Monday, August 27, 2012

The Sun Also Rises (1957) -- Henry King

"What's the use?" That's the central question on the minds of a group of expatriates living in Paris after World War I. Besides the millions of dead left on the battlefields, the war created a "lost generation" of damaged young adults who allowed the conflict to infuse them with a sort of malaise. Disillusioned and decadent, they can't find true happiness and generally see life as empty and meaningless. To compensate they drink their way around Europe. The main protagonist is Jake Barnes (Tyrone Power), whose problem stems from a war injury that left him impotent. As a result, Brett (Ava Gardner), who loves him, frequently finds solace in the arms of other men, making both miserable.

An annual vacation to Pamplona, Spain for Jake, Brett, her fiance Mike (Errol Flynn), and a friend Bill (Eddie Albert), gets spoiled when she foolishly beds another of Jake's acquaintances, Robert Cohn (Mel Ferrer). Cohn is different. He's Jewish, didn't serve in the war, and behaves as an ass. Acting like a jealous schoolboy, his infatuation with the beautiful woman drives him to tag along.

Based on Ernest Hemingway's wonderful novel, one of the best of the Twentieth Century, director Henry King and his cast capture the spirit of frustration and loss the author portrayed in his characters, if not their full personalities. The biggest problem is the age of the performers. The novel takes place in the mid 1920's, so the American ex-servicemen (Jake, Bill, and Mike) should be in their early 30s, certainly no more than 35. Unfortunately, Power was 43 and Flynn 48. Heavy drinkers and smokers in real life, both look at least ten years older. Power was a matinee idol, dashingly handsome when younger. Imagine him as he looked in 1946's The Razor's Edge, and you get a picture of how the character should have looked here. As it is, he seems far too old and burnt out. Albert was 52. Ferrer at 40 and Gardner at 35 fare much better.

Power as the unfulfilled Jake Barnes. 

Power and Gardner have fine chemistry though, and each gives a solid performance. Power often looks appropriately anguished, reasonable given his disgust with Brett's promiscuity. A lot of what he is feeling goes unsaid, but in one unguarded moment he reveals his discontentment and pain, saying: "Don't try to tell me how to live with myself! I know all about that. It's just living with other people that gets to be tough once in a while."

Gardner looks lovely in a colorful, period wardrobe. If not quite as glamorous as when she burst on the scene ten years earlier, she's nicely believable in the part, though hardly British as in the novel. Still, she coveys shame and remorse for her actions to Jake, and in hindsight, the perfect actress to embody the new sexual freedom that many women sought in the 1920s.

Gardner as Lady Brett Ashley, the object of everyone's attentions.

The surprise performance in the film is Flynn's. No doubt, the boozing role of Mike mirrored his own existence by this time (he'd be dead in two years), but Flynn nails the role of a bankrupt, insecure man who resorts to passive/aggressive bullying of a rival to express resentment, at times being mean, full of self-pity, and always reliant on alcohol. One of the best scenes in the film takes place when, after a night of drinking and an altercation with Cohn, Jake visits Mike in his room the next morning. Brett has dumped him and Mike is hungover and sad. He asks Jake to make sure he comes to dinner that night, saying: "It seems as if about six people have disappeared."

Director King wisely stuck to the novel's dialog much of the time. Hemingway's prose is distinctively terse, a characteristic of his writing that fans admire. Still, the script can't compare. For one thing, it makes Jake's injury more obvious than is necessary. Hemingway made it plain enough but let the reader figure it out. The rougher language has been sanitized, and the characters made less sharp. Cohn Jewishness is ignored for one, and he is far more obnoxious in the book. Overall, scenes from the film lack the novel's underlying tension that exists between the characters, and in comparison, fails to adequately convey that Jake's injury is an emotional one as well as a physical one. 

The highlight of both film and novel are the bullfighting action in Pamplona, including the famous running of the beasts through the narrow streets. Mike and Bill, fortified with lots of wine, take part, a humorous scene not in the novel. This gives Mike another reason to taunt Cohn for being weak and unwelcome. Mike, clearly an alcoholic, knows about Brett's liaison with this pest, frequently telling him to get lost as no one wants him around. Brett's interest by now has shifted to the handsome young matador, Pedro Romero. All the while, Jake suffers.

I'm glad the film omits the more graphic violence of the sport. Still, even without the gore and blood, you get a good sense of how cruel bullfighting is. Just watching the long cape sequence designed to tire the animal out is disturbing. How a culture and people can still enjoy this sport in the 21st Century is beyond any reasonable person's understanding. In the film, the crowd eats it up, of course, cheering wildly when Romero inflicts the coup de gras off camera.

The end finds Jake and Brett sharing a cab, lamenting their circumstances and talking about what might have been. 

Brett: “Oh, Jake, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”
Jake: "Yes. Isn't it pretty to think so?"

Those lines are straight from the novel; but as filmed, King lost much of the poignancy by leaving out one of literature's most famous symbolic gestures: "... a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton." Jake's response is one of resignation, knowing that any dream of a life with Brett is impossible. His sad existence will continue, each day after the next.

Though not immediately apparent upon reading the novel or seeing this film, Hemingway said he wanted to show that despite their damage, the "lost generation" was resilient. Maybe so, but for Jake Barnes, that idea seems a stretch. Given his unhappiness and inner torture, it's easier to think he'd soon sink into a drunken stupor, a victim of cirrhosis of the liver or suicide.

Flynn as Mike and Ferrer as Cohn.

For my money, Hemingway justifiably deserves being considered one of the giants of American literature. His work is not easily transferred to screen, especially this one, which is subtle and too talkie to suit the taste of some readers. Henry King did an admirable job, despite the flaws.


  1. True. The fine work in the film is not to be faulted, only the age of our cast.

  2. Some real heavy hitters in this movie! Your review was fair and balanced and I'm looking forward to seeing this film.