YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

July 9, 2012

HBO Does Gellhorn in Red

[For related blogs see http://clarespark.com/2012/08/20/ernest-hemingway-carlos-baker-and-the-spanish-civil-war/, http://clarespark.com/2011/06/30/links-to-review-essay-on-hemingway-spy-mission-to-china/, and http://clarespark.com/2012/08/06/gellhorns-blind-spot-on-israel/.]

There is no finer example of the penetration of communist ideas into the American liberal mainstream than HBO’s recent “biopic” (or “drama”: take your pick) on the “wild and tempestuous” relationship between Ernest Hemingway and lover and third wife Martha Gellhorn, whose reputation as a pioneering war correspondent has been celebrated in multiple biographies and monographs.

There is no excuse for the carelessness, cover-ups, and distortions perpetrated by the writers, directors, and actors in this highly touted movie, one that treats some of the most sensitive and controverted events in the history of the twentieth century: I refer to the Spanish Civil War and the civil war in China that, with the complicity of some American journalists, resulted in the victory of Communism in 1949. The HBO movie presents the Stalinist and Maoist views of those events, departing from the historical record that the HBO writers should have consulted, but apparently did not, or did not think to be important; most fundamentally, the communist line pits “the People” versus “Fascism,” ignoring the actual political/diplomatic dynamics of the 1930s that led to the second world war. This blog spells out some of the more egregious errors of fact in the ostensibly historical drama.

First, it was revealed in Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB, by Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes, and Alexander Vassiliev, published by the prestigious Yale University Press in 2009 that Hemingway had been recruited by the KGB, with his control the famous Jacob Golos. (The date of October 1940 was related to me by Harvey Klehr in an email.) The book describes the surprising Hemingway recruitment on pages 152-155, but cautions that no evidence has surfaced that Hemingway delivered any intel to the Soviets. This was a bombshell to the authors, but I must say, less so to me, for Gustav Regler, purged Commissar of the 12th International Brigade, had already suggested Hemingway’s allegiance to Soviet Communists in his 1959 memoir, The Owl of Minerva:

[Regler:] Mexico, 1941:…Hemingway came from Cuba to see the bullfights. We had drinks at the Tampico Club. When we were out in the street again he clapped his hand on my shoulder and thrust me against the marble façade. “Why did you leave them?” (He meant the Communists.)… but he would not let me go; he was in an alarming state of emotional confusion. “Why did you believe them in Spain? There has to be an organization, and they have one. Go back to them! Beat the slanderers in their own house!” After a time he turned away from me and cursed the whole world. “The US is finished, just like France. All Nazis should be castrated. The Russians are the only ones who are doing any fighting.” Then he came back to me. “What do you care about the lies they are telling about you? All that’s just chicken-shit!”

Moreover, in his play The Fifth Column (1940, but recently revived in NYC), “Dorothy Bridges” (the character obviously based on Martha Gellhorn) suggests that “Philip” (Hemingway) study “dialectics.” Gellhorn may have been, like so many of her contemporaries, a Popular Front/New Deal idealist, but until I read that line in the play, I had no idea that she might be  so well versed in Marxist-Leninist rhetoric. I now wonder if she too was something more than a fellow-traveler.

Return to the HBO film, that seems more interested in hot sex (also controversial in biographies of Gellhorn), than in the historical record. For instance, one of the more momentous events in Hemingway’s life in Spain was the ending of his friendship with the world-famous writer John Dos Passos. Dr. Jose Robles, professor of Spanish literature at Johns Hopkins University had returned to Spain to participate in the Revolution. He was famously and mysteriously executed under circumstances that remain cloudy. But Robles became desaparacedo in the HBO script, replaced by a fictional character they called Paco Zarra, a dashing fighter on horseback, carried off by the Soviet propagandist Koltsov, although Robles was killed before Hemingway arrived in Spain. (See Stephen Koch’s 2005 book, The Breaking Point,for a reconstruction of shocking events that places the Hemingway-Dos Passos friendship in proper perspective, along with endnotes that cite the latest bibliography on the subject, including material on Communist filmmaker Joris Ivens, also a character in the HBO movie, and never identified as under Comintern control.)

Moreover, the Abraham Lincoln Battalion is presented, not as communists, but as folk singers who ride along with Martha Gellhorn in a train as she enters Spain. One even carries an allusion to the Woody Guthrie placard on his guitar, “This machine kills fascists.” (Machine becomes “guitar” in the movie.) As Carl Rollyson notes in his biography of Gellhorn, she rode to Spain along with Spaniards, not with members of the (American) Lincoln Battalion. Gellhorn, who wants to be remembered as a “war correspondent” (not as a “footnote” to Hemingway,  is thus merged with fighters, and partakes of their heroism. Indeed, Hemingway is shown running into battle with his rifle, followed in the rear by his lover MG. (I have never seen evidence that Hemingway actually fought in the Spanish Civil War, though his propaganda on the Communists’ behalf is legendary.)

