CLASH OF THE TITANS: When ORSON WELLES met ERNEST HEMINGWAY to narrate THE SPANISH EARTH (May, 1937)
By Lawrence French
Given the primal place both Orson Welles and Ernest Hemingway hold as titans of American culture, it seems strange that so little has been written about their memorable meeting to work on Joris Ivens The Spanish Earth. Perhaps this is because so little seems to be known about what actually took place, other than what Welles himself has reported. Even Welles only mentions this encounter in two interviews that I am aware of. But given the flourishing number of stage shows that have re-created Welles in a fictional setting, it seems like the Welles-Hemingway encounter might provide the basis for a very interesting two man play (or even a movie).
Joesph McBride's What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? goes into some detail about their initial meeting, quoting liberally from Michael Parkinson's interview with Welles on that subject, but I thought it would be interesting to post all of the relevent passages from Parkinson's interview, since they provide such a key to the genesis of the script for The Other Side of the Wind (which Welles was still actively filming when he talked to Parkinson in 1974). As Joe McBride notes, Welles meeting with Hemingway was the seed that would germinate into "The Sacred Beasts," then burst into full bloom when Welles turned it into his script for The Other Side of the Wind. In fact, listening to Welles 1974 comments to Parkinson about his own experience as an amateur bullfighter in Seville, in 1933, sheds considerable light on the themes that dominate the script for The Other Side of the Wind. It is essentially the same as what Welles said to the Maysles brothers eight years earlier, in Madrid, when discussing his "The Sacred Beasts" story. Welles aficionados such as Glenn Anders, who have read the script, or know some of the storyline, will no doubt find this material quite illuminating. As Glenn notes: "Suddenly, for me at least, the way The Other Side of the Wind should be completed, the way Welles would have done it, falls into place."
The connections Jake Hannaford bears to Hemingway are now fairly well-known, having been reported in Joe McBride's book, but become even clearer after reading Welles comments about Hemingway. It also seems probable that Welles was inspired by Hemingway's books on bullfighting, such as The Sun Also Rises, which Welles calls a "superb book." Of course, the main character in that book is also named "Jake" and is impotent (Hemingway never explicitly details Jake's injury, but it seems likely he has lost his testicles, but not his penis).
Here is what Welles told to Juan Cobos in 1964 about his meeting with Hemingway:
Q: What was your relationship with Hemingway?
ORSON WELLES: My relationship with Hemingway has always been very droll. The first time we met was when I had been called to read the narration for a film that he and Joris Ivens had made about the war in Spain; it was called The Spanish Earth. Arriving at the studio, I came upon Hemingway, who was in the process of drinking a bottle of whiskey; I had been handed a set of lines that were too long, dull, had nothing to do with his style, which is always so concise and so economical. There were lines as pompous and complicated as this: "Here are the faces of men who are close to death," and this was to be read at a moment when one saw faces on the screen that were so much more eloquent. I said to him, "Mr. Hemingway, it would be better if one saw the faces all alone, without commentary."
This didn't please him at all and, since I had directed the Mercury Theatre, which was a sort of avant-garde theatre on Broadway, he thought I was some kind of faggot and said, "You effeminate boys of the theatre, what do you know about real war?" Well, taking the bull by the horns, I began to make effeminate gestures and I said to him, "Mister Hemingway, how strong you are and how big you are!" That enraged him and he picked up a chair; I picked up another and, right there, in front of the images of the Spanish Civil War, as they marched across the screen, we had a terrible scuffle. It was something marvelous: two guys like us in front of these images representing people in the act of struggling and dying... We ended by toasting each other over a bottle of whiskey. We have spent our lives having long periods of friendship and others during which we barely spoke. I have never been able to avoid gently making fun of him, and this no one ever did; everyone treated him with the greatest respect.
Welles comments are at odds with what Joris Ivens recalled about replacing the Welles narration, as quoted in Russell Campbell’s 1978 book, Cinema Strikes Back: Radical Filmmaking in the United States 1930-1942:
JORIS IVENS: As proposed by Archibald MacLeish, we asked Orson Welles to read (the narration) and it seemed like a good job; but there was something in the quality of his voice that separated it from the film, from Spain, from the actuality of the film... In any case, when I took the film to Hollywood, the other people in Contemporary Historians—Herman Shumlin, Lillian Hellman and Dorothy Parker—sensed what was wrong and suggested that Hemingway try reading it himself. That was right. During the recording his commentary sounded like that of a sensitive reporter who has been on the spot and wants to tell you about it—a feeling that no other voice could communicate. The lack of a professional commentator's smoothness helped you to believe intensely in the experiences on the screen.
Here is some interesting background about the making of The Spanish Earth, from a program note by Kees Bakker written for the 1999 Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival:
THE SPANISH EARTH (TERRE D'ESPAGNE)
By Kees Bakker
The Spanish Earth is one of the major films on the Spanish Civil War and one of the most important films in Joris Ivens's career. As in many of his other films, Ivens finds a balance between the daily lives of people and their struggles to survive. The strong photography, mainly by John Ferno, combined with powerful editing by Helen van Dongen and the commentary written and spoken by Ernest Hemingway, make the film a masterpiece of documentary filmmaking.
