Bright Lights Film Journal

An Immovable Feast? Another Look at Henry King’s <em>The Sun Also Rises</em>

“It’s sort of what we have instead of God”

“. . . you talk less about good movies than about what you love in bad movies.” — Pauline Kael, Trash, Art and the Movies

Britain’s Cinema Club has released a splendid region 2 disc of the film that Hemingway called — and he was not being kind — “a splashy Cook’s tour … of bistros, bullfights, and more bistros”.1 The DVD’s spectacular transfer of Henry King’s 1957 film of The Sun Also Rises certainly delivers the splashy goods; the Cinemascope photography, highlighting scenery in France and Spain, looks newly minted. But, past the bullfights and bistros, are there reasons to watch The Sun Also Rises?

Nobody much cares anymore about films adapted from the Hemingway canon — and for good reason. As they appeared on American screens from the early thirties into the late fifties, few of them were much good. With hindsight it seems the best chance for a movie from a Hemingway source was to freely adapt from lesser-known, more pulp-oriented material like the short story The Killers, or the novel To Have and Have Not. The first attempt at The Killers (1946) used the Hemingway plot as a jumping-off point; To Have and Have Not (1945) takes big liberties with just a section of the novel.2

The big titles, bestsellers fraught with Hemingway’s peculiar blend of machismo, death, and big themes, seemed doomed even as they were cast. Who needs Spencer Tracy, that Irishman, as a Cuban fisherman in The Old Man and the Sea (1958)? Or Rock Hudson in A Farewell to Arms (1957)?

Yet For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), from one of Hemingway’s seriously intended works and a bestseller, isn’t such a bad picture, and it hews close to the mood and plot of the novel. But after Cooper’s firing of his rifle and implied, offscreen death, the film grasps for a redemptive meaning as it closes to the image of a big, swinging bell that, well, tolls — just as one does in the novel’s title and in the John Donne quote that fronts Hemingway’s text. There was something splendidly, existentially hopeless in the heroism of the book’s hero, Jordan, but Hollywood wants eyes to moisten at Gary Cooper’s ultimate sacrifice to save his girlfriend Maria (Ingrid Bergman) and the peasant insurgents that surround her (a number of colorful character actors). It’s not exactly Hemingway, but it certainly works.3

For Whom the Bell Tolls features an astonishingly beautiful Ingrid Bergman (of whom Hemingway fawningly approved) and a well-cast Cooper, but it has aged badly, partly because nowadays its sanctified closure of valiant, heaven-approved self-sacrifice seems dishonest and forced. Grounded in sentimentality, the script’s appropriation of the Donne quote is uncomfortably more earnest than Ernest’s.

In adapting — in the mid-fifties — Hemingway’s first published novel, The Sun Also Rises (1927), the screenwriter was faced with an even more difficult task. The young author’s pioneering modernist work is unredeemingly despairing and devoid of spiritual uplift, and, during the Eisenhower years, such a tone for a big-budget movie was as big a no-no as bared female breasts or victorious crime lords.

The novel’s POV is that of the main protagonist, Jake Barnes, who has been rendered impotent by wounds incurred in the Great War. Not emasculated, mind you, not mutilated, as Hemingway himself made perfectly clear in the 1954 interview with George Plimpton, who raises the issue. “His testicles are intact,” says the author, bristling at the need to explain such a thing. “He is still a man.”

Plimpton retreats quickly, but you can hear him thinking: interesting wound, this, that has delicately severed something or other but left the equipment untouched. Regardless, its effect is that Jake can’t consummate his love for Lady Ashley even as he feels it, yearns for it, and gets very angry each time he sees Brett give her body to another man. Hemingway may have seen Jake’s impotence as a good image for the men of the Lost Generation who found themselves disempowered by the devastating emotional and societal effects of World War I. All the moral and familial constructs that seemed so inevitable before the war — God, love, marriage — it’s all gone to shit.

