Ernest Hemingway synthesized war and alcohol into great literature better than anyone else. It didn’t work so well for his relationships. Yet, the multiple marriages became part of his troubled artist mystique. Decades before the rise of social media, Hemingway became the ultimate celebrity novelist. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick examine the man through his life, literature and carefully cultivated public image in the three-part Hemingway, which premieres Monday on PBS.
Documenting Hemingway’s life and work really requires nearly six hours, because he had so many distinct periods that directly inspired novels and stories. There was his Michigan youth, WWI, Paris, Spain and bullfighting, hunting in Africa, the Spanish Civil War, WWII, Cuba, and his late career struggles with depression and writers’ block. Burns and Novick take them in order, making for a slow start in part one (“A Writer 1899-1929”), with his early years and the Nick Adams stories they inspired.
Things pick up with WWI and Hadley in Paris. However, the sequences covering the Spanish Civil War in part two (“The Avatar 1929-1944”) are by far the best of the series. Burns and company fully explore the tension between Hemingway’s own libertarian inclinations and his sympathy for the Loyalist cause. They also clearly establish the degree to which Stalin dominated and eventually purged the Republican ranks. Hemingway’s resulting break with the disillusioned John Dos Passos is duly covered, as well as the self-censorship of his journalism. Yet, he also gets deserved credit for the brutal honesty of For Whom the Bell Tolls and the massacre of a Franco-supporting village it so vividly depicts.
None other than the late, great Sen. John McCain testifies to the greatness of Bell, which is an unexpected treat. Weirdly, though, the late A.E. Hotchner (probably Hemingway’s closest living friend at the time of filming) is only heard from briefly, discussing the writer’s sad final days in part three (“The Blank Page 1944-1961). Only one family member participates (on-camera), but it is a significant one: Hemingway’s surviving son, Patrick. Unfortunately, notable biographers like Carlos Baker are long gone, but it is interesting to hear the often diametrically opposed judgments of novelists Mario Vargas Llosa and Edna O’Brien.
Hemingway and it still works quite well. Hemingway was so well documented in his lifetime, there is no shortage of good visuals. Despite his long expatriate residencies, there is something quintessentially American about his talent for self-invention, so he makes a fitting subject for Burns, along with jazz, baseball, and Jack Johnson.
There are not a lot of surprises in their Hemingway for anyone who has spent some time reading Hemingway and deep-diving into his mythos, but it provides a comprehensive, nicely organized and mostly well-paced portrait of the man and survey of his work. (One odd fact new to us: while covering the Spanish Civil, Hemingway crossed paths with Errol Flynn, who years later gave his career-best performance as Mike Campbell in The Sun Also Rises.) Easily recommended for fans of Hemingway and Burns, Hemingway airs this Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday (4/5-4/7), on PBS.