The Macomber Affair

There is nothing else than now. There is neither yesterday, certainly, nor is there any tomorrow. How old must you be before you know that? There is only now, and if now is only two days, then two  days is your life and everything in it will be in proportion. This is how you live a life in two days. And if you stop complaining and asking for what you never will get, you will have a good life. A good life is not measured by any biblical span.
Ernest Hemingway

Matters of life and death loom large in the writings of Hemingway, those two certainties which all of us know and which underpin philosophy, religion, and, of course, art. The Macomber Affair (1947) could be referred to as a drama based on one of those love triangles so beloved of storytellers from time immemorial. I’ve seen it spoken of in those terms and while this aspect is not only present but also pivotal in the development of the narrative, I do not believe it represents the core theme of the story. Instead the film is concerned with the late and brief flowering of one character’s manhood, although I think the ending, reportedly added in order to avoid falling foul of the production code, detracts from this to an extent.

It begins with an airplane swooping ominously down from an inky black sky to land at Nairobi, down to earth and down to the unpleasant business of tidying up after a death. The dead man in question is one Francis Macomber (Robert Preston), a wealthy type  who had been on a safari up country in the company of his wife Margot (Joan Bennett) and a hunter Robert Wilson (Gregory Peck). That plane, with its grim cargo of tension and guilt, brings them all back to offer explanations and justifications. As Wilson sits down to complete the necessary official report required for the inquest the story segues into the long flashback sequence which occupies most of the running time. It tells of the meeting between Francis Macomber and Wilson, how the former makes a deal for a hunting trip for himself and his wife. That the relationship of the Macombers is strained to say the least becomes ever more obvious as the trip progresses, and the needling and provocations bubble close to the surface. With Margot making eyes at Wilson and Francis sweating over something other than the heat, the  professional hunter finds himself pressed from all directions. Everything comes to a head over the  stalking and shooting of a lion, a key moment where Macomber shows his true colors to his wife, to his guide and to himself, and the primary color happens to be yellow. It’s the effect of that incident on all concerned, but principally on Macomber himself, that shapes the rest of the tale. Sure the aforementioned triangle gains in significance but the point of it all is the accommodation a man must make with himself, a confrontation of soul and conscience which leads to fulfillment.

The last time  I looked at a Hemingway sourced movie (The Sun Also Rises, which was featured last October) I, as well as others, commented on the nature of that adaptation and how faithful it was to the original novel. The Macomber Affair was taken from the short story The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, and the script which came to the screen through the combined efforts of Casey Robinson, Frank Arnold and Seymour Bennett sticks pretty close to what Hemingway put down on paper. There are some changes to the structure, the positioning and duration of the flashback, and a prologue and epilogue which not only frame the narrative but also see a shift in how the Macombers are presented and thus how the theme of the story is presented. By adding the backstory of the ill-starred couple via the coda the movie seeks to flesh out, humanize, explain and perhaps justify the actions of Margot. This allows the story to end on a redemptive, restorative note, with Margot moving towards the realization of a personal truth, and that is something which is certainly in keeping with the spirit of Hemingway in general.

Yet, at the same time, by pushing the character and the story in this direction, the script dilutes much of the meaning that was supposed to come from the earlier epiphany experienced by Francis. That, not just some macho posturing over the conquest of fear, but the author’s characteristic view of life and death, the eternal and inseparable relationship between those states and of the human condition itself, is undermined. Hemingway’s affinity for hunters, sportsmen and matadors suggests one who feels that the living of a life is only really possible not merely by confronting death but by flirting with it and indeed embracing it. This is an uncomfortable philosophy but it can be detected in much of the writer’s work.

And this is what the story is  about; gaining mastery over and the subsequent banishment of fear is there to be sure, but what’s even more important is capturing the spirit of living, a state which can only be achieved by a forthright communion with one’s atavistic fears. Hemingway’s story sees Francis Macomber reach this place and promptly expire, the purpose of his whole existence therefore fulfilled. This happens in the movie too of course, but the light  in which the character is subsequently cast in order to facilitate the redemptive epilogue is shaded much darker. One could argue that this adds complexity but I remain unsure about that – is the end result muddle rather than complexity? I cannot decide just now but another viewing somewhere down the road may clarify the matter in my mind.