In fact, why even return to the good old US of A where such ideals would now seem like faded billboards? It’s better to remain and float around in the ruins of the Old World, which has become godless and hedonistic in the wake of the war. Fine by them: these guys cope with their emotional and spiritual wounds by getting together and drinking themselves unconscious. And they don’t tell war stories. Hemingway is bluntly realistic about this — the recent conflict is only obliquely alluded to, never mentioned outright. In this world, the women are on the periphery, stranded, not knowing what to do with these troubled drunks. Maybe the gals go home and masturbate; more likely, they take up with younger men, not made limp by the war and booze who are more than willing to have sex with them.

Hapless but cynically self-aware, Jake Barnes is one of these expatriates. Settling in Paris after the war as a foreign correspondent for a French newspaper (just like a certain young, soon-to-be-famous author), Jake has found a way to exist comfortably without functioning sexually as a man. Shoving that part of himself aside, he immerses himself in routine and alcohol. He goes to work every day, writes, sends out cables and, then, at quitting time, goes out on the town to have dinner and get drunk. For variety, he might pick up a whore, a poule, and buy her dinner, mystifying her and amusing himself as he sends her home at the end of the evening so that he may go to bed, alone. Every fall he vacations in Spain and goes to Pamplona to the annual Fiesta to watch the bullfights … and get drunk.

That’s just what he’s planning to do as the novel opens, except that some friends show up, along with Lady Ashley. Oh, no, he’s thinking, not Brett. He still loves her dearly, but why go through all this again? At a late-night dance club accompanied by his whore for the evening, he’s like Rick in Casablanca: “Out of all the bal musettes in Paris, why did she have to pick this one?” Jake’s hard-earned calm is shattered. An old army buddy, Bill Gorton, an alcoholic writer footloose on the Continent, hits town to accompany Jake to Spain, fishing, and the bullfights. A newer friend, the young Jewish intellectual Robert Cohn, who’s recently had great success with a first novel, enters the action, too.

Cohn is the outsider, very purposely made a Jew by Hemingway, and too young to have experienced the war.4 In Hemingway’s depiction of Cohn, mostly in the male characters’ treatment of him, there is some uncomfortable anti-Semitism, but as a royal pain in the ass he is well drawn. Hanging out with these hollow, lost men, the self-conscious Cohn can’t help being lame, clueless — and provocative. Cohn becomes the catalyst that throws Jake’s annual vacation in Spain way off-kilter, so that everybody has a miserable time.

The first time he sees Brett, at the bal musette in Paris, Cohn falls head over heels for her, and Jake, who’s been here before, sees the whole mess coming. Gallantly, though all the while gritting his teeth, he introduces Cohn to Brett and the inevitable happens: Brett sleeps with Cohn during an interlude at a Spanish town, St. Sebastian, before the Fiesta begins. She does so despite being engaged to a Scotsman, Mike Campbell, who accompanies her to the festival, and in disregard of the implicit disapproval and hurt she can sense from Jake.

Brett’s brief liaison with Cohn sets in motion the unease and tension when all five characters meet in Pamplona. The male camaraderie between the three veterans (Jake, Bill, and Mike) is disturbed and exploded by Cohn’s irritating possessive attitude toward Brett, the knowledge of his dalliance with Brett, and the mere presence of Brett herself. It all comes to a head when Brett takes up with a nineteen-year-old matador, who happens to be the star of the current Fiesta. In a fit of jealousy, Cohn, an expert lightweight boxer, beats the young matador to a bloody pulp, whereupon, after the last bullfight, in which the badly wounded Romero heroically stands up to the season’s most ferocious bull, Brett and Romero take off on their own, leaving Bill, Jake, and Brett’s intended, Mike, to sit in the puddle of the spent Fiesta and mull over all the sad events.

As the book winds to a close, Jake, still vacationing alone on the seashore, gets a wire from Brett, pleading with him to bail her out of difficulties in Madrid. She’s kicked the bullfighter out and has no cash with her. “I’m thirty-four years old,” she says when he arrives, “and I’m not going to be one of these bitches that ruins children.” Jake is mostly silent while she ruminates over her recent and past behavior and thoroughly regrets it. Brightly, she announces that she likes being thoughtful and kind for a change (e.g., her tough-love decision about Romero). “It’s sort of what we have instead of God,” she says.

