The Old Man and the Sea

When I was 8 or 9, I remember finding an old movie playing on television one afternoon, about an old man and what looked to me like a swordfish. I came in only near the end and my goodness it left an impression, though I retained no clear memory of how the story ended. I rememsbered, above all, the image of a fisherman’s raw hands, and a desperately long struggle against a fish.

I never knew the name of the movie, or where the story came from. Over the years I recalled the movie but had no idea where to find it.

I even ran a Google search once, but I didn’t find anything, probably because I was looking for “swordfish” rather than “marlin.”

Recently I was on a message board discussing “Moby Dick” and Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea“. I found out that “Old Man” was about a fisherman’s long struggle with a giant marlin, a fish that is often confused with swordfish.

What I saw on television back in the late 70s was probably the 1958 movie starring Spencer Tracy.

Well after finding all this out, I knew I had to read the novel, and that I couldn’t wait to finish my current read, “The Odyssey” (though that is almost the first old-man-and-the-sea story).

I read The Old Man and the Sea and devoured it. It’s a great story, as expected, but meditative, reflective and philosophical than I expected; more gentle. I loved the friendship between Old Man and the boy. That made it a five-star read for me.

The Old Man also has a species of relationship with the fish. The boy’s love for the Old Man are mostly in his caring actions, but the novel’s most moving words of admiration and love are from the old man to the fish.

There is, as readers of this immensely popular story will know, much to reflect upon here. There’s a discussion of sin, and killing animals/brothers, and pride. There’s a heartbreaking story of a male marlin and his mate. The man’s physical environment out at sea is portrayed sparingly but fully. In this short story we get not passing mentions but significant passages about fish, birds, sharks, poison, sun, moon, storms, stars, currents, night, and the watery deeps. Whales are never mentioned.  Lions, baseball and arm-wrestling make appearances.

I did not see any allegory.  I mean, the man and the fish are certainly stand-ins for humanity hunting animals, but if there’s something else, like the fish representing Wall Street or religion, I missed it.

I’ve rewatched the Spencer Tracy movie now but the movie depends too much, in my opinion, on an external narrator, reading straight from the book. Tracy does the reading and he does it well, but I think movies should be show-don’t-tell.

I’ve also checked out the 1990 television movie with Anthony Quinn.  He is just perfect for the role; and I love the boy’s performance.  There is a ridiculously unnecessary subplot about a struggling writer who is visiting the island with his wife; the only thing that makes it tolerable is that the wife is played by Patricia Clarkson.  I don’t know why the creators of this film felt that we needed anything other than the main story about the fisherman and the boy. 

But all that is forgiven, because of Quinn, and one of the loveliest musical scores I’ve ever heard.

I’ve also found the 1999 animated short film of “The Old Man and the Sea.”  I showed it to my wife and kids, who loved it. It’s 21 minutes, which is perfect. “Old Man” is only a novella, after all, and a spare one even at that.  This little film shows only what’s necessary, through an animation technique that looks like a moving painting, as many viewers have described.

And because it’s animation, I think it succeeds wildly better than any live-action version in animating the fisherman’s inner world, which is the heart of the novel.

Heck, even the action sequences are rendered better here than in live-action films.

I cannot recommend it enough.

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