June 27, 2023


1958 / 87 min
Review by Mr. Paws😽

Even if you’ve never read Hemingway’s novella, you probably know the story: A down-on-his-luck Cuban fisherman, who hasn’t caught anything in months, suddenly snares the biggest marlin he’s ever seen. After a days-long battle, during which time he’s dragged far out-to-sea, the Old Man is victorious. But the fish is too big to put in his boat, so by the time he completes the long journey back home, other sea critters have eaten his catch to the bone. 

I was required to read The Old Man and the Sea in high school. Normally, I hated being forced to read anything for a class, but this one was actually pretty good (when you’re a 17 year old slacker, even Pulitzer Prize winning novels seldom rate any higher than “pretty good”). And since I actually finished this one, I was confident I could bang out a great analytical paper. Instead, Mr. Campbell gave me a C+. He said I did a decent job describing the Old Man and summarizing the plot, but offered only a rudimentary example of irony and failed to elaborate on Hemingway’s themes or allegorical elements. 

I think Mr. Campbell would have given this 1958 adaptation a C+ as well. The film is a straightforward and literal retelling of Hemingway’s tale, with the always reliable Spencer Tracy as the Old Man. There ain’t much in the way of symbolism or allegory, and most of what we learn of the Old Man comes from voiceover narration (also Tracy) taken straight from the novella (sometimes out of context). As directed by John Sturges, The Old Man and the Sea is reduced to a simple adventure tale, though still fairly engaging.

"I'm gonna need more tartar sauce."
I personally think the film deserves a solid B just for Tracy’s performance. He doesn't even come close to passing for Cuban, but during the middle act when he’s alone at sea, we feel the character’s quiet desperation, lonely resolve and genuine respect for the animal he’s trying so hard to kill. However, these sequences are sometimes marred by clumsily combining location footage with shots obviously done in a studio tank.

Though Tracy and Sturges have done better films together, The Old Man and the Sea is an enjoyable distillation of Hemingway’s classic story. Narratively slight and technically unremarkable, it’s nevertheless worth revisiting for Tracy’s affecting, melancholy performance. If he were around to read my paper to Mr. Campbell, maybe it would've gotten a better grade.


“HEMINGWAY: THE LEGEND AND THE SEA” - This vintage short is an interesting look at Hemingway behind the scenes.


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