The Old Man and the Sea

Films based on the novel by Ernest Hemingway:

The Old Man and the Sea (1958)
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Director John Sturges; writer Peter Viertel; featuring Spencer Tracy, Felipe Pazos

The Old Man and the Sea (1990)
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Director Jud Taylor; writer Roger O. Hirson; featuring Anthony Quinn, Francesco Quinn

MOVIE COMMENTARY

The Old Man and the Sea scene

Spencer Tracy is the old guy, a studio tank is the sea and the fish is rubber in The Old Man and the Sea.

Comfortable old man on the sea

Hemingway's famous novella The Old Man and the Sea, would seem a difficult book to adapt for the movies. The drama follows a single plot line, the catching and losing of a great fish, and most of the action consists of an old man sitting in a tiny boat, talking to himself.

For the most famous film treatment, the 1958 movie starring Spencer Tracy, the screenwriter opts to basically recite Hemingway's simple but affecting prose.

But the decision to have the prose almost always spoken by Tracy, either as narration or as the old man in his boat, makes the character he plays less interesting. It becomes too difficult to separate the narration about the old man from the thoughts of the old man and he ends up seeming to have godlike insight. True, the character is meant to have a certain wisdom gained from years of struggling with nature, but he is also meant to be a foolish weak mortal caught in the large mystery of life he cannot understand, except through his blind faiths in religion and Joe DiMaggio.

Tracy does a great job of acting like a poor Cuban fisherman but physically he never seems convincing. He's too well-fed, too white, too much in control. The boy, played by one Felipe Pazos in his only known film-acting job, is also somewhat too knowing and too self-possessed to be a real kid bred in an impoverished fishing village.

Nonetheless the scenes between the two of them are touching. I found myself wondering what would happen with them in the future as the man grows weaker and is unable to fish and as the boy matures and makes his own way in life.

A minor complaint about the film is that the stock ocean scenes often seem mismatched with the shots of Tracy in the boat, presumably filmed on a tank in a studio. Still, the film is well worth viewing for a fan of the book.

Director John Sturges also made such action classics as The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven and knows something about telling a story.

Old man with a past

The 1990 made-for-TV British production of The Old Man and the Sea starring Anthony Quinn, is also said to be pretty good, in some ways better and others not so.

On the plus side it's easier to imagine the seventy-something, Mexican-born actor as the gaunt, ill-starred fisherman.

On the dubious side, this film opens up the story somewhat, showing the fisherman as a young man also, played by Quinn's son Francesco, and even adds the character of Ernest Hemingway (not played by the long-dead author of course).

The best Old Man and the Sea though is said to be the 1999 animated version, a Canadian-Japanese-Russian production with Gordon Pinsent voicing the old man. It was originally made for the giant IMAX screen. I haven't seen this one either but it's received critical rave, winning an Academy Award for best animated short film.

At least three foreign-language adaptations of The Old Man and the Sea have also been filmed, including Brazilian, Chinese and Bulgarian efforts.

— Eric

MOVIE COMMENTARY

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The Old Man and the Sea (1958, DVD)
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Related Pages:

Novella
The Old Man and the Sea

Author
Ernest Hemingway

Novel
The Sun Also Rises

Novel
For Whom the Bell Tolls

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The Old Man and the Sea
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The Old Man and the Sea (1990, DVD)
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The Sun Also Rises
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A Farewell to Arms
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