Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952)

Harry Street (Gregory Peck) is dying. He is dying somewhere in Africa, within sight of Mount Kilimanjaro. Harry is a writer and big hame hunter and he has returned to Africa one last time, in an effort to recapture his inspiration (and to answer a riddle). Now he lies dying and he looks back on his life, a life of failure and disappointment (or that’s how it appears to Harry anyway). This is the setup for 20th Century-Fox’s lavish 1952 adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s short story The Snows of Kilimanjaro.

Harry’s story is told in a series of flashbacks, as he lies in a state of delirium (a delirium aided by whisky).

Harry had been an idealistic young aspiring writer with ambitions to write Serious Literature. He had been encouraged in this ambition by his Uncle Bill (Leo G. Carroll). Bill had advised the young wordsmith to dump his first love, Connie, to devote himself to his Art. This would set the pattern for Harry’s life - a long series of attempts to balance his professional ambitions with his personal life with the women in his life always coming second.

Harry belongs to that school that believes that if you want to be a writer you must first first experience life. Experiencing life means traveling to exotic locations and having lots of encounters with death. Big game hunting, wars, bullfights, anything involving death is good. Anything involving nihilism or artistic self-absorption is also good and Harry finds plenty of both in the pretentious but shallow world of 1930s arty Paris.

The problem with this is that it’s a way of life that doesn’t really appeal to women and Harry can’t live without women. It was a particular problem with the great love of his life, Cynthia (Ava Gardner). Cynthia had this crazy idea that marriage meant making a life together, having a home and raising children. She soon finds out that Harry doesn’t see it that way at all.

Eventually Harry ends up with Helen (Susan Hayward) although oddly enough we find out very little about their actual relationship. All that we know for certain is that Helen has always believed (undoubtedly correctly) that Harry saw her as a mere Cynthia-substitute. Helen has done everything possible to be the sort of wife Harry wants but it hasn’t worked. 

The problems with this film come down to the problems with the basic idea, which presumably means they come down to the source material. We have to buy the idea that the rich successful Harry is a failure because he has committed the one unpardonable literary sin -  he writes books that people actually want to read. We also have to buy the idea that Harry is consumed with self-loathing because people like his books. Even more, we have to accept that he is right to do so.

Along with this we must accept that Harry’s descent into alcoholism and self-pity is perfectly understandable. After all the only possible response to seeing one’s books on the best-seller lists is to start drinking oneself to death. We must further accept that Harry’s deplorable treatment of the women in his life is quite acceptable since being a writer justifies everything, even behaving like a spoilt selfish child. In fact we’re asked to go along with the idea that writers are Special and are allowed to treat other people like dirt while they wallow is self-indulgence.

Gregory Peck does his best and his performance is more successful than one might expect but one can’t get away from the unfortunate truth that he is not really the right actor for such a part. Ava Gardner, surely the most underrated actress of her era, easily steals the picture. She is magnetic and convincing. Susan Hayward tries very hard and does remarkably well  but she is hamstrung by the fact that the script gives her nothing to work with. Her part is ludicrously underwritten which is a great shame because Helen is potentially the most interesting character in the movie. Unfortunately screenwriter Casey Robinson was clearly uninterested in her.

The movie looks gorgeous. There’s some use of stock footage and copious use of rear projection but the rear projection is extraordinarily well done. The African photography is superb.

The Region 4 DVD from Fox is barebones apart from a trailer but the transfer is excellent. 

The Snows of Kilimanjaro is a movie about failure so it’s perhaps fitting that the movie itself is a failure. It is however visually impressive and boasts fine performances from Ava Gardner and (despite a script that offers her virtually nothing to latch onto) Susan Hayward. Worth seeing if you’re an Ava Gardner fan plus the African scenes look terrific. Probably worthy a rental.

No comments:

Post a Comment