An Immovable Feast?
Another Look at Henry King's The Sun Also Rises
"It's sort of what we have instead of God"
". . . you talk less about good movies than about what you love in bad movies." Pauline
, Trash, Art and the Movies
Britain's Cinema Club has released a splendid region 2 disc of the film
that Hemingway called and he was not being kind "a splashy Cook's tour
… of bistros, bullfights, and more bistros".1
DVD's spectacular transfer of Henry King's 1957 film of The Sun Also Rises
delivers the splashy goods; the Cinemascope photography, highlighting scenery
in France and Spain, looks newly minted. But, past the bullfights and bistros,
are there reasons to watch The Sun Also Rises
Nobody much cares anymore about films adapted from the Hemingway canon
and for good reason. As they appeared on American screens from the early
thirties into the late fifties, few of them were much good. With hindsight
it seems the best chance for a movie from a Hemingway source was to freely
adapt from lesser-known, more pulp-oriented material like the short story The
, or the novel To Have and Have Not
. The first attempt
at The Killers
(1946) used the Hemingway plot as a jumping-off point; To
Have and Have Not
(1945) takes big liberties with just a section of the
The big titles, bestsellers fraught with Hemingway's peculiar blend of machismo,
death, and big themes, seemed doomed even as they were cast. Who needs Spencer
Tracy, that Irishman, as a Cuban fisherman in The Old Man and the Sea (1958)?
Or Rock Hudson in A Farewell to Arms (1957)?
Yet For Whom the Bell Tolls
(1943), from one of Hemingway's seriously
intended works and a bestseller, isn't such a bad picture, and it hews close
to the mood and plot of the novel. But after Cooper's firing of his rifle
and implied, offscreen death, the film grasps for a redemptive meaning as
it closes to the image of a big, swinging bell that, well, tolls
just as one does in the novel's title and in the John Donne quote that fronts
Hemingway's text. There was something splendidly, existentially hopeless
in the heroism of the book's hero, Jordan, but Hollywood wants eyes to moisten
at Gary Cooper's ultimate sacrifice to save his girlfriend Maria (Ingrid
Bergman) and the peasant insurgents that surround her (a number of colorful
character actors). It's not exactly Hemingway, but it certainly works.3
For Whom the Bell Tolls features an astonishingly beautiful Ingrid
Bergman (of whom Hemingway fawningly approved) and a well-cast Cooper, but
it has aged badly, partly because nowadays its sanctified closure of valiant,
heaven-approved self-sacrifice seems dishonest and forced. Grounded in sentimentality,
the script's appropriation of the Donne quote is uncomfortably more earnest
In adapting in the mid-fifties Hemingway's first published novel, The
Sun Also Rises (1927), the screenwriter was faced with an even
more difficult task. The young author's pioneering modernist work is unredeemingly
despairing and devoid of spiritual uplift, and, during the Eisenhower years,
such a tone for a big-budget movie was as big a no-no as bared female breasts
or victorious crime lords.
The novel's POV is that of the main protagonist, Jake Barnes, who has been
rendered impotent by wounds incurred in the Great War. Not emasculated, mind
you, not mutilated, as Hemingway himself made perfectly clear in the 1954
interview with George Plimpton, who raises the issue. "His testicles are
intact," says the author, bristling at the need to explain such a thing.
"He is still a man."
Plimpton retreats quickly, but you can hear him thinking: interesting wound,
this, that has delicately severed something or other but left the equipment
untouched. Regardless, its effect is that Jake can't consummate his love
for Lady Ashley even as he feels it, yearns for it, and gets very angry each
time he sees Brett give her body to another man. Hemingway may have seen
Jake's impotence as a good image for the men of the Lost Generation who found
themselves disempowered by the devastating emotional and societal effects
of World War I. All the moral and familial constructs that seemed so inevitable
before the war God, love, marriage it's all gone to shit.