She’s in a good mood, but Jake isn’t. He wants to go back to Paris and forget the whole debacle, but he knows that he’s stuck with Brett, who will appear every time she needs him. At the very end of the book, as she snuggles against Jake in a cab, Brett blurts out, “Oh, Jake, we could’ve had such a damned good time together.” At this, Jake stirs from his brown study to reply, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

It’s the last line of the novel and an exceedingly bitter capper. And also a tough sell for a fifties movie audience. The screenwriter for The Sun Also Rises, Peter Viertel, had his work cut out for him.

Viertel’s treatment must’ve been closely monitored throughout by producer, director, and God knows who else. God Himself, in fact, seems to have demanded some rewrites — He insinuates himself enough into the film. To Hemingway’s hollowed-out characters, God was effectively dead, but in anticipation of the fifties’ churchgoing audience, His unseen but implicit presence will allow hope to ride alongside that last cab ride with Jake and Brett as, in the sky in front of cab and street, the sun also rises.

Hemingway’s pungent dialog is altered and added to here. Jake’s last despairing line has been dropped. Instead, he responds to a manufactured line for Brett, who says, “There must be an answer for us — somewhere.” It’s not a drunken, sarcastic Jake Barnes but a stolid, sober one who answers, “I’m sure there is.”

Meaning, what, that somehow God will allow a flow of blood to engorge Jake’s penis? The “answer” will implicitly also cure Brett’s sleeping around, which, until the Kinsey Report appeared, was the sort of activity not discussed among devout Americans. In the fifties, even some of the intelligentsia would have considered Brett’s sexual activity that of a nymphomaniac.

We know it’s the end of the film because, after Jake’s declaration of hope, here comes that quote from Ecclesiastes, which we’ve also heard before the action began. It’s in a shortened modern English translation, and it’s intoned by the same magisterial voice both times — not Charlton Heston, but you get the idea:

One generation passes away and another generation comes; but the earth abides forever. The sun also rises.

In conceiving the screenplay, much, way too much, is made of this quote that Papa had placed in front of the text and from which the American publisher drew the short sentence that everyone now recognizes as the title of the novel (Hemingway’s original title, as it was initially published in Britain, was Fiesta). Just as the screenwriter forFor Whom the Bell Tolls had seized upon the Donne quote as a sentimentalized, religioso underpinning for that film’s wrap-up, Viertel works in the biblical quote as a book-ending device to allow for a tone of mystical hope.5

In the novel, after an unsuccessful attempt at prayer, Jake calls himself “a rotten Catholic,” and it’s implied that he may have gone to confession before the fiesta begins. But by book’s end, Jake’s reply to Brett’s “It’s sort of what we have instead of God” (Jake: “Some people have God quite a lot”) advances the idea that Jake may be searching for a new code of behavior, a new ethics, in the absence of God.6 Jake is agreeing with Brett — that is, in her uncharacteristically principled behavior toward the matador, she was perhaps closer to something true and right, and that other people “have God quite a lot” in this same manner of treating people courageously with respect and love. But it’s a slippery concept for both of them; when Brett misunderstands Jake and tells him that He [i.e., God] never worked well with her, Jake decides it’s a good time to get drunk again. He suggests that Brett have another martini. In other words, to hell with everything.

It’s easy to go on and criticize or even make fun of the changes Viertel wrought upon Hemingway’s early masterpiece to the point of overlooking what a skillful adaptation it actually is. Whole reams of the book’s dialog are retained intact, and one of the things that made the novel unusual for its time was its dialog. Hemingway wanted an authentic equivalent to how these bitter, disaffected people actually talked, but the resultant clipped rhythms are unique to him and of course easily parodied. Contrary to the fiction emanating from American letters at the time, the dialog in his early novel was also peppered with slang and occasionally with what our grandmothers would refer to as “salty” language, words like damn, hell, bitch, balls.

