‘The Spanish Earth’ is a documentary film, written and narrated by Earnest Hemingway,that uses footage of war and glimpses of rural Spanish life in its portrayal of the struggle of the Spanish Republican government against the fascist forces of General Franco.
So how did it come about?
Well, before Heminway headed to Spain as a reporter in 1937 he and a group of artists including Archibald MacLeish, John Dos Passos and Lillian Hellman decided to produce a film to raise awareness of the Republican cause in Spain. The group came up with $18,000, $5,000 of it from Hemingway, and hired the Dutch documentary filmmaker Joris Ivens to make the film.
MacLeish and Ivens drafted a short outline around the theme of agrarian reform. The idea was to tell the story of Spain’s revolutionary struggle through the experience of a single village. That village was to be Fuentedueña de Tajo, southeast of Madrid. That plan was soon scrapped as the realities of war prevented them from building any kind of sets or recreating any elaborate historical scenes. So the plan changed and both Dos Passos and Ivens decided to come up with a concept that would look to glorious future amid all the misery and madness.
However, when Hemingway arrived everything changed as his relationship with MacLeish was disintegrating at the time. What was agreed that Hemingway would write the commentary for the film as well as help Ivens and Fernhout dodge bullets in what was a fractious war.
Ivens biographer was to later write:
Hemingway was a great help to the film crew, with a flask of whisky and raw onions in his pockets, he lugged equipment and arranged transport. Ivens generally wore battle dress and a black beret. Hemingway went as far as a beret but otherwise stuck to civvies. Although he rarely wore glasses, he almost never took them off in Spain, clear evidence of the seriousness of their task.
In his short story ‘Night Before Battle’, Hemingway had this to say about filming in a war zone full of snipers:
At this time we were working in a shell-smashed house that overlooked the Casa del Campo in Madrid. Below us a battle was being fought. You could see it spread out below you and over the hills, could smell it, could taste the dust of it, and the noise of it was one great slithering sheet of rifle and automatic rifle fire rising and dripping, and in it came the crack of the guns and the bubbly rumbling of the outgoing shells fired from the batteries behind us, the thud of their bursts, and then the rolling yellow clouds of dust. But it was just too far to film well. We had tried working closer but they kept sniping at the camera and you could not work.
The big camera was the most expensive thing we had and if it was smashed we were through. We were making the film on almost nothing and all the money was in the cans of film and the cameras. We could not afford to waste film and you had to be awfully careful of the cameras.
The day before we had been sniped out of a good place to film from and I had to crawl back holding the small camera to my belly, trying to keep my head lower than my shoulders, hitching along on my elbows, the bullets whocking into the brick wall over my back and twice spurting dirt over me.
Later, in a dispatch Hemingway sent back to America, he had this to say about it:
Just as we were congratulating ourselves on having such a splendid observation post and the non-existent danger, a bullet smacked against a corner of brick wall beside Ivens’s head. Thinking it was a stray, we moved over a little and, as I watched the action with glasses, shading them carefully, another came by my head. We changed our position to a spot where it was not so good observing and were shot at twice more. Joris thought Ferno had left his camera at our first post, and as I went back for it a bullet whacked into the wall above. I crawled back on my hands and knees, and another bullet came by as I crossed the exposed corner. We decided to set up the big telephoto camera. Ferno had gone back to find a healthier situation and chose the third floor of a ruined house where, in the shade of a balcony and with the camera camouflaged with old clothes we found in the house, we worked all afternoon and watched the battle.
After the film was shot Hemingway handed in the first draft of the commentary. Ivens felt it was too over the top, too verbose and asked him to make some cuts. That didn’t go down to well. It got worse when MacLeish asked Orson Welles to deliver the narration. Even though Hemingway had already shortened it, Welles thought the commentary was too long, and he told him so.
In 1964 Welles commented:
Arriving at the studio, I came upon Hemingway, who was in the process of drinking a bottle of whiskey; I had been handed a set of lines that were too long, dull, had nothing to do with his style, which is always so concise and so economical. There were lines as pompous and complicated as this: ‘Here are the faces of men who are close to death,’ and this was to be read at a moment when one saw faces on the screen that were so much more eloquent. I said to him, ‘Mr. Hemingway, it would be better if one saw the faces all alone, without commentary.’” Hemingway growled at him in the dark studio, and said, “You effeminate boys of the theatre, what do you know about real war? Well, taking the bull by the horns, I began to make effeminate gestures and I said to him, “Mister Hemingway, how strong you are and how big you are!” That enraged him and he picked up a chair; I picked up another and, right there, in front of the images of the Spanish Civil War, as they marched across the screen, we had a terrible scuffle. It was something marvelous: two guys like us in front of these images representing people in the act of struggling and dying…We ended up toasting each other over a bottle of whisky.
Anyway they recorded Welles but there were more disagreements over his performance with MacLeish and Ivens liking it but Hellman and several others not. They thought Welles had been too theatrical and suggested Hemingway read the narration himself. Ivens eventually agreed. Welles was pissed off.
On July 8, 1937 the film was finally screened at the White House for President Franklin D. Roosevelt and a few days later in hollywood.
Via Open Culture
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