In fact, why even return to the good old US of A where such ideals would
now seem like faded billboards? It's better to remain and float around in
the ruins of the Old World, which has become godless and hedonistic in the
wake of the war. Fine by them: these guys cope with their emotional and spiritual
wounds by getting together and drinking themselves unconscious. And they
don't tell war stories. Hemingway is bluntly realistic about this the recent
conflict is only obliquely alluded to, never mentioned outright. In this
world, the women are on the periphery, stranded, not knowing what to do with
these troubled drunks. Maybe the gals go home and masturbate; more likely,
they take up with younger men, not made limp by the war and booze who are
more than willing to have sex with them.
Hapless but cynically self-aware, Jake Barnes is one of these expatriates.
Settling in Paris after the war as a foreign correspondent for a French newspaper
(just like a certain young, soon-to-be-famous author), Jake has found a way
to exist comfortably without functioning sexually as a man. Shoving that
part of himself aside, he immerses himself in routine and alcohol. He goes
to work every day, writes, sends out cables and, then, at quitting time,
goes out on the town to have dinner and get drunk. For variety, he might
pick up a whore, a poule, and buy her dinner, mystifying her and amusing
himself as he sends her home at the end of the evening so that he may go
to bed, alone. Every fall he vacations in Spain and goes to Pamplona to the
annual Fiesta to watch the bullfights … and get drunk.
That's just what he's planning to do as the novel opens, except that some
friends show up, along with Lady Ashley. Oh, no, he's thinking, not
Brett. He still loves her dearly, but why go through all this again?
At a late-night dance club accompanied by his whore for the evening, he's
like Rick in Casablanca: "Out of all the bal musettes in Paris, why
did she have to pick this one?" Jake's hard-earned calm is shattered. An
old army buddy, Bill Gorton, an alcoholic writer footloose on the Continent,
hits town to accompany Jake to Spain, fishing, and the bullfights. A newer
friend, the young Jewish intellectual Robert Cohn, who's recently had great
success with a first novel, enters the action, too.
Cohn is the outsider, very purposely made a Jew by Hemingway, and too young
to have experienced the war.4
Hemingway's depiction of Cohn, mostly in the male characters' treatment of
him, there is some uncomfortable anti-Semitism, but as a royal pain in the
ass he is well drawn. Hanging out with these hollow, lost men, the self-conscious
Cohn can't help being lame, clueless and provocative. Cohn becomes the
catalyst that throws Jake's annual vacation in Spain way off-kilter, so that
everybody has a miserable time.
The first time he sees Brett, at the bal musette in Paris, Cohn falls
head over heels for her, and Jake, who's been here before, sees the whole
mess coming. Gallantly, though all the while gritting his teeth, he introduces
Cohn to Brett and the inevitable happens: Brett sleeps with Cohn during an
interlude at a Spanish town, St. Sebastian, before the Fiesta begins. She
does so despite being engaged to a Scotsman, Mike Campbell, who accompanies
her to the festival, and in disregard of the implicit disapproval and hurt
she can sense from Jake.
Brett's brief liaison with Cohn sets in motion the unease and tension when
all five characters meet in Pamplona. The male camaraderie between the three
veterans (Jake, Bill, and Mike) is disturbed and exploded by Cohn's irritating
possessive attitude toward Brett, the knowledge of his dalliance with Brett,
and the mere presence of Brett herself. It all comes to a head when Brett
takes up with a nineteen-year-old matador, who happens to be the star of
the current Fiesta. In a fit of jealousy, Cohn, an expert lightweight boxer,
beats the young matador to a bloody pulp, whereupon, after the last bullfight,
in which the badly wounded Romero heroically stands up to the season's most
ferocious bull, Brett and Romero take off on their own, leaving Bill, Jake,
and Brett's intended, Mike, to sit in the puddle of the spent Fiesta and
mull over all the sad events.
As the book winds to a close, Jake, still vacationing alone on the seashore,
gets a wire from Brett, pleading with him to bail her out of difficulties
in Madrid. She's kicked the bullfighter out and has no cash with her. "I'm
thirty-four years old," she says when he arrives, "and I'm not going to be
one of these bitches that ruins children." Jake is mostly silent while she
ruminates over her recent and past behavior and thoroughly regrets it. Brightly,
she announces that she likes being thoughtful and kind for a change (e.g.,
her tough-love decision about Romero). "It's sort of what we have instead
of God," she says.