You sense that Hemingway knew that, if he were to publish in America, even these mild colloquialisms would push the envelope; Joyce’s free-wheeling obscenity in Ulysses was banned in the US during the mid-twenties. Hemingway contented himself with having his characters say “go to hell” to each other as many times as he could manage. There’s a wonderful passage, early in the book, where Jake and Cohn have an argument over the morals of Brett Ashley. As Jake would rather not discuss Brett at all, especially with this love-besotted dilettante, he finally tells him to “go to hell.” Cohn doesn’t like this and tells Jake to take it back.

Jake: Sure. Anything. I never heard of Brett Ashley. How’s that?

Cohn: No. Not that. About me going to hell.

Jake: Oh, don’t go to hell. Stick around. We’re just having lunch.

The screenplay retains much of this exchange, which in a funny way reads like a screenplay anyway, but still with that unique Hemingway rhythm. When the tightly composed dialog comes out of the mouths of Tyrone Power and Mel Ferrer, it sounds fresh and hard-boiled. The elliptical tautness of expression — and the spaces between the words — gives the actors something to chew on.7 The fading matinee idol Tyrone Power never seems more like Jake Barnes than when he tells Ferrer to go to hell, or, in the picture’s final act, when he utters the unmistakable Hemingwayesque syntax of: “Some people have God quite a lot.”

Much of the book’s tone of empty sardonicism — of damaged men hanging about and lobbing drunken witticisms at each other — manages to get through. Late in the film, after Brett has left with her bullfighter, Tyrone Power and Errol Flynn (as Mike Campbell) have a well-played scene in Mike’s hotel room, where the Scotsman has decided to — what else? — get “tight,” a stage of drunkenness that the book’s characters agree is a sort of crossing of the Rubicon as far as blood alcohol levels are concerned. Jake enters the room, declines the offered bottle in favor of a nap in his own room, and the two have a short conversation about how wretched the holiday has become. Mike hopes Jake will join him for dinner, saying, “It seems like at least six people are missing.” It’s a spot-on moment for both actors, but especially for Flynn who, with this short line, projects both dismay and bemusement over his own disheveled state of abandonment. And it’s hard to deny Flynn’s hammy magnificence when earlier, after witnessing Ferrer’s lame lack of involvement with the running of the bulls, Flynn says to his friends, “I was just worried about Robert being bored.”

Oddly, even the demands for censorship don’t cut the effectiveness of some of these scenes. Sometimes they seem to improve them. In the novel, spotting the victorious matador Romero in a restaurant, an extremely tight Campbell, who has been deeply hurt by Brett’s new conquest, wants Jake to tell Romero that “the bulls have no balls.” Meaning, in the text, that he, Mike Campbell, a former bull, has been castrated by Brett’s betrayal. As Hemingway notes, Campbell is a bad drunk who becomes unpleasant after a set number of drinks. The screenplay substitutes “horns” for “balls.” In the film, Flynn drunkenly yells, “Tell him the bulls have no horns!” Mike’s outcry thus becomes something more complex. Outwardly, it’s a compliment, that is, the bullfighter has been so adept in his art that effectively the bulls have had no horns. But Flynn’s anguish is also flung at Romero; the praise is hollow and sarcastic and everyone in the room knows it, including the matador.

Similarly, the film can’t have Lady Ashley say, “I’m not going to be one of thesebitches that ruins children.” Instead she says, “I’m not going to be one of these womenthat ruins children.” I think the latter reads and plays more smoothly on the screen than the former would’ve, if only because “women” contrasts better with children and draws less attention to itself than the self-lacerating “bitches.” Incidentally, the film ups Romero’s age from 19 to 22, a less provocative age than that of a teenager, the next step up from a child. Still, Ava Gardner’s way with the line stings with the same caustic bitterness as its nastier print version.

