Magazine article The Spectator

Great Stuff, Papa

Magazine article The Spectator

Great Stuff, Papa

Article excerpt

The Macomber Affair is a 1947 black-and-white film based on the Hemingway short story The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. I read it when I was still at school and saw the film when it first came out. I saw it again last week while recovering from a horrendous hangover. What great stuff. Nairobi, where the film was shot, looks like the paradise it was back then. Ladies in parasols, men in shorts, very few cars, imposing buildings, everything clean and ordered. The only way Africa can save itself is to be recolonised, no ifs or buts about it.

Macomber is a tale of a rich man's rank cowardice in the face of danger. Although an accomplished sportsman and fit, he suddenly loses his nerve as a wounded lion springs. He makes a run for it, while his bitchy wife Margot and the white hunter, Wilson, look on in amazement and horror. Margot taunts him during dinner, and, disgusted by his show of cowardice, sleeps with Wilson that night. After the horrible taunts and the humiliation of being cuckolded by a better man, Macomber regains his nerve when a wounded buffalo charges the next day. He stands his ground like a man, only to be shot by Margot who is sitting in the car. It's a dreadful accident, but it could also be murder. Francis Macomber's new assertiveness has his ex-model wife scared that she might not be able to control him any longer. Wilson, too, has suddenly taken a liking to the man he has cuckolded. Wilson has seen Margot types before, and he is no admirer of newly rich American women. He has begun to feel sympathy for the man he earlier despised.

Hemingway always insisted that, although a work of fiction, he never made up his mind whether Margot shot her husband on purpose or not. The force of ambiguity where psychological motivations are concerned is one of Papa's strengths, and it is very strong in the Macomber story. Margot's looks are based on a woman named Jane Mason, an American socialite whom Papa may or may not have slept with. But he admired her looks and her oval face and her patrician upbringing. The latter was not evident in his fictional heroine. Now for the film.

Directed by Zoltan Korda, brother of the great Alexander Korda, it remains very true to the short story. Every detail is in there, plus all the nuances and some of the dialogue, because back then artists like Korda would not paraphrase the classics. …

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