Zoltan Korda’s full list of credits as director isn’t extensive, and the number of movies he made in Hollywood only runs to a half a dozen or so, with The Macomber Affair coming towards the end of that period.  It benefits from its origin as a short story and the pace is correspondingly brisk, with a smooth blend of exterior shooting (Mexico standing in for the African locations) and indoor studio work. The last piece posted on this site featured a score by Miklós Rózsa and his work on The Macomber Affair is another characteristically evocative example, complementing the tense passions which are played out on screen.

Gregory Peck is said to have been very enthusiastic about this project and it’s fair to say his work on it reflects that. I’ve heard criticism of his supposed lack of expressiveness in the past but I feel that’s often used as an artificial stick to beat those actors who tended towards restrained and internalized performances. That’s how I’m inclined to see Peck, and his low key approach is a good fit for this introspective Hemingway character. Joan Bennett could do little wrong in the 1940s as far as I’m concerned, her films with Fritz Lang being highlights. I’ve mentioned the course of her character’s development above and its effect on the tone of the picture, and I think it lends a slightly uneven quality to her performance too. That’s not to say she does anything much  wrong but the femme fatale aspects of the part, and they are strong in the text, are both watered down and rendered vaguely confusing due to the needs imposed by the ultimate resolution. It still works, but the writing makes it harder. Finally, Robert Preston, whose long and hugely varied career stands as a testament to his versatility, is fine as the hollow man at the center of the story, starting out as (to borrow from Raymond Chandler) what might be referred to as a juvenile at the art of living, getting across the essential brittleness that accompanies his emptiness before visibly growing into full manhood for the duration of his short happy life.

To the best of my knowledge, The Macomber Affair has not been given an official release anywhere to date. This is a situation I can only hope is rectified sooner rather than later. Yes, I have some reservations about the script choices but the positives clearly override those. All told, this is a very good film which continues to be undeservedly neglected.

54 thoughts on “The Macomber Affair

  1. Somebody way back (maybe in “Films in Review”) called this the best film yet made from a Hemingway story. Certainly more mature than the one H. labeled “The Snows of Zanuck.”

    Like

    • Hemingway was famously critical of most adaptations of his work, which is probably true of many (the majority?) writers. It’s a position I can understand even if I don’t necessarily agree with them.
      Personally, I’m happy to stick up for and express my liking for Zanuck’s film.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. A fine film and a fine piece of writing, Colin. I see The Macomber Affair as a far superior work to The
    Short Happy Life, but I also view it from Wilson’s point of view, and without that, there would be no Gregory Peck, a good actor at his absolute best. Preston may be all right but I have no personal sympathy or empathy for him. As for Joan Bennett, I am with you but start much earlier, from the thirties, not in her blonde period, but from Trade Winds on, and ever after.

    Like

  3. Another high quality review, Colin – balanced, thoughtful and knowledgeable. The review raises the old issue of comparing a film with the book it’s based on. I think comparing the two can throw much light on the Director’s priorities and method in telling a story but I know others say let the two works of art stand independently. I recently compared an important scene in a novel with the way it was presented in a TV series. To me, the novel plodded a bit in spelling out the meaning of what was happening, while the series conveyed all the important meaning much more economically. In addition, the Director’s approach to the scene and the actors’ unspoken communication added layers of emotion which the book did not convey. The series outdid the book in presenting a pivotal scene. I think that you’re saying the opposite with important elements of The Macomber Affair, particularly as the structural changes have damaged the characterisation of the Bennett character. Now, comparing the two film versions of True Grit with Charles Portis’s novel …

    Like

    • Thanks, Steve. It’s kind of like swings and roundabouts when it comes to differences here. Personally, I always favour treating everything on its own merits, anything else feels unfair. Here it’s just an observation on my part and I think it might occur to viewers unfamiliar with the source story too. I like redemptive elements and respond to them, but I still feel the effort to include this in the movie robs other developments of some of their impact.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Not seen this in way too long. As you day, that Hemingway philosophy is scarily self-destructive. Korda was a decent enough director and was associated with some of his brother’s classics of course. I like his film of The Gioconda Smile, A WOMAN’S VENGENCE, an admittedly minor work, and his version of CRY THE BELOVED COUNTRY was very solid.