She's in a good mood, but Jake isn't. He wants to go back to Paris and forget
the whole debacle, but he knows that he's stuck with Brett, who will appear
every time she needs him. At the very end of the book, as she snuggles against
Jake in a cab, Brett blurts out, "Oh, Jake, we could've had such a damned
good time together." At this, Jake stirs from his brown study to reply, "Isn't
it pretty to think so?"
It's the last line of the novel and an exceedingly bitter capper. And also
a tough sell for a fifties movie audience. The screenwriter for The Sun
Also Rises, Peter Viertel, had his work cut out for him.
Viertel's treatment must've been closely monitored throughout by producer,
director, and God knows who else. God Himself, in fact, seems to have demanded
some rewrites He insinuates himself enough into the film. To Hemingway's
hollowed-out characters, God was effectively dead, but in anticipation of
the fifties' churchgoing audience, His unseen but implicit presence will
allow hope to ride alongside that last cab ride with Jake and Brett as, in
the sky in front of cab and street, the sun also rises.
Hemingway's pungent dialog is altered and added to here. Jake's last despairing
line has been dropped. Instead, he responds to a manufactured line for Brett,
who says, "There must be an answer for us somewhere." It's not a drunken,
sarcastic Jake Barnes but a stolid, sober one who answers, "I'm sure there
Meaning, what, that somehow God will allow a flow of blood to engorge Jake's
penis? The "answer" will implicitly also cure Brett's sleeping around, which,
until the Kinsey Report appeared, was the sort of activity not discussed
among devout Americans. In the fifties, even some of the intelligentsia would
have considered Brett's sexual activity that of a nymphomaniac.
We know it's the end of the film because, after Jake's declaration of hope,
here comes that quote from Ecclesiastes, which we've also heard before the
action began. It's in a shortened modern English translation, and it's intoned
by the same magisterial voice both times not Charlton Heston, but you get
One generation passes away and another generation comes; but the earth abides
forever. The sun also rises.
In conceiving the screenplay, much, way too much, is made of this quote
that Papa had placed in front of the text and from which the American publisher
drew the short sentence that everyone now recognizes as the title of the
novel (Hemingway's original title, as it was initially published in Britain,
). Just as the screenwriter for For Whom the Bell Tolls
seized upon the Donne quote as a sentimentalized, religioso underpinning
for that film's wrap-up, Viertel works in the biblical quote as a book-ending
device to allow for a tone of mystical hope.5
In the novel, after an unsuccessful attempt at prayer, Jake calls himself "a rotten Catholic," and it's implied that he may have gone to confession before the fiesta begins. But by book's end, Jake's reply to Brett's "It's sort of what we have instead of God" (Jake: "Some people have God quite a lot") advances the idea that Jake may be searching for a new code of behavior, a new ethics, in the absence of God.6
is agreeing with Brett that is, in her uncharacteristically principled
behavior toward the matador, she was perhaps closer to something true and
right, and that other people "have God quite a lot" in this same manner of
treating people courageously with respect and love. But it's a slippery concept
for both of them; when Brett misunderstands Jake and tells him that He [i.e.,
God] never worked well with her, Jake decides it's a good time to get drunk
again. He suggests that Brett have another martini. In other words, to hell
It's easy to go on and criticize or even make fun of the changes Viertel
wrought upon Hemingway's early masterpiece to the point of overlooking what
a skillful adaptation it actually is. Whole reams of the book's dialog are
retained intact, and one of the things that made the novel unusual for its
time was its dialog. Hemingway wanted an authentic equivalent to how these
bitter, disaffected people actually talked, but the resultant clipped rhythms
are unique to him and of course easily parodied. Contrary to the fiction
emanating from American letters at the time, the dialog in his early novel
was also peppered with slang and occasionally with what our grandmothers
would refer to as "salty" language, words like damn, hell, bitch, balls.