In 1936 the production company Contemporary Historians was set up to raise money for a documentary filmed in Spain about the civil war raging there. The Dutch filmmaker, Joris Ivens went to Fuenteduena, on the road between Madrid and Valencia, to film on the front lines of the Republican armies, with cameraman John Ferno, and initially with writer John Dos Passos, who left the production and was replaced by Ernest Hemingway.
The version of the film that features Hemingway's commentary was first screened on July 13, 1937 at Los Angeles Philharmonic Auditorium. The original plan called for Hemingway’s commentary to be read by Orson Welles. Archibald MacLeish, one of the founding members of the Contemporary Historians had suggested Welles for this role. However, Hemingway had written a lengthy commentary which already had been significantly shortened by Joris Ivens before Welles recorded it. During the recording sessions Welles thought that the commentary was still redundant in some places, so minor changes were made before Welles recorded his voice-over. This recording and sound editing were finished in June, 1937, and a few private screenings were organized in and around Los Angeles to solicit reactions to the film. Some of the Contemporary Historians, including Lillian Hellman, Herman Shumlin, and Dorothy Parker, thought that Orson Welles voice was too smooth to be matched with the powerful images on the screen. It was then decided that Hemingway should speak his own commentary, for he had direct experience on the front line.
Critiques from Hemingway’s clan felt that the new narration sounded considerably more sincere and much less "polished" than the Welles version. On July 8, Ivens, Hemingway, and Martha Gellhorn (Hemingway’s lover), were invited to the White House to show the film to President and Mrs. Roosevelt. On this occasion, they used the more “polished” Welles narration, perhaps because the sound editing for the Hemingway narration wasn't finished yet.
Thanks to censorship throughout the world there are many other versions. In the East German version, for instance, the scene with Gustav Regler was cut out, because Regler, an anti-fascist writer, had rejected communism. The most infamous mutilation of the film was made for the French release in 1938 by Jean Renoir. The film was shortened by 10 minutes by removing the all-too-explicit critique of Nazi Germany in order not "to offend the neighbors."
Cuts were also made in other countries. It is probably clear by now that thanks to changes made in post-production, distribution, and in censorship, one title can sometimes hide the existence of many alternate versions of a film.
Here is the transcript of Welles comments to Michael Parkinson in 1974 about Hemingway and bullfighting. As previously noted, there are many correlations between Welles comments here and his script for The Other Side of the Wind.
Among them: Jake Hannaford's father, like Hemingway's, has commited suicide. And both Jake H. and Ernest H. will follow in their father's footsteps. Strangely, the great matador, Juan Belmonte, who Welles mentions in passing, and was admired greatly by both Welles and Hemingway, would also kill himself, a year after Hemingway's suicide.
Welles also notes he stopped following the bullfights, just as his father stopped hunting, a telling comment, given that Welles later wrote he felt responsible for his father's death. Then there is the whole speculation about whether or not Hemingway's own homophobia might have been a smokescreen, if in fact, he did harbor any latent homosexual desires, as Jake Hannaford certainly does.
MICHAEL PARKINSON: Are you still interested in bullfighting?
ORSON WELLES: Yes, I’m interested in what I remember, but I don’t like it much anymore.
MICHAEL PARKINSON: Why is that?
ORSON WELLES: Well, two things. First of all, bullfighting is, as somebody once said very well, is indefensible and irresistible. It is irresistible when everything is at it ought to be, both with the sacrificial beast and with the brave man who meets that brave animal for that ritualistic encounter. I’m not going to go into all that mystique, which has been pretty worn out by now, but the fact is, it has become an industry which depends on its existence by the tourist trade. So it’s become folkloric, and I hate anything which is folkloric. But I haven’t turned against bullfighting because it needs a lot of Japanese in the front row to keep going, and it does. But I've turned against it for very much the same reason that my father, who was a great hunter, suddenly stopped hunting. He said, “I've killed enough animals and I'm ashamed of myself.” I was a bad torero for awhile myself, and I've seen too many hundreds of bullfights, thousands of them, I suppose, and wasted a lot of my life, now that I look back on it and although it's been a great education to me in human terms and in many other ways, I began to think that I've seen enough of those animals die.
MICHAEL PARKINSON: Was it a waste? I should have thought it would have been very exciting.
ORSON WELLES: It was all of that, but wasn't I living second hand through the lives of those toreros, who were my friends? Wasn't I living and dying second hand? Wasn't there something finally voyeuristic about it? I suspect my aficion. I still go to bullfights, I’m not totally reformed. I can’t ask for the approval of the people who have very good reasons for stopping it. By the way, almost all Spanish intellectuals have been against bullfighting for the last 150 years. Lorca is one of the few Spanish intellectuals who ever approved of bullfighting. Was it a waste, waste, waste? you asked me. A waste because I wasn’t doing anything. My short little period of doing it was just for the fun of it. As a kid, I didn’t think I was going to grow up to be the (Juan) Belmonte of my generation. The rest of my life that I spent among bull breeders and bullfighters was enormous fun, but what have I extracted from it that’s of any value to anybody?
