German warplanes cross the sky. Explosions flash. Shell-shocked villagers stagger out of their damaged homes and begin to grieve. “Before,” says Ernest Hemingway in his flat Midwestern accent, “death came when you were old or sick. But now it comes to all this village. High in the sky and shining silver, it comes to all who have no place to run, no place to hide.”
The scene is from the 1937 film The Spanish Earth, an important visual document of the Spanish Civil War and a rare record of the famous writer’s voice. Hemingway went to Spain in the spring of 1937 to report on the war for the North American Newspaper Alliance (NANA), but spent a good deal of time working on the film. Before leaving America, he and a group of artists that included Archibald MacLeish, John Dos Passos and Lillian Hellman banded together to form Contemporary Historians, Inc., to produce a film to raise awareness and money for the Spanish Republican cause. The group came up with $18,000 in production money–$5,000 of it from Hemingway–and hired the Dutch documentary filmmaker Joris Ivens, a passionate leftist, to make the movie.
MacLeish and Ivens drafted a short outline for the story, with a theme of agrarian reform. It was MacLeish who came up with the title. The film, as they envisioned it, would tell the story of Spain’s revolutionary struggle through the experience of a single village. To do that, Ivens planned to stage a number of scenes. When he and cameraman John Fernhout (known as “Ferno”) arrived in Spain they decided to focus on the tiny hamlet of Fuentedueña de Tajo, southeast of Madrid, but they soon realized it would be impossible to set up elaborate historical re-enactments in a country at war. They kept the theme of agrarian struggle as a counterpoint to the war. When Dos Passos arrived in Fuentedueña, he encouraged that approach. “Our Dutch director,” wrote Dos Passos, “did agree with me that, instead of making the film purely a blood and guts picture we ought to find something being built for the future amid all the misery and massacre.”
That changed when Hemingway arrived. The friendship between the two writers was disintegrating at the time, so they didn’t work together on the project. It was agreed upon in advance that Hemingway would write the commentary for the film, but while in Spain he also helped Ivens and Fernhout navigate the dangers of the war zone. “Hemingway was a great help to the film crew,” writes Hans Schoots in Living Dangerously: A Biography of Joris Ivens. “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 “Night Before Battle,” a short story based partially on his experience making the movie, Hemingway describes what it’s like filming in a place where the glint from your camera lens draws fire from enemy 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 dropping, 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.
The Western front at Casa de Campo on the outskirts of Madrid was just a few minutes’ walk from the Florida Hotel, where the filmmakers were staying. Any doubt about whether the passage from “Night Before Battle” is autobiographical are dispelled in the following excerpt from one of Hemingway’s NANA dispatches, quoted by Schoots:
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.
In May, Ivens returned to New York to oversee the work of editor Helen van Dongen. Hemingway soon followed. When Ivens asked Hemingway to clarify the theme of the picture, according to Kenneth Lynn in his biography Hemingway, the writer supplied three sentences: “We gained the right to cultivate our land by democratic elections. Now the military cliques and absentee landlords attack to take our land from us again. But we fight for the right to irrigate and cultivate this Spanish Earth which the nobles kept idle for their own amusement.”
There were tense moments when Hemingway handed in his first draft of the commentary. Ivens felt it was too verbose, and asked him to make some cuts. Hemingway didn’t like being told to shorten his work, but he eventually agreed. There was more tension 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. “Arriving at the studio,” Welles said in a 1964 interview with Cahiers du Cinema, “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, according to Welles, and said, “You effeminate boys of the theatre, what do you know about real war?” Welles continues the story:
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.
Skeptics have questioned the truthfulness of Welles’s account, suggesting that he may have been trying to compensate for his own moment of humiliation, which followed soon after the recording session. MacLeish and Ivens liked Welles’s performance, but Hellman and several other members of the Contemporary Historians group didn’t. They thought Welles had been too theatrical, and suggested Hemingway read the narration himself. The director eventually agreed. “When Ivens informed Welles that his own recording was going to be junked,” writes Lynn, “Welles was miffed, especially since he had waived his right to a fee.” In a late 1970s interview quoted by Lawrence French at Wellesnet, Ivens stood by the decision, saying of Hemingway, “his commentary sounded like that of a sensitive reporter who has been on the spot and wants to tell you about it–a feeling that no other voice could communicate. The lack of a professional commentator’s smoothness helped you to believe intensely in the experiences on the screen.”
On July 8, 1937, Ivens, Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, a journalist who had been with Hemingway in Spain and who would later become his wife, traveled to the White House to show the film to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The visit had been arranged by Gellhorn, who was a friend of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. A few days later Hemingway and Ivens traveled to Los Angeles to show the film to Hollywood moguls and movie stars. F. Scott Fitzgerald attended the screening, and the party afterward. It was the last time Hemingway and Fitzgerald saw each other. When Hemingway was back on the East Coast, Fitzgerald sent him a telegram: “THE PICTURE WAS BEYOND PRAISE AND SO WAS YOUR ATTITUDE.”
The press reviews for The Spanish Earth tended to be a bit more equivocal. Some felt the film descended into out-and-out propaganda, to which Ivens later replied, “on issues of life and death, democracy or fascism, the true artist cannot be objective.” But the writer of a 1938 article in Time magazine saw the film in a positive light:
Not since the silent French film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, has such dramatic use been made of the human face. As face after face looks out from the screen the picture becomes a sort of portfolio of portraits of the human soul in the presence of disaster and distress. There are the earnest faces of speakers at meetings and in the village talking war, exhorting the defense. There are faces of old women moving from their homes in Madrid for safety’s sake, staring at a bleak, uncertain future, faces in terror after a bombing, faces of men going into battle and the faces of men who will never return from battle, faces full of grief and determination and fear.
Ernest Hemingway looks through binoculars as Joris Ivens stands next to him while filming a battle from the balcony of a ruined house in Madrid, April 1937. (Photo © John Fernhout/Nederlands Fotomuseum. Used by permission.)