But Twentieth Century Fox’s decision to make this film a glamorous, big-budget production doesn’t help keep it honest. The story, even as it’s been adapted for the movies, is an intimate one, played out in a small emotional arena with just a few characters. Jake and his friends tend to get lost in all the Cineramic splendor. Like other Technicolor productions of the period, interiors are too brightly lit. When a drunken Lady Ashley makes her pre-dawn visit to Jake’s Paris apartment, Power leaps out of bed, turns on the lights, and — Boom! — the set is flooded with light, as if the sun just rose from behind the sofa. As much as I enjoyed Cinema Club’s lovely widescreened DVD presentation, King’s extravaganza probably looked better, as a Hemingway equivalent, chopped down to a standard aspect ratio on a black and white, 1960-ish Zenith console, as I first saw it.

The effectiveness of Hemingway’s unusual and somewhat layabout plot, although followed fairly closely, is often undermined by intrusions of gratuitous and often inauthentic-looking local color, with some of the film playing, as the author complained, as a very expensive travelogue. The festive street bands in Pamplona, although appearing to be filmed in the real Pamplona, pound out the same overly familiar Spanish tune every time they file down the streets. And do literally all the male principals and extras have to wear the same damn beret accompanied by the same red bandana tied around his neck? The running of the bulls and the bullfights are merely exciting, Cinerama sights and sounds, and not, with a single exception, the dangerous, often tragic, tests of manhood proffered by the Hemingway mystique.

We do see Romero’s last bullfight of the fiesta, in which he proves himself one of the greats in spite of the battering he’s taken from Cohn. But only an Altman or an aging John Huston would’ve inserted Hemingway’s poignant tale of the bull’s ear, the ear that Romero severs and throws to Brett after he kills the last bull. During the running of the bulls, this same animal, the most dangerous of the fiesta, has gored and killed a peasant — Hemingway gives us the grief of the widow, and then the ear’s final fate: to lie wrapped in a handkerchief, along with some cigarette butts, shoved to the back of the drawer of Brett’s bedside table at the hotel in Pamplona, forgotten, after she’s fled with Romero to Madrid. Somehow, by adding grief and ironic bathos to the macho mix of the sport, Hemingway gives an overarching, humane meaning to the bullfighting in the novel; this underpinning is sorely missed in the film.

In the end, the main reason to watch this movie today is to witness its casting, in spite of whatever critical drubbing it took in its time. Ava Gardner inhabits the role of Lady Ashley simply by being Ava Gardner. James Baldwin, who knew her, once said of Ava Gardner that she was down, meaning with it, or hip.8 Limited as an actress, Gardner allows Brett her down-and-out humor, her cynicism and self-loathing, often just by lifting an eyebrow or lowering her voice to a throatier register. In 1956 or so, whenThe Sun Also Rises was filmed, Gardner was nearly the precise age of Brett, 34, and of course an unusual beauty, driving men like Frank Sinatra and Howard Hughes to despair. With such luminescence on the screen, it’s easy to understand Jake’s agonizing predicament. Interestingly, Gardner also knew Hemingway himself, and the story goes that, as the show was shot, Ava would call up Papa and tell him what a mess they were making out of his novel, whereupon Hemingway would call the producers and give them hell. They never found out who was feeding him the information.

Errol Flynn, a lost soul in the fifties, wasn’t old when he made this film, but, like Power and Eddie Albert (Bill Gorton), he was nearly a decade senior to the age of Hemingway’s character, Mike Campbell. But Flynn, a serious alcoholic in real life, is one of the joys of the picture. Campbell, engaged to Brett but bankrupt and losing more ground with his fiancée every minute of movie’s runtime, goes down heroically and with great good humor, attaching himself to Albert’s Bill Gorton as the best drinking partner ever. They like to go whoring together, too.

Blandly American, and something of a cheerful buffoon, Eddie Albert’s Gorton is a good foil for Flynn, but his performance, or even the part as it was conceived, misses the rougher edge of Bill, who Hemingway depicts as a sometimes coarse drunk with an anti-Semitic mean streak. As Cohn, Mel Ferrer is fine in an ungrateful part, and of course all that very deliberate business over Cohn’s Jewishness has been dropped. When either Bill or Mike gets in a lather over Cohn, the script has substituted Jew with “intellectual.”