You sense that Hemingway knew that, if he were to publish in America, even
these mild colloquialisms would push the envelope; Joyce's free-wheeling
obscenity in Ulysses was banned in the US during the mid-twenties. Hemingway
contented himself with having his characters say "go to hell" to each other
as many times as he could manage. There's a wonderful passage, early in the
book, where Jake and Cohn have an argument over the morals of Brett Ashley.
As Jake would rather not discuss Brett at all, especially with this love-besotted
dilettante, he finally tells him to "go to hell." Cohn doesn't like this
and tells Jake to take it back.
Jake: Sure. Anything. I never heard of Brett Ashley. How's that?
Cohn: No. Not that. About me going to hell.
Jake: Oh, don't go to hell. Stick around. We're just having lunch.
The screenplay retains much of this exchange, which in a funny way reads
like a screenplay anyway, but still with that unique Hemingway rhythm. When
the tightly composed dialog comes out of the mouths of Tyrone Power and Mel
Ferrer, it sounds fresh and hard-boiled. The elliptical tautness of expression
and the spaces between the words gives the actors something to chew on.7
fading matinee idol Tyrone Power never seems more like Jake Barnes than when
he tells Ferrer to go to hell, or, in the picture's final act, when he utters
the unmistakable Hemingwayesque syntax of: "Some people have God quite a
Much of the book's tone of empty sardonicism of damaged men hanging about
and lobbing drunken witticisms at each other manages to get through. Late
in the film, after Brett has left with her bullfighter, Tyrone Power and
Errol Flynn (as Mike Campbell) have a well-played scene in Mike's hotel room,
where the Scotsman has decided to what else? get "tight," a stage of
drunkenness that the book's characters agree is a sort of crossing of the
Rubicon as far as blood alcohol levels are concerned. Jake enters the room,
declines the offered bottle in favor of a nap in his own room, and the two
have a short conversation about how wretched the holiday has become. Mike
hopes Jake will join him for dinner, saying, "It seems like at least six
people are missing." It's a spot-on moment for both actors, but especially
for Flynn who, with this short line, projects both dismay and bemusement
over his own disheveled state of abandonment. And it's hard to deny Flynn's
hammy magnificence when earlier, after witnessing Ferrer's lame lack of involvement
with the running of the bulls, Flynn says to his friends, "I was just worried
about Robert being bored."
Oddly, even the demands for censorship don't cut the effectiveness of some
of these scenes. Sometimes they seem to improve them. In the novel, spotting
the victorious matador Romero in a restaurant, an extremely tight Campbell,
who has been deeply hurt by Brett's new conquest, wants Jake to tell Romero
that "the bulls have no balls." Meaning, in the text, that he, Mike Campbell,
a former bull, has been castrated by Brett's betrayal. As Hemingway notes,
Campbell is a bad drunk who becomes unpleasant after a set number of drinks.
The screenplay substitutes "horns" for "balls." In the film, Flynn drunkenly
yells, "Tell him the bulls have no horns!" Mike's outcry thus becomes something
more complex. Outwardly, it's a compliment, that is, the bullfighter has
been so adept in his art that effectively the bulls have had no horns. But
Flynn's anguish is also flung at Romero; the praise is hollow and sarcastic
and everyone in the room knows it, including the matador.
Similarly, the film can't have Lady Ashley say, "I'm not going to be one
of these bitches that ruins children." Instead she says, "I'm not
going to be one of these women that ruins children." I think the latter
reads and plays more smoothly on the screen than the former would've, if
only because "women" contrasts better with children and draws less attention
to itself than the self-lacerating "bitches." Incidentally, the film ups
Romero's age from 19 to 22, a less provocative age than that of a teenager,
the next step up from a child. Still, Ava Gardner's way with the line stings
with the same caustic bitterness as its nastier print version.
