The Spanish Earth: Ernest Hemingway’s 1937 Film on The Spanish Civil War

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.)


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