WRITERS ON THE SCREEN – The Snows of Kilimanjaro: Hollywood Hemingway Part1

Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summii is called the Masai “Ngaje Ngai,” the House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude. – Ernest Hemingway, The Snows of Kilimanjaro


Reading Ernest Hemingway’s short story, The Snows of Kilimanjaro is like being hungry and eating a delicious meal; there’s nothing quite as satisfying. The same can almost be said of the 1952 Technicolor film adaptation starring Gregory Peck, Susan Hayward, Leo G. Carroll and Ava Gardner. It is satisfying in the way, only Classic Hollywood can be: beyond all proportion.

Ernest Hemingway on seeing the film reportedly stated that the only things he liked about it were Ava Gardner and the hyena. Whether that statement is Hollywood fact or fiction is debatable. What is not is the glossy melodramatic treatment the film gives to an emotionally raw accounting of a writer’s existential crisis.

In its defense, Casey Robinson’s screenplay remains as faithful to the original story as I imagine it could be under producer Daryl F. Zanuck’s micro-management, but I can see the feisty, mustached Zanuck chomping on his cigar and saying: “It needs more pizzazz. There’s too much talking, put some good-looking dames in there, and some fighting. It’s Hemingway for Christ’s sake!”


So, even though the opening of the film begins with a voice-over narration of the opening paragraph from the original short story (as quoted above), and the dialogue between, writer Harry Street (Gregory Peck) and his wealthy lady friend Helen (Susan Hayward) is primarily the same dialogue that opens the short story the film plot veers off into high-end soap opera or just plain opera. Bernard Hermann’s score, which is somewhat overwrought at times, adds to this. Henry King’s direction attempts to temper things, but it’s the addition of characters, especially Cynthia (Ava Gardner), who do not appear in the short story that amplify the innate drama into the fever pitch of 1950’s Hollywood celluloid.

 I’m full of poetry now. Rot and poetry. – Harry Street

When we the audience first encounter writer Harry Street he is lying on a cot outside the tent he shares with his main squeeze Helen, somewhere on the African plains. Harry has a leg wound that has become infected and gangrene has started to set in. He and Helen are waiting for a plane to take Harry to hospital. They’ve been waiting for days. Harry can’t help but be concerned about the vultures eyeing him from a nearby acacia tree.

220px-Snows_kilimanjaroHarry believes his leg became infected because he didn’t promptly and properly treat a cut he got while traipsing through the brush. Helen believes he got it from the “blood and dirt” of a young African man he saved when the man, who was one of their paddlers, fell out of their canoe into Hippo infested waters. Harry thinks Helen’s version is just an example of how the upper-classes interpret life in general. Harry and Helen have a violent argument about this, but the argument is not about Harry’s wound, not that particular one anyway. The argument is about Harry’s loss of self-respect, brought home by his loss of mobility and subsequent reliance on Helen, whom he calls the “rich-bitch” in Hemingway’s story, but not in the Hays Code regulated film.

In fact, the Code is probably the main reason the sophisticated vitriol, bristling with undercurrents of loathing and sex that mark the dialogue between Helen and Harry in Hemingway’s short story have been sanitized for the film, and yet the essence remains, which is a tribute to the acting skills of Susan Hayward (always a tad over the top) and Gregory Peck.

It’s dying a failure that leaves a bad taste in your mouth. – Harry Street

Gregory Peck as Harry Street and Susan Hayward as Helen, The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952)

When Harry dives over board to save the paddler, it speaks to character. The fact that literary success has debauched that character is why Harry has returned to Africa, a place where he was once the man he had hoped to be. Like the metaphor of the dead leopard on the snow covered slopes of Kilimanjaro, Harry has gotten lost but he may find himself yet, if it’s not too late.  And it is in this state that Harry casts his thoughts back to Paris, which is how he came to be in Africa the first time around. It is at this point we go into flashback and into Hollywood Hemingway territory. Fasten your seat belts…