TThose familiar with Ken Burns’ style, memorably used to unravel topics as varied as the Vietnam War, jazz and baseball, will expect a certain standard of performance from the renowned documentary maker Ernest Hemingway (BBC Four). With his regular partner, Lynn Novick, Burns offers a meaty and impeccably researched look at perhaps the most famous American writer in literary history. Across six episodes, he examines the author’s life in chronological order, recruiting top-notch actors – Patricia Clarkson, Jeff Daniels, and later Meryl Streep as his third wife, foreign correspondent Martha Gellhorn – to read his work and his letters, as well as the letters sent to him by friends and family. It also surrounds the themes that came to define his work and the myths around the man that have led him to be considered, in more recent times, a controversial figure.
“He became the most famous American writer since Mark Twain,” says the narrator, just as the story begins. That “made himself” makes it clear that this is not a hagiography. It is as much about the creation of the Hemingway myth, by him and those around him, as it is about the myth itself. Although as a contributor says, writer Michael Katakis, “man is much more interesting than myth.”
What a myth it is. The stories that made the man are fascinating, although the filmmakers resist the temptation to be scathing about them. This first episode delves into Hemingway’s “idyllic” childhood as one of six siblings in a wealthy, church-filled suburb of Chicago. His mother writes that she once asked young Ernest what he was afraid of. “I’m not afraid of anything,” was the reply. The psychological portrait is even better, particularly given the context of Hemingway’s later reputation as a man’s man. Her mother liked to dress Ernest and one of her sisters as twins, either in dresses or in overalls, depending on what might amuse her. His relationship with his mother became complicated, to say the least. We are told that he blamed her for the unhappiness of her father, who was in a bad mood and was violent, and subsequent correspondence from her, claiming an emotional debt from her son to be paid, did little to defrost the air between them.
It traverses Hemingway’s youth, then his time as a reporter in various North American cities, landing with a thud in his time at the Red Cross during World War I, when an enemy mortar exploded alongside him, leaving hundreds of pieces behind. shrapnel embedded in his leg. “It has been proved quite conclusively that I cannot be dislodged,” he wrote dryly home. But his awkward return to his family suggested that he was left with lasting psychological trauma. It picks up again in his first marriage, to Hadley Richardson, and his subsequent periods in Paris (although the first trip, as Gertrude Stein and James Joyce enchants Hemingway, sounds more attractive than the second, when he moved in with his wife and his young son in an apartment above a noisy sawmill). The infamous incident in which Richardson lost two years of her husband’s manuscripts while trying to bring him his work on the train is coldly recounted, but the pain remains strong.
The biographical work is done with skill and with great generosity towards all the participants of the myth. This paints as vivid a picture of Richardson, for example, as it does of her soon-to-be-famous husband, a journalist. Analysis is the real pleasure. In this first episode, Edna O’Brien talks about Hemingway and romance. “I liked that he fell in love, and he fell in love a couple of times,” she says. She thinks he needed to impress the audience, but “ruined himself” to do so. This documentary is as elegant as it sounds.
The real test is whether it works as well for people who know every line of Hemingway’s work intimately as it does for those who have never read a single story, even the six-word apocryphal tale about “baby shoes” that is so often heard. attributes. It’s captivating enough to grab the attention of devotees and rejected, and it covers the whole ground.
Subsequent readings of Hemingway’s work have at times accused him of misogyny or homophobia, and he has come to represent a brutal machismo that has been out of fashion for some time. This acknowledges those readings while digging deeper and trying to craft a story that can explain this “brute, lover, and city man.” In the United States, this aired in three episodes. Here, it is divided into six, which makes it feel lighter; it cuts out at the end of this opening episode just as it really gets going. At best, he made this viewer go back to the stories, to bring the man and the myth together, and he does it excellently.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism