THEY WERE, perhaps, the greatest literary rivals of the twentieth century, brothers in self-destructive brilliance. F. Scott Fitzgerald came first, but Ernest Hemingway had the last word.
In October 2001, the trustees of Hemingway's estate sent a fax to an unsuspecting DeWitt Sage. The filmmaker's documentary, F. Scott Fitzgerald: Winter Dreams, had just aired, and, "if there was a villain in that film, it was Ernest Hemingway," admits Sage.
"We were prepared for the worst," says Sage, but it is not what they got. Instead, Hemingway's trustees offered the filmmakers unprecedented access to archival records and to family members and friends who had seldom, if ever, spoken about the writer on film. The result is Ernest Hemingway: Rivers to the Sea. The latest installment in WNET's American Masters documentary series will air September 14 on PBS.
The estate's timing was perfect. "Hemingway remains tremendously interesting," says Susan Lacy, executive producer and creator of the series. "His influence does not cease."
The film includes interviews with Patrick Hemingway, the author's only surviving son. "Patrick Hemingway doesn't do a lot of interviews," explains Lacy. "This original footage and the archives allowed us to do an original treatment. This isn't a traditional biography. It's very much about the inner voice. There was the public Hemingway and then there was the voice of the writer."
It is the writer that Sage gives voice to, in part by avoiding a traditional narrative voice-over. "I've never liked the outside voice in film, either documentary or dramatic form," he confesses. "I feel it removes us. I think film is very good at illusion. It gives us the illusion we're involved viscerally in something."
Without a narrator, it is Hemingway's writing, delivered by a storyteller, that is the organizing principle of the film. With that in mind, the documentary team has created a pastiche of words and images, illustrating pieces of Hemingway's stories and correspondence with scenes from the places he wrote about.
More than eighty years have passed since his first collection, Three Stories and Ten Poems, was released in 1923. From the start, he broke new ground in ways that influenced his contemporaries and successors. His ambition was to write what he called "one true sentence."
"Hemingway set out to create a new form of expression, to describe action and emotion in the simplest and truest terms," according to Lacy. "He discarded unnecessary words, stripped away narrative flourishes and sought to distill the experience of war, loss, and love into a form immediately accessible to the reader."
Hemingway was hailed by literary historian Van Wyck Brooks as a "twentieth-century Twain," and Joan Didion claimed he "made the English language new." His spare, narrative style broke away from the ornate and overwritten prose that characterized many nineteenth-century American authors.
With a passage from the "Three Shots," a short story steeped in Hemingway's youth, the filmmakers begin revealing the author.
"Nick was undressing in the tent. He saw the shadows of his father and Uncle George cast by the fire on the canvas wall. He felt very uncomfortable and ashamed and undressed as fast as he could, piling his clothes neatly. He was ashamed because undressing reminded him of the night before."
The night before, Nick had fired his gun to calm his fears while the men were away. As the storyteller narrates, a loon flies low across a twilit Midwestern lake. The quiet, reflective voice does not belong to the hard-drinking, hard-fighting "Papa" Hemingway of Key West legend. And this is exactly what DeWitt Sage intends.
"I wanted the core of the film to be a portrait of Hemingway through his art," he says. "There's a huge disconnect between the swaggering image and the art. Hemingway's work was not about heroics and bullfights. It was about surviving the indignities of life. …