Ernest Hemingway: Rivers to the Sea argues that Hemingway tried to answer Ezra Pound’s call to “make it new.” His version of new was compressed: his language—so precise, so alienated—formed infamously short, tough sentences. The documentary emulates that effort, featuring beautiful images (including personal snapshots, stock photos of war and landscapes) and taut commentaries by “talking heads.” Primarily academics and family members, they make pithy observations about Hemingway’s experiences, motivations, and achievements as a writer.
This approach comes up short. Rather than providing a coherent argument about Hemingway’s significance, Rivers generates vague, scattered impressions about him. Instead of a linear narrative of Hemingway’s life and work, it offers fragments, based on Hemingway’s fiction, diaries, and letters, and writing about him by others, as well as comments from those who knew him (his elderly sister says that when he came back from World War I, he looked “Italian” in his “elegant cape and boots”). Alongside photos of the artist, partial reenactments of his fiction, and somber background music, the film includes recordings of him reading from his work and letters. But the pieces don’t come together, and the film assumes we already know the noteworthy details of his biography.
The strength of the program lies in it evocation of Hemingway’s own emotions, providing a window onto how he and those close to him felt about his life experiences, his career as a writer, and his worldwide fame and iconography.
One particularly complex theme in his work is war. His World War I times appear through pictures of him in Italy and comments from Columbia University Professor Ann Douglas, who says he signed up because he knew it would be a “momentous event.” When he “got away with his life,” he went on to use the experience for his writing.
James Naughton reads from Hemingway’s letters to relatives back home, where the writer claims that the war helped him “grow up,” and he also recounts the famous story of his service as an ambulance driver, taking shrapnel in his leg, and spending two years in a hospital. This is revealed in a copy of the letter he sent his parents, featuring a drawing of himself with injured leg. Hemingway makes himself a stick figure with arrows pointing to the hurt bits, the image equal parts bravado and appeal to his parents’ sympathy. His macho myth could only be sustained by a steady diet of support from his family and loved ones.
His vulnerability is revealed in a letter from a nurse he loved, where she says she was “too old” for him and apologizes for deceiving him. All these strands come together to suggest Hemingway’s inner life, rather than only the facts of his biography. Hemingway comes across as a youthfully adventurous spirit, feeling invincible as he joined the war effort. And when he ws injured, both bodily and emotionally, he responded with maturity and even humor.
Hemingway endured an equally profound period of development as an expatriate after the war. While the film does not reveal precisely how his time in Paris affected his writing, it does offer colorful “insider” stories about his writerly life. He and his first wife Hadley tried to “be artists,” interacting with Gertrude Stein and Picasso. Hemingway taught teaching Pound to box and loved Ulysses. Stein hated talking about other writers. Hemingway wrote that if you mentioned Joyce more than once, you wouldn’t be invited back to her house: “It was like mentioning one general favorably to another.” He admired her advances with rhythm and repetition, but he couldn’t get her to talk much about writing with him. “She disliked having to make her work intelligible,” he said, and hated revision. To Sherwood Anderson, Hemingway wrote, “Gertrude Stein and me are just like brothers.”
The film’s inquiry into Hemingway’s felt experiences gets an important boost from the DVD extras. Along with several interviews with family members and academics, Douglas puts his work into critical perspective. Hemingway has been discussed to death in academic circles, so it can be hard to say something new about him. The film certainly follows the usual pop psychology account, that he lived a “big” life but under the macho exterior beat the heart of a sensitive soul. He inherited mental illness and alcoholism, which contributed to his eventual suicide. He knew the life of the writer was a lonely one and he found it hard and that’s why he did it.
But Douglas manages to say something new, insisting that two features of Hemingway’s work are the essence of his appeal: his glamour as a writer, and his sensitivity to suffering. By glamour, she means his style of writing, which, she says, made him the “father of noir,” with punchy, loaded sentences. He’s exciting to read, crafting breathless prose that says exactly enough but not too much.
Combine that with his thematic interest in human pain, his interest in emotional realism, even when the suffering seems beyond the reach of reason. Douglas dubs this insightfulness Hemingway’s understanding of “the impossibility of life.” She sees Hemingway’s genius in his ability to capture simultaneously these two poles, “excitement and despair.” The film captures just enough of the flavor of Hemingway’s life to make you care about his appeal, and make you understand why he might leave Douglas gushing: “We should never forget how gorgeous he was.”