    Like

        • I wouldn’t argue with any of those, all are strong pieces of work. I’ve long had in mind the idea of featuring a short series on the way the pressures of command has been tackled on film, focusing on The Dawn Patrol, Twelve O’Clock High and Command Decision – I may still do so.

          Liked by 3 people

          • Yes to that, and the companion pieces, produced one year after the other, Command Decision and Twelve O’Clcok High. The same but remarkably different.

            Like

  5. Nice review, Colin — one that makes me eager to watch “The Macomber Affair” (I watched a bit of it on television years ago). I’ll have to watch it ok.ru as I can’t find it anywhere else — it’s not available in our state-wide library system and the DVD seems only to be sold in Region 2 (in Spanish). You have also piqued my interest in reading “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I don’t there’s much alternative to the online options just now, unless you happen to catch a TV broadcast. I wonder why the movie hasn’t had any official release anywhere.
      I’d certainly recommend reading the story too. It’s quite compact – only 30 something pages in the version I have so it doesn’t require any major investment of time.

      Like

    • the DVD seems only to be sold in Region 2 (in Spanish).

      According to amazon the Spanish DVD includes the English-language soundtrack. It’s not expensive and I”m tempted to grab it.

      I agree with Colin about Gregory Peck. Not a showy actor but a subtle and effective one in the right part. And a good actor for a Hemingway story.

      Like

      • If you do go ahead and get that disc, there seems to be an Italian one on Amazon Italy too, it would be great if you report back on its quality. I know I’d appreciate it and I’ve no doubt others would too.

        Like

  6. Colin

    Well done as usual. Only ever saw the film once about a decade ago, so a re-watch is needed. The only
    Hemingway I ever read was, THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA, and that was while I was in high school. Again, nice review.

    Gord

    Like

    • Thanks. Gord, I find Hemingway a very readable and accessible writer with a cleanness and clarity to his prose. His short stories are probably a good way to explore further and The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber is among the best of those.

      Like

      • I just borrowed “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” from the Internet Archive. I only borrowed it for one hour and was able to finish it before the time expired. I loved it! It’s one of the two or three best short stories I’ve ever read. Hemingway really has his writing chops on display here — lean, muscular, fluent prose that crackles along. And Hemingway develops three intriguing characters while working on a limited canvass. It’s brilliant and I think Gordon and some of the other crew here will love it.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Weekend Viewing
    First up is a re-watch of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS with Kevin McCarty and Dana Wynter. Then a re-visit to CLASH BY NIGHT by our man, Fritz Lang, Last will be 1939’s DEVIL’S ISLAND with Boris Karloff.
    Gord

    Liked by 1 person

    • Gordon,

      I’ve seen “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “Clash by Night” and they are both winners. Robert Ryan is extraordinarily talented but has there ever been another actor who played so many twisted and cruel characters? It’s amazing that in his long and storied career that he was only nominated once for an Oscar. I was surprised to learn from IMDB that the title “Clash by Night” comes from Matthew Arnold’s great poem “Dover Beach”. I’m familiar with the poem and with the line “Where ignorant armies clash by night” but I never made the connection.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Colin, I really enjoyed reading your good write-up of THE MACOMBER AFFAIR(filmed 1946, released 1947) and the good discussion it has brought up. I like the movie and I think it is well worth viewing and thinking about. I first viewed the movie on Memphis, Tennessee television, on the WREG Channel 3 EARLY MOVIE in 1976. I caught it again on the SuperStation WTBS Channel 17 Atlanta, Georgia in 1985 and 1986. The movie was shown on tv from 1954-1993 and then just dropped off the table, because of rights issues. In the Spring of 2012 it was shown at the TURNER CLASSIC MOVIES FILM FESTIVAL and was introduced by Leonard Maltin. It was aired on the TURNER CLASSIC MOVIES Channel from 2013-2017. My last viewings were on TURNER CLASSIC MOVIES Channel in 2015 and 2016. So, a lot of people have seen THE MACOMBER AFFAIR over the years. You would think that this movie would warrant a good official blu-ray and dvd release, because of its historical and literary significance. I mean, for goodness sakes alive, the source material is from Ernest Hemingway and his second wife Pauline Pfeiffer Hemingway.