But Twentieth Century Fox's decision to make this film a glamorous, big-budget
production doesn't help keep it honest. The story, even as it's been adapted
for the movies, is an intimate one, played out in a small emotional arena
with just a few characters. Jake and his friends tend to get lost in all
the Cineramic splendor. Like other Technicolor productions of the period,
interiors are too brightly lit. When a drunken Lady Ashley makes her pre-dawn
visit to Jake's Paris apartment, Power leaps out of bed, turns on the lights,
and Boom! the set is flooded with light, as if the sun just rose from
behind the sofa. As much as I enjoyed Cinema Club's lovely widescreened DVD
presentation, King's extravaganza probably looked better, as a Hemingway
equivalent, chopped down to a standard aspect ratio on a black and white,
1960-ish Zenith console, as I first saw it.
The effectiveness of Hemingway's unusual and somewhat layabout plot, although
followed fairly closely, is often undermined by intrusions of gratuitous
and often inauthentic-looking local color, with some of the film playing,
as the author complained, as a very expensive travelogue. The festive street
bands in Pamplona, although appearing to be filmed in the real Pamplona,
pound out the same overly familiar Spanish tune every time they file down
the streets. And do literally all the male principals and extras have to
wear the same damn beret accompanied by the same red bandana tied around
his neck? The running of the bulls and the bullfights are merely exciting,
Cinerama sights and sounds, and not, with a single exception, the dangerous,
often tragic, tests of manhood proffered by the Hemingway mystique.
We do see Romero's last bullfight of the fiesta, in which he proves himself
one of the greats in spite of the battering he's taken from Cohn. But only
an Altman or an aging John Huston would've inserted Hemingway's poignant
tale of the bull's ear, the ear that Romero severs and throws to Brett after
he kills the last bull. During the running of the bulls, this same animal,
the most dangerous of the fiesta, has gored and killed a peasant Hemingway
gives us the grief of the widow, and then the ear's final fate: to lie wrapped
in a handkerchief, along with some cigarette butts, shoved to the back of
the drawer of Brett's bedside table at the hotel in Pamplona, forgotten,
after she's fled with Romero to Madrid. Somehow, by adding grief and ironic
bathos to the macho mix of the sport, Hemingway gives an overarching, humane
meaning to the bullfighting in the novel; this underpinning is sorely missed
in the film.
In the end, the main reason to watch this movie today is to witness its
casting, in spite of whatever critical drubbing it took in its time. Ava
Gardner inhabits the role of Lady Ashley simply by being Ava Gardner. James
Baldwin, who knew her, once said of Ava Gardner that she was down
meaning with it, or hip.8
as an actress, Gardner allows Brett her down-and-out humor, her cynicism
and self-loathing, often just by lifting an eyebrow or lowering her voice
to a throatier register. In 1956 or so, when The Sun Also Rises
filmed, Gardner was nearly the precise age of Brett, 34, and of course an
unusual beauty, driving men like Frank Sinatra and Howard Hughes to despair.
With such luminescence on the screen, it's easy to understand Jake's agonizing
predicament. Interestingly, Gardner also knew Hemingway himself, and the
story goes that, as the show was shot, Ava would call up Papa and tell him
what a mess they were making out of his novel, whereupon Hemingway would
call the producers and give them hell. They never found out who was feeding
him the information.
Errol Flynn, a lost soul in the fifties, wasn't old when he made this film,
but, like Power and Eddie Albert (Bill Gorton), he was nearly a decade senior
to the age of Hemingway's character, Mike Campbell. But Flynn, a serious
alcoholic in real life, is one of the joys of the picture. Campbell, engaged
to Brett but bankrupt and losing more ground with his fiancée every minute
of movie's runtime, goes down heroically and with great good humor, attaching
himself to Albert's Bill Gorton as the best drinking partner ever. They like
to go whoring together, too.
Blandly American, and something of a cheerful buffoon, Eddie Albert's Gorton
is a good foil for Flynn, but his performance, or even the part as it was
conceived, misses the rougher edge of Bill, who Hemingway depicts as a sometimes
coarse drunk with an anti-Semitic mean streak. As Cohn, Mel Ferrer is fine
in an ungrateful part, and of course all that very deliberate business over
Cohn's Jewishness has been dropped. When either Bill or Mike gets in a lather
over Cohn, the script has substituted Jew with "intellectual."
Tyrone Power could have been a bad choice to play Jake Barnes. He not only
looks too old in this picture, he looks unwell. In 1956, Power was only three
years from his death from a heart attack on the set of Solomon and Sheba,
and that doesn't surprise you when you see his slack appearance in The
Sun Also Rises. But Power's large, expressive eyes serve him well in
this part he looks a suitably haunted Jake, downright moribund in fact.
I like the actor's customary flat delivery here too, and his pained reactions
to surprises, especially those from Brett; this Jake Barnes is living way
deep inside himself and doesn't want to come out. It's the little things
that sustain him, his job, his vacation, his drinking, his naps. Yet, as
with Bill Gorton, the movie softens Jake Barnes, too. We largely miss out
on his anger when Brett takes on another lover, so that his acceptance of
Brett's promiscuity seems unnaturally gallant. Only once he has an outward
fit of frustration in which he tosses a glass of wine at a poster of Romero.
"Hey," says Gorton, "that's good wine!"
Finally, attention must be paid to the performance of Robert Evans as Pedro
Romero, Brett's bullfighter. Evans, born Robert J. Shapera in Manhattan,
gives such a natural, unstudied turn as the Spanish Romero that it's easy
to assume he's a gifted non-actor, maybe even an actual bullfighter. The
matador's courtly shyness in front of the Americans, his broken, halting
English, and his sudden chemistry with Brett are disarmingly real. He certainly
slips easily enough into those toreador pants, the ones that Brett likes
so much. At 27, Evans, too, is playing young. Yet, for whatever reason, he
found himself on the outs with nearly everyone on the set (and Hemingway
at a distance) to the extent that crew and cast attempted to get him fired.
Darryl Zanuck, who hired the actor in the first place, refused to do so,
saying, "The kid stays in the picture."9
thing, too Evan's performance gives the film a jolt of authenticity it
Being an aficionado (one who is passionate about bullfighting), Hemingway
no doubt saw through Evans' technique in the ring, but he had another complaint
about the casting.
In a tone edged with disgust, he pointed out that the Spanish hotelier,
Montoya, was played by a Mexican. Thus Hemingway always kept his relationship
with Hollywood a contentious one, as book after book was roped and corralled,
pumped with hormones, and hung slaughtered in the entertainment marketplace.
Once trimmed and sliced, only a few became good movies, or almost good movies,
like The Sun Also Rises.
Papa had a right to be cranky.
Robert E. "Why Robert Cohn? An Analysis of The Sun Also Rises,"
in Critical Essays on Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, edited
by James Nagel. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1995.
influence of Hemingway's pared-down prose style and the naturalism of his
dialog had, of course, a massive influence on American literature that
extends to this day, e.g. the crime fiction of Elmore Leonard. But it worked
its magic on the movies as well; the cynical, bitter talk of Jake Barnes
et al. with its attendant sarcasm and black humor infected writers
like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and then traveled on through
to the film noirs of the forties and fifties.
her mode of pleasure-seeking in the midst of despair, in her acceptance
of the moment, Brett Ashley is hip, and so is the rest of the bummed-out
drunken bunch. With their disconnect from church, home, and the American
way, Hemingway's characters are proto-beats, anticipating the post-World
War II alienation of Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg, et al.
later, this riposte served as the title of Evan's autobiography, which
details an unusual career arc. After The Sun Also Rises, Evans, now assessing
himself a failed actor, sought different work within the industry, and
by the sixties found himself head of production at Paramount Studios, where
he ushered in titles like Rosemary's Baby (1968) and The Godfather (1972).
His first film as producer was Chinatown (1974). And, as of this
writing, he is still kicking.
Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons,
Critical Essays on Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, edited by James
Nagel, New York, G. K. Hall & Co., 1995.
Laurence, Frank M. Hemingway and the Movies, Jackson:, University
Press of Mississippi, 1981.