and who would read it with fervent interest, if Hemingway were not the author. 

Besides the wildly uneven work, ‘Hemingway’ is candid about its subject’s wild drinking in the morning, noon, and night, which bloated his body, drove his heart rate to dangerous levels, and could help make him exceedingly unpleasant to be around. The documentary also lays bare his proneness to accidents, with a tendency to keep hitting his head that might be comical if its effects weren’t so damaging. Late in the film, he comes across as the most abusive and bellicose kind of drunk and sometimes resorts to the ugliest of slurs. His productivity wavers and he comes to rely on a friend to cut down a manuscript. Alcohol has become more a crutch to help him amble through life than something he really enjoys, and late in his life, a mental condition uniting elements of paranoia and depression results in truly disturbing conduct. 

One evening in January 1960, Hemingway and his wife are dining with friends at a restaurant in Ketchum, Idaho, when Hemingway sees lights on in a bank across the street and, despite assurances that it’s just a cleaning lady at work, becomes convinced that the tellers are checking his accounts. Hemingway insists that the FBI is after him. The filmmakers speculate that Hemingway’s repeated concussions may have caused brain damage. He later talks of killing himself and goes in for electroconvulsive therapy. Ernest Hemingway commits suicide on July 2, 1961, at the age of 61.

It is not easy to know what to say about a complex man and prolific writer whose life and work vacillate so wildly from the ridiculous to the sublime. Perhaps the most fitting epitaph is the quotation from For Whom the Bell Tolls during the fade-out at the end of the 1995 film Se7en. Having just witnessed an atrocity carried out in the name of justice, against a maniac who himself believed he was doing God’s work, Morgan Freeman intones, “Ernest Hemingway once wrote that ‘The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.”  


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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

3 thoughts on “Documentary Captures the Real ‘Hemingway’

  • April 28, 2021 at 2:14 pm

    I’m so glad that you pointed out Hemingway’s vain and naïve response to the Stalinism in the Spanish Civil War. I think his love for Spanish culture and people was genuine, but the way he tossed his usual apolitical attitude aside and self-righteously hopped on the bandwagon is annoying.

    And his much more politically engaged friend Dos Passos, who was in the nightmare position of losing a close friend to a lie, show trial, and execution did NOT deserve to be given an opportunistic, condescending lecture about not speaking up about it so as not to lose face.

    Another good example of the myth of Hem as a brave warrior poet– though he was genuinely brave at some times– that should be more widely known.

    • April 28, 2021 at 8:44 pm

      I agree, this sordid chapter in Hemingway’s career should be more widely known. The strongest and most incisive part of this very long documentary is the most politically incorrect part.

  • April 30, 2021 at 3:03 pm

    I really like the way this critic writes about Hemingway’s varied roles as a journalist and fiction writer, and his personal life. Nice job highlighting the most relevant points, from what looks like a broad survey of his work.


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