Monday, January 24, 2011
Horses Harry! Horses!
I love Gregory Peck. I love his face, his voice, and his shoulders. I think I’ve seen every one of his movies at least a few times each, and I never can take my eyes off of him. He is a complete meal for me. The Snows of Kilimanjaro begins well enough, the opening dialogue peeled right from the book. Susan Hayward carries herself like the Town & Country wife Hemingway conjures. But 1950’s Hollywood destroys the story from then on and you hardly notice because you are so beguiled by Ava Gardner as Harry’s true love that you forget what the little story originally intended. The movie runs like a travelogue of Hemingway’s life, as though the men of The National Geographic were the screenwriters. The film emphasizes Harry’s ambition as a writer and we are served up a string of weak stories regarding the women in his life. The more poignant dreams he experiences in the story -- the flashing of his life before his feverish eyes -- are simply cut away. Susan Hayward’s character is only a shadow of the woman in the pages of Hemingway's yarn -- her tragic history is missing, the power of her love for Harry and what his loss will mean to her is completely ignored--she's the least developed character in the movie, but central in the short story. This must have stung Hayward as an actress. Ayee as Harry mutters to himself at one point, Ayee.
But most perturbing is that they kept the name of the story without keeping the gesture the mountain symbol makes at the end of the story. The writers open the movie just as Hemingway opens the story: Kilimanjaro is a snow covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai “Ngaje Ngai,” the House of God. Close to the western summit is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.
Hollywood leaves us wondering what the mountain has to do with anything except dramatic scenery. What the description of the mountain really is is a brilliant foreshadowing of Harry’s ultimate hallucination before he dies. Compie takes Harry up in the plane, he sees the savanna below, thick with running wildebeestes and zebras, and the plane banks revealing the snow cap of Kilimanjaro -- Harry is dying, he’s ascending the mountain. But in 1952 Hollywood, Peck wasn’t allowed to die, especially since they had already killed Ava in the movie. Ava’s character is only a ghost in the short story, but they kill her in the Spanish Civil war of all things in the film, and so Harry must live.
This leaves me pondering a modern version of the film, one that doesn’t put the pads on the horses’ sides to hide their spilling insides from the bull fight spectators . . . the little story is one of delirium before death, surely someone could do it justice.