MICHAEL PARKINSON: What were the qualities in them that you admired that attracted you to them?
ORSON WELLES: Well, there are two kinds of people who follow the bulls, as they say in Spanish. There are those people who follow because they love the bullfighters, and there is a very small minority who are interested in the bulls, and I was always most interested in the bulls. Now that will be incomprehensible to an English audience, that somebody could be fundamentally interested in the animal who is going to be killed. But my interest in bulls was like the interest of somebody who is very keen and very knowledgeable about horses. I know a great deal about bulls, and I’m much more interested in them, than in the men who fight them, in spite of the fact that some of the dearest friends I have in my life have been bullfighters.
MICHAEL PARKINSON: This passion was something you shared with millions of other people and one other famous American, Hemingway. Did you ever meet him?
ORSON WELLES: He was a very close friend of mine. I knew him on and off for many years. We had a very strange relationship. I never belonged to his clan, because I made fun of him, and nobody ever made fun of Hemingway, but I did and he took it, but he didn’t like me to do it in front of the club. We met in the projection of a movie he made, which he wanted me to narrate. He had written the commentary, and we hadn’t seen each other, this was in a dark projection room. I was reading the text and I said, “Is it really necessary to say this, wouldn’t it be better just to see the picture?” and things like that. Then I heard this growl from the darkness, “Some damn faggot who runs an art theater trying to tell me how to write narration,” and so on. So I began to camp it up. I thought, “if that’s what I’m dealing with...” So I said, "Oh, Mr. Hemingway, you think because you're so big and strong and have hair on your chest that you can bully me.” So this great figure stood up and swung at me, so I swung at him. Now you have the picture of the Spanish civil war being projected on a screen and these two heavy figures swinging away at each other and missing most of the time. The lights came up and we looked at each other and burst into laughter and became great friends. Not a friendship that was renewed every year, but over many years at different times. I saw him again, the last year that he was entirely in control of himself, quite a lot. But we never discussed bullfighting, because except on the subject of (Antonio) Ordoñez we disagreed profoundly on too many points. He thought he invented it, you know. He really did think he invented it. Maybe he did. His book (The Sun Also Rises) is superb. He’s a great, great, great artist. My admiration for him… I was enormously fond of him as a man, because the thing you never get from his books, was his humor. There is hardly a word of humor in a Hemingway book, because he is so tense and solemn and dedicated to what is true and good and all of that. But when he relaxed, he was riotously funny. That was the level that I loved about him. I enjoyed being with him. I used to go out and keep him company when he went duck shooting in Venice in the autumns. I have many strange memories of him like that. I was enormously fond of him. But as an artist, I think that there are very few important writers, with the exception of Nabokov, who have not been influenced to some degree by him. I think it’s impossible to write the same as we did before he wrote.
MICHAEL PARKINSON: Yet, do you not sense now, that in the past ten years he has become a somewhat old-fashioned figure?
ORSON WELLES: He’s come back again, although I don’t know in England, because these things vary in different countries. In America he was in total eclipse for the last ten years, but the sun is rising again critically for him, a little bit. He’s been dead long enough. I think it’s mainly true isn’t it, that writers do go into total eclipse right after their death. I wonder why that is, but it seems to be true.
MICHAEL PARKINSON: He was also a tragic figure, in that his end was in complete counterpoint to all he stood for and had written about.
ORSON WELLES: He was sick, but he did talk about suicide. You know, his father killed himself with a gun in the same way. And he talked to me about it several times in a sort of obsessive way. But he was a sick man. He was not well mentally, so he's not to be judged as himself. In other words, the Hemingway we are talking about did not choose his death. He might have, but he wasn't that man.
Finally, here is Welles talking to Peter Bogdanovich, telling about a meeting he had with Hemingway during the fifties in Paris. Welles asked Hemingway about Tanya Blixen and found out that although Hemingway liked her writing, he apparently felt she should not have left her husband, Baron Bror Blixen for the African hunter, Denys Finch Hatton.
ORSON WELLES: I saw Hemingway after he got the Nobel Prize (for literature in 1954), which Ordoñez, the bullfighter, used to call "the Swedish prize." I don't know why that always struck me as a funny name for it. Well, when Ernest got the Swedish Prize—not in his official speech, but to the press when he arrived—he said, "You shouldn't have given it to me—you should have given it to Isak Dinesen." There he was in Scandinavia, so it was very nice for her. I didn't know how nice until I mentioned it to him one day in Paris. He flew into a rage. It seems he hated her. The old Baron Blixen—her husband—was Hemingway's great pal out of Africa, and (Dinesen) had left him for another man. Finch Hatton, wasn't it? The white hunter.