    I’ve never got around to reading Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” which was first published in the magazine HEARST’S INTERNATIONAL-COSMOPOLITAN(September, 1936). So, thanks Colin for re-piquing my interest. I’m going to read the story today. Also, there is a very interesting essay written by Dennis B. Ledden, which was originally published in THE HEMINGWAY REVIEW(September, 2018) concerning the genesis of the story, The title of the essay is “Pauline Pfeiffer’s Safari Journal and Hemingway’s Composition of ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.’ ” I enjoyed reading this most informative essay. https://www.thefreelibrary.com/Pauline+Pfeiffer%27s+Safari+Journal+and+Hemingway%27s+Composition+of+%22The…-a0619632028

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I reread your review, Colin, and it is masterful.

    I watched the “Macomber Affair” several days after reading “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”. While I realize that film is a different medium than the written word and that the screenwriters, producers, and the director are not bound to be completely faithful to the original material, I must say that I was disappointed in the ending of the film. There’s not a hint in Hemingway’s story that Margot is going to have an epiphany of self-discovery. Now, that’s not to say that the ending is bad from a cinematic standpoint. But I’m like Robert Wilson — I got to like Francis Macomber. I think the screenwriters dealt him a bad hand and let Margot off the hook. Maybe I missed something, but I don’t recall Macomber thrashing one of the native workers in the short story.

    But because the film is different from the short story, that doesn’t take away from the film’s merits. Indeed, “The Macomber Affair” is a very good movie. Peck, Bennett, and Preston are all superb. Zoltan Korda gets credit for maintaining a brisk pace and keeping tensions high. I liked his “Sahara” and “The Four Feathers” and even “The Jungle Book”. He and his crew did a fine job integrating the second unit photography into the production. Almost every long shot of the truck and the camp (and the closeup of the impala) is filmed in Africa (and it’s not all stock footage). Watch the credits again and see the relative prominence given to cinematographer Karl Struss vs. that given to Osmand Borradale, Freddie Francis, and John Wilcox who are responsible for “African Photography”. Struss shares a credit screen with twelve other members of the crew while the “African Photographers” get their own screen. I think this second unit work adds to the authenticity of the film. The remaining exterior shots were filmed in Mexico.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Frank, you know I’m not a person who gets hot and bothered by lack of faithfulness to sources. I’m happy to accept the fact that we’re looking at different media, probably targeting different people, and setting out with different aims in mind. I think the changes to way the characters are depicted and the dramatic arc they follow loses something in the film version though, perhaps their actions lose some logic, and I feel that might be discernible, maybe not quite so explicit but still there, even to those who have not read the story.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I was trying to be irenic after last year’s donnybrook over “Bhowoni Junction”. 😉

        This may come as a shock but I think the best screenplay based upon a classic work of literature is Ray Bradbury’s “Moby Dick”. Yes, he had to get boil down a lot of blubber (pun intended) but he captured the spirit of the novel in his very succinct screenplay. I think Huston’s “Moby Dick” is vastly underrated though it seems to be more appreciated today than in previous decades. David Lean’s adaptations of Dickens are also good (although I confess to not reading “Oliver Twist” ).

        Liked by 1 person

        • I think you make a good point there on Moby Dick. The film probably regarded as a bit of a curate’s egg – I’m fond enough of it and I think you’re right about it catching the spirit of the book, which is as much as any adaptation can (should?) realistically aim for.

          Like

  10. Due to various family problems I only managed to get in one of my planned weekend films,. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. This is one of those films that just gets better every time I see it.. Quick moving with plenty of suspense from start to finish. It is another of those films that I suggest to others and never hear a bad word about. A superb film.

    Gord

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Colin, I’ve now read Ernest Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” I think it’s a fascinating, engrossing, action-packed, and psychological drama masterfully written by Hemingway. I tend to fall in the camp that thinks the source material and the movie are two different entities that should stand on their own hind legs. Although, it can be fun comparing the two, especially when trying to figure out why the moviemakers changed an ending that probably seemed controversial at the time.

    I don’t want to ruin the story, or movie for anyone that hasn’t partook of either, yet. I would recommend viewing the movie, then read the story. Keep in mind that the movie was filmed in 1946 and that the Production Code Administration(PCA), The Roman Catholic Legion of Decency, along with state and local censor boards were still looking over the shoulders of moviemakers. Making movies is a business and most producers want as many spectators as they can get, so boycotts were to be avoided. Not every producer is Howard Hughes, or Otto Preminger. So, any hint of a happy ending might be frowned upon by the censors.

