Arguably the most faithful adaptation of an Ernest Hemingway novel, The Old Man and the Sea features an earnest, Oscar-nominated performance by Spencer Tracy in the titular role. The slight story and languorous presentation may turn off some viewers, but director John Sturges captures the book's flavor and Warner Archive's new 4K scan of the original camera negative heightens the intimacy of this stirring portrait of faith and perseverance. Solid audio and some rare Hemingway footage also distinguish this Blu-ray release. Recommended.
"If I had known what trouble it was going to be, I'd never have agreed to it. This is for the birds."
So said Spencer Tracy after shooting The Old Man and the Sea, a movie that took almost four years to make at a cost of almost $6 million. The price tag is almost unfathomable, considering Tracy is alone in his rickety fishing boat for almost the entire film, a good portion of which was shot in a studio tank. A change of director, weather issues on location, and other myriad issues prolonged production, but despite the challenges, this screen version of Ernest Hemingway's Pulitzer Prize-winning novella captures the essence of the author's simple, meaningful tale and provides a showcase for Tracy, who earned his sixth Best Actor Oscar nomination for his low-key performance.
Hollywood has struggled mightily throughout its history to successfully film Hemingway's novels, but The Old Man and the Sea just might be the most faithful adaptation of his work. Screenwriter Peter Viertel, who also adapted The Sun Also Rises the previous year, draws extensively from the novella to capture its simplicity and lyrical flavor. The lack of plot actually works to the movie's advantage, allowing us to concentrate on the prose, visuals, and Tracy's performance. The pacing sometimes flags, but the movie's intangibles keep us involved, despite the mishmash of locations and technical processes that draw attention away from the narrative.
The Old Man (Tracy), a lonely, widowed Cuban fisherman, lives a simple, meager existence. He dutifully goes out to sea every day in search of a big catch, but for the past 84 days, he hasn't even gotten a nibble. His only friend is a young boy (Felipe Pazos, Jr.) who worships and cares for him, but the boy's father no longer allows him to fish with the Old Man, preferring him to apprentice on a "luckier" boat.
On this particular day, the Old Man sets sail as usual and, much to his amazement, hooks what turns out to be a massive marlin, one of the most difficult fish to subdue and conquer. What follows is an epic war of attrition between the Old Man and his aquatic adversary that tests both of their wills and spirits. Sadly, though, he quickly discovers subduing his foe is only half the battle.
The Old Man and the Sea is both moving and maddening, compelling and dull. Director John Sturges picked up the film's pieces after Fred Zinnemann left, keeping as much of the Cuban location footage as possible and mixing it with scenes shot in a huge tank on the Warner Bros lot. Blue screen technology also was employed to capture the confrontation with the marlin. Unfortunately, the hodgepodge heightens the sense of artifice and lends the film a choppy feel. One shot shows Tracy on the open blue sea with brilliant sunlight and a vast sky, then the next frames him against the tank's gray water and matted clouds, and that's followed by a close-up that sports the telltale blue-screen outlines. (In a 1958 Time magazine article, Sturges, who also directed Tracy in The People Against O'Hara and Bad Day at Black Rock, called The Old Man and the Sea "technically the sloppiest picture I have ever made.") Though the story is powerful enough to withstand the stylistic juggling, one can only imagine how beautiful and immersive the movie would be if it could have been filmed completely on location at sea as intended.
As many surely recall, Tracy played a Portuguese fisherman named Manuel in MGM's 1937 adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's classic novel Captains Courageous (the role won him his first Best Actor Oscar) and it's hard not to view The Old Man and the Sea as a fitting companion piece to that memorable film and performance. At times, it feels as if Manuel could easily fill the Old Man's shoes if he had been fortunate enough to make it to an advanced age. (I almost expected Tracy to call the boy "Little Fish," Manuel's nickname for Freddie Bartholomew's character in Captains Courageous.) Tracy, of course, crafts a unique portrayal here, but the two characters are so closely aligned it's easy to draw parallels between them.
