Original vs. Remake: The Old Man and the Sea (1958-1990) - Reviewed

The final published and celebrated Pulitzer Prize winning literary work from American author Ernest Hemingway proved to both a comeback as well as a farewell for the revered novelist.  Contributory to Hemingway’s eventual win of the Nobel Prize in Literature and marking the first time the author participated in the making of a film version alongside a cameo appearance in it, The Old Man and the Sea remains a quiet yet wise tale of an elderly and largely unlucky Cuban fisherman named Santiago nearing the end of his rope before engaging in an epic battle catching a giant marlin.  Aided by a young boy whose parents forbid him to fish with Santiago, it’s a moving read about adapting to hardships in a dog eat dog world where everyone’s an animal fighting for survival.  

Spawning two live action film versions with varying differences and traits unique to each version, The Old Man and the Sea remains, much like Bicycle Thieves, a fable about dignity, endurance and humility as well as questioning one’s own mortality and place in the world.  Though similar in some instances, the earlier work was a major theatrical feature in 1958 winning an Academy Award alongside two nominations while the other was a 1990 made-for-television feature with the meta move of incorporating Hemingway as a character observing and jotting down the events of the story.  Though both films remain under most viewers’ cinematic radars, The Old Man and the Sea is an indelible reading turned viewing experience which both explore, in their manner, different facets of the story which we at the Movie Sleuth will be examining here.

The Old Man and the Sea (1958)

Regarded as one of the most painstakingly researched adaptations of a major literary work yet attempted as well as by admission of its own director John Sturges (who replaced Fred Zinnemann early on) as ‘the sloppiest picture I have ever made’, Warner Brothers’ studio-shot WarnerColor widescreen feature is oddly simultaneously dated and groundbreaking.  Among the very first films to utilize blue-screen matting with actors shot in the foreground while plate footage of marlin hunting and shark feeding frenzies take up the background, The Old Man and the Sea while showing its age with a water tank studio rendered sea is mostly remembered as Spencer Tracy’s movie.

Tracy, who personally flew to Cuba to meet with Ernest Hemingway to obtain his blessing on the project, earned an Academy Award nomination and narrates the picture directly from Hemingway’s text.  Though abbreviated by a screenplay Peter Viertel, the dialogue is clearly Hemingway’s which adds an additional flavor and character to the picture.  On the one hand the narration makes the picture as a literal adaptation of the short story while on the other hand it inevitably enhances the viewing experience as it provides a glimpse into Santiago's interior monologue.  Hemingway was reportedly disappointed with Tracy’s casting as he tends to look and sound like his old crusty and scruffy self rather than an impoverished and struggling Cuban, but for being cast due to his star power Tracy gives it his all and makes you believe in the old man’s ordeal.

Visually the production is breathtaking thanks to famed Chinese-American cinematographer James Wong Howe who garnered an Academy Award nomination for his lush WarnerColor photography combined with a wide variety of fish footage provided by Lamar Boren.  Yes some of the scenery does reveal the edges of a large water tank instead of a wide sea, though the film’s underwater photography with real sharks tearing away at a marlin intercut with a fake marlin, is indistinguishable from aquatic documentaries of the time. 

Though nominated for several Academy Awards, the one which ultimately took home the Golden Statue was none other than Russian-Jewish soundtrack composer Dimitri Tiomkin.  Best known for his work on It’s a Wonderful Life, The Thing from Another World and High Noon, Tiomkin’s sweeping orchestral score which ranges from the tranquil to the frantic and frightening sounds frankly like a lush widescreen epic on an unparalleled scale.  Though we’re allowed insight into Santiago’s weary physical psychological state through the narration and Tracy’s pained, exhausted expressions, it’s the music which finally drives home the aged hero’s emotional state. 

Despite Hemingway’s own reservations about the casting after seeing the picture and critical drubbings from the likes of the acerbic Bosley Crowther, The Old Man and the Sea opened to rave reviews and cemented Spencer Tracy’s status as one of the great actors of his time.  In the years since its release, The Old Man and the Sea is regarded as a cinematic classic though its unfortunately overlooked by newcomers, though not nearly as overlooked as what followed decades later when the idea of doing Hemingway’s tale on the small screen came about.


The Old Man and the Sea (1990)

Legend has it (according to its veteran leading man anyway) that Mexican-Irish-American actor Anthony Quinn approached John Sturges about playing the Cuban based elderly fisherman Santiago but was turned down in favor of a more bankable star which ultimately went to Spencer Tracy.  Nearly three decades later, however, Quinn would get his wish with the 1990 made-for-television film version of The Old Man and the Sea.  Directed by the late Jud Taylor, part-time character actor/full-time television producer and director, the end results of the scenic production are somewhat mixed with debatably some snippets/framing lifted directly from the 1958 film.  It’s a bit of a mixed bag in that it casts an actor better suited for the role ethnically while, despite looking rough and ragged for the part, isn’t given a whole lot more to do than what Tracy already did. 

Visually the film looks fine thanks to frequent television cinematographer Tony Imi though the 35mm footage mastered from a video source looks a bit drab in the high-definition era.  The score by Silverado composer Bruce Broughton, contrary to Dimitri Tiomkin’s rousing and exciting soundtrack, is decidedly more subdued though the upbeat mood of the opening and closing cues are lovely in their acoustic way.  Still, the overall look and feel of this production is kind of unremarkable.

Where this The Old Man and the Sea differs greatly from the 1958 film are in two areas: the absence of voiceover narration and the inclusion of a Hemingway-type character designed to illustrate where the famed author may have garnered his inspiration from.  Lacking the narration unfortunately tends to make the previously engaging battles between fisherman and marlin kind of torpid where it should be white-knuckled tension.  It’s a misstep for such a literary adaptation despite Quinn’s performance which is good but it pales in comparison to his work on A Walk in the Clouds.

Next we have the inclusion of Mary Pruitt (Patricia Clarkson) and Tom Pruitt (Gary Cole from Office Space) as a stand-in for Ernest and Mary Hemingway.  While they don’t come right out and say it, these characters are clearly intended to be the Hemingways with a conflicted Ernest coming off of a wealthy background going through a Larry Darrell/The Razor’s Edge second coming after watching the old man’s undaunted struggles with fishing. 

Seeing the Hemingways onscreen is an interesting touch intended to give an additional layer of meaning to the story and why it was significant for Ernest Hemingway to write about it, though the intercutting with the fishing sequences tends to deflate whatever strength they could have had.  Whereas the 1958 remained trained on Santiago, the 1990 film keeps cutting away into the though-provoking gaze of Tom Pruitt.

While I’m glad to have seen both versions of the story and glad Mr. Quinn got to fulfill a long held desire to play Hemingway’s hero of his Pulitzer Prize winning story, unfortunately this well intentioned television drama is kind of stagnant.  Yes it was fun to spot character actors like Gary Cole and Pulp Fiction’s Paul Calderon show up, but as an adaptation of Hemingway’s story compared to the 1958 film, it never really gets off the ground or conveys the depths of Santiago’s ordeal.  Completests and Hemingway aficionados, keen on seeing another take on The Old Man and the Sea will get some enjoyment out of it.  That said, there’s a reason people still talk about John Sturges’ film with Spencer Tracy and have otherwise mostly forgotten about this one.

- Andrew Kotwicki