    On another note. In Hemingway’s story Margot Macomber uses a bolt-action 6.5 mm Mannlicher rifle. Anyone familiar with the JFK assassination will recognize that a similar rifle was owned by Lee Harvey Oswald. Also, Hemingway could have been using the name of the rifle as a play on words relating to Margot and Francis Macomber. Who knows.

    Like

    • Ultimately, Walter, a movie does, as you put it, have to stand on its own hind legs. Regardless of where it originates or takes its inspiration from, the finished product has to be taken on its own terms and the filmmaker’s vision has to prevail.

      I would probably go with your advice on the order of reading and viewing for anyone new to the material who wishes to sample both Hemingway’s text and Korda’s film.

      Like

      • For Colin and Walter, the reading works either way. I read The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber in high school, and one of the only positive things I got out of the entire four years. The film played din local theatre, I liked Hemingway’s short story but loved the picture, possibly because I did not care about Francis only Wilson, and Mrs. Macomber, but Wilson above all as played by Peck. It’s the movies, and the actors are if not the whole show, the conduit into all.

        Like

        • The order in which we prefer to watch or read is of course entirely personal. There isn’t a right or wrong way to do so, just whichever works best for each person.
          And yes, it’s impossible to overstate the draw of certain actors in roles which they inhabit comfortably.

          Like

  12. Films for the weekend are…

    First up is a re-watch of 1946s film noir, NIGHT EDITOR with William Gargan and pretty Janis Carter.
    Second on the card will be THE LAST SEDUCTION from 1994. A clever neo-noir from the under-rated director, John Dahl.
    Last up is 2017s THE DEATH OF STALIN. Heard good things about this comedy. Steve Buscemi, Andrea Riseborough,, Jason Issacs and Michael Palin star.

    Gord

    Liked by 1 person

  13. People
    A pal of mine asked me the other day what is my fav start and finish to a western. I gave myself a day to run this through my mind. I came up with the first 2 minutes, and the last 2 minutes of, THE SEARCHERS.. The door swinging open at the start, then swinging shut at the end is hard to beat.

    Gord

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a good question, and one I haven’t considered. I do like your choice though. Aside from being a fine choice of movie, the use of mirroring techniques like that for beginnings and endings is something I’m very fond of. Unsurprisingly, Ford did so with true aplomb, the sense of opening and closure enhanced by the use of music – the romantic longing perfectly captured at the start to complement the relationships, and the calm yet regretful strains that bring it all to a conclusion as the door swings to on Ethan’s silhouette.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Gordon,

      The opening and closing shots in “The Searchers” might be the greatest bookend shots in the history of film. After repeated viewings, I noticed that Ford uses the door frame conceit throughout the film. We first see Martin Pawley make his entrance dismounting his horse Indian style through a doorway. The whole sequence of Ethan, Martha and the Reverend Captain Johnston opens with the Captain gently kicking a door shut on the kids teasing Lucy and Brad. This shot is immediately followed by the Captain glancing through a door frame at Martha lovingly caressing Ethan’s cloak. Ethan then emerges through a door from behind and tenderly exchanges goodbyes with Martha while the Captain maintains a dignified discretion. When Ethan and Martin are in the cave fighting the Comanches we have an inside-out shot where the entrance of the cave is another doorframe. Again, in the climatic penultimate scene, we are looking out at Ethan chasing Debbie from the inside of a cave — we are looking through a door.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Guys
    As Colin has mentioned, the choice of the music for the start and finish of THE SEARCHERS is spot on. The first 90 seconds or so there is the wonderful blending of “Lorena”, and “The Bonnie Blue Flag”. .Both of these tunes were hugely popular with the Confederate side during the Civil War. This adds an extra layer of what we can say , is anger, to the Ethan (Wayne0 role. Ethan fought for the South and lost, which eats away at him. This is brought up several times during the film. Then at the end we have that great bit by Stan Jones repeating, “Ride Away, Ride Away, Ride Away” as the film closes.

    You can check out Lorena and Bonnie Blue Flag on You Tube

    Gord

    .

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.