Tracy gets more mileage out of a raised eyebrow, offhand glance, smirk, grimace, or glint in his eye than perhaps any other actor and the subtle, intimate nature of The Old Man and the Sea allows us to zero in and absorb the impact of his every facial expression. For much of the movie, he's the only figure on screen and his narration illuminates the Old Man's thoughts and emotions. Most performers need someone to relate to and play off of, but not Tracy. The Old Man is a far more challenging part than it might seem, and though Hemingway did not completely approve of his performance, he does the role proud.
Hemingway himself briefly appears as an extra in the movie's final scene, but you have to look quick to catch him. (He's a bearded bar patron at the back of the frame wearing a baseball cap.) Though Hemingway was heavily involved in the production at first - he reportedly tried doggedly and unsuccessfully to catch a marlin that could be used in the film - he lost interest as shooting dragged on and harbored mixed feelings over the finished product.
Though tedious at times and marred by its distracting technical issues, The Old Man and the Sea is strangely compelling and definitely worth watching at least once. Its faithfulness to Hemingway's novel is admirable, but some literary works require a bit of tinkering to make them more cinematic and dramatic. There's speculation that one of the reasons why Zinnemann bowed out was because he wanted to alter the story and producer Leland Hayward rejected his ideas. Whether Zinnemann, a supremely talented director, could have improved the film remains open for debate, but under Sturges' equally capable hand, the movie flaunts a decided Hemingway feel. And with Tracy in the title role, The Old Man and the Sea doesn't just stay afloat, it occasionally soars.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Old Man and the Sea arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
With its myriad process shots and fledgling blue-screen technology, The Old Man and the Sea might seem like a tricky film to transfer to the unforgiving digital medium, but the wizards at Warner Archive have fashioned a high-quality 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 rendering, thanks to a brand new 4K scan of the original camera negative. The film's grain structure remains intact and enhances James Wong Howe's beautiful, Oscar-nominated cinematography. Excellent clarity and contrast combine with strong blacks, bright whites, and bold colors to produce a vibrant, detailed image.
The various shades of the blue water, verdant green landscapes, and glorious orange, red, and yellow gradations of the sunrises and sunsets heighten the movie's lyricism and though a few of the process shots exhibit some roughness, the bulk look quite good. Superior shadow delineation results in several stunning silhouettes, flesh tones appear natural, and sharp close-ups highlight Tracy's stubble, wrinkles, and sweat. As per usual with Warner Archive transfers, any nicks, marks or scratches have been erased, but their absence here is especially notable because previous home video versions of The Old Man and the Sea were littered with them. Fans will be delighted by this high-quality presentation and shouldn't hesitate to upgrade.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track supplies clear, well-modulated sound. A wide dynamic scale embraces all the highs and lows of Dimitri Tiomkin's Oscar-winning score, while excellent fidelity helps it fill the room with ease. Subtleties like the sea water lapping against the boat, driving rain, and the craft's creaking wood are distinct and both Tracy's narration and the minimal dialogue are well prioritized and easy to comprehend. No distortion creeps into the mix and no age-related hiss, pops, or crackle intrude.
The minimal supplements from the 2001 DVD have been ported over to this Blu-ray release.
Vintage Featurette: Hemingway: The Legend and the Sea (SD, 3 minutes) - Filmmaker Allen H. Miner joined Hemingway for a fishing trip in the Caribbean during production of The Old Man and the Sea and he provides narration to accompany the silent footage he shot during their journey.
Theatrical Trailer (SD, 2 minutes) - The film's original preview touts the greatness of Hemingway's novel, but doesn't include any scenes from the movie.
Lyrical, at times poetic, and occasionally dull, The Old Man and the Sea often struggles to find its sea legs but ultimately succeeds in honoring Hemingway's award-winning novella about a dogged fisherman's epic battle with a massive marlin. Tracy's measured, understated performance carries director John Sturges' film and Warner Archive's high-quality transfer struck from a 4K scan of the original camera negative often carries us away. Solid audio and some rare Hemingway footage heighten the disc's appeal. Recommended.