Tyrone Power could have been a bad choice to play Jake Barnes. He not only looks too old in this picture, he looks unwell. In 1956, Power was only three years from his death from a heart attack on the set of Solomon and Sheba, and that doesn’t surprise you when you see his slack appearance in The Sun Also Rises. But Power’s large, expressive eyes serve him well in this part — he looks a suitably haunted Jake, downright moribund in fact. I like the actor’s customary flat delivery here too, and his pained reactions to surprises, especially those from Brett; this Jake Barnes is living way deep inside himself and doesn’t want to come out. It’s the little things that sustain him, his job, his vacation, his drinking, his naps. Yet, as with Bill Gorton, the movie softens Jake Barnes, too. We largely miss out on his anger when Brett takes on another lover, so that his acceptance of Brett’s promiscuity seems unnaturally gallant. Only once he has an outward fit of frustration in which he tosses a glass of wine at a poster of Romero. “Hey,” says Gorton, “that’s good wine!”

Finally, attention must be paid to the performance of Robert Evans as Pedro Romero, Brett’s bullfighter. Evans, born Robert J. Shapera in Manhattan, gives such a natural, unstudied turn as the Spanish Romero that it’s easy to assume he’s a gifted non-actor, maybe even an actual bullfighter. The matador’s courtly shyness in front of the Americans, his broken, halting English, and his sudden chemistry with Brett are disarmingly real. He certainly slips easily enough into those toreador pants, the ones that Brett likes so much. At 27, Evans, too, is playing young. Yet, for whatever reason, he found himself on the outs with nearly everyone on the set (and Hemingway at a distance) to the extent that crew and cast attempted to get him fired. Darryl Zanuck, who hired the actor in the first place, refused to do so, saying, “The kid stays in the picture.”9 Good thing, too — Evan’s performance gives the film a jolt of authenticity it desperately needs.

Being an aficionado (one who is passionate about bullfighting), Hemingway no doubt saw through Evans’ technique in the ring, but he had another complaint about the casting.

In a tone edged with disgust, he pointed out that the Spanish hotelier, Montoya, was played by a Mexican. Thus Hemingway always kept his relationship with Hollywood a contentious one, as book after book was roped and corralled, pumped with hormones, and hung slaughtered in the entertainment marketplace. Once trimmed and sliced, only a few became good movies, or almost good movies, like The Sun Also Rises.

Papa had a right to be cranky.

Works Cited

Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970.

Critical Essays on Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, edited by James Nagel, New York, G. K. Hall & Co., 1995.

Laurence, Frank M. Hemingway and the Movies, Jackson:, University Press of Mississippi, 1981.

  1. Laurence, p. 115-116. []
  2. Ibid. []
  3. Ibid, p. 132-134. []
  4. Meyerson, Robert E. “Why Robert Cohn? An Analysis of The Sun Also Rises,” in Critical Essays on Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, edited by James Nagel. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1995. []
  5. Laurence, 143. []
  6. Laurence, 139. []
  7. The influence of Hemingway’s pared-down prose style and the naturalism of his dialog had, of course, a massive influence on American literature that extends to this day, e.g. the crime fiction of Elmore Leonard. But it worked its magic on the movies as well; the cynical, bitter talk of Jake Barnes et al. — with its attendant sarcasm and black humor — infected writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and then traveled on through to the film noirs of the forties and fifties. []
  8. In her mode of pleasure-seeking in the midst of despair, in her acceptance of the moment, Brett Ashley is hip, and so is the rest of the bummed-out drunken bunch. With their disconnect from church, home, and the American way, Hemingway’s characters are proto-beats, anticipating the post-World War II alienation of Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg, et al. []
  9. Decades later, this riposte served as the title of Evan’s autobiography, which details an unusual career arc. After The Sun Also Rises, Evans, now assessing himself a failed actor, sought different work within the industry, and by the sixties found himself head of production at Paramount Studios, where he ushered in titles like Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Godfather (1972). His first film as producer was Chinatown (1974). And, as of this writing, he is still kicking. []