You won’t see any reference to the Soviet destruction of POUM or the Spanish anarchists either. That subject is taken up in detail by Burnett Bolloten in his long volume on the Spanish Civil War, but I have never seen that aspect of the conflict taken up in American television or film. (Phillip Deery has just told me of Ken Loach’s 1995 film Land and Freedom that does deal with the Anarchists and POUM. The lengthy account of the Spanish Civil War by Hugh Thomas is less sympathetic to the anarchists and generally more detailed than anything else I have read on the lead up to the war, the conflict itself, and then the aftermath.). However, Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls (1940) does transmit a story, related by Pilar in chapter 10, of a hateful anarchist-ridden mob destroying the Church and bourgeoisie of [Ronda], and would have pleased his conservative Catholic wife Pauline, not to speak of the Soviets. This is not surprising. (I just reread the chapter, and it is harrowing. The Republican, relatively pacifistic, guerilla comrades of Robert Jordan are contrasted invidiously with the drunken and barbaric anarchists. Hemingway’s guerrillas are entirely fictional and represent his general primitivism, a common post WW1 trope.)

But perhaps the most shocking transformation in the HBO (sex film) occurs in the short section on the trip to China, where Gellhorn is to write about the civil war for Collier’s. Peter Moreira’s book Hemingway’s Spy Mission to China (2007) had a thorough, if flawed, account of that trip, and there is no doubt that Gellhorn praised Madame Chiang in her Collier’s piece, but she never visited the Roosevelts later to report that “the Communists are going to win” as the HBO film claims. Rather, writing in 1941, she repressed her dislike of the rulers of China, and Moreira took her to task for the lie (p.144). What Gellhorn did was to conform to the Soviet-FDR line, that was supporting Chiang Kai-Shek at that time. (See http://clarespark.com/2011/06/30/links-to-review-essay-on-hemingway-spy-mission-to-china/.) Whether or not they consciously did it, the HBO film is friendly to Maoism and Third World-ism in general, joining such journalist celebrities as Agnes Smedley, Edgar Snow, and Theodore White in their puffing of the Mao-Chou contingent.

In its publicity, the HBO film proclaims that Martha Gellhorn was “the greatest war correspondent” ever, a question that elides the question, what is the purpose of the war correspondent? Do they tell us the deep causes of war (a task that requires advanced historical training in diplomatic and military history, along with access to archives, some of which remain secret)? Or are they, as Hemingway bitterly accused Gellhorn, of being addicted to excitement and danger, and I would add, while displaying their bleeding hearts to a public also hooked on the sights and sounds of mass death?

Hemingway and Gellhorn in NYC

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12 Comments »

  1. […] What follows are very personal thoughts and intuitions I have about Martha Gellhorn. I have drafted a review of the HBO movie Hemingway and Gellhorn for an academic journal. I may not disclose it, so here are some of my impressions that are not in the review.  The movie has been discussed in newspapers and websites all over the world, with only two critical ones: in Vanity Fair and GQ. But neither delved into the politics of the movie. One should wonder at the capacities of movie reviewers to open up a film for critical scrutiny (by that I mean its ideological content). (The politics are described here: http://clarespark.com/2012/07/09/hbo-does-gellhorn-in-red/.) […]

    Pingback by The “we are all lost” generation | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — July 29, 2013 @ 8:00 pm | Reply

  2. […] Assistant Professor Kaplan’s self-introduction suggested a sea change in the teaching of the humanities and social sciences. It is true that it is difficult to escape ideological biases, but Hugh Thomas’s mammoth book on The Spanish Civil War used sources from the Nationalist Right, interviewed many of the survivors, some of whom lived in Franco Spain, and was careful to footnote many accounts that might differ from his own generally moderate narrative and interpretations. (For instance, I call him a “moderate” because he blamed socialist factions for not cohering to prevent the rightist nationalist rebellion led by General Franco in July 1936 that finally prevailed over the Spanish Republic in a conflict that rocked the world. For a Pop Front treatment of the Hemingway-Gellhorn marriage see http://clarespark.com/2012/07/09/hbo-does-gellhorn-in-red/). […]

    Pingback by The New Left activist scholars | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — May 16, 2013 @ 3:36 pm | Reply

  3. Reblogged this on YDS: The Clare Spark Blog and commented:

    With HBO releasing the Hemingway-Gellhorn movie on DVD and Blue-Ray, this seems like a good time to highlight this blog on the politics of the movie.

    Comment by clarespark — April 6, 2013 @ 7:17 pm | Reply

  4. [...] Carlos Baker’s 1969 biography of Ernest Hemingway had no problem describing Joris Ivens as a Communist filmmaker: I don’t know enough about Baker’s own political allegiances to say why. Perhaps Baker agreed with those for whom the communists were just another form of enlightened and moral liberal, maybe a bit more serious about uplifting the masses and rooting out nativism and American sympathizers with Hitler and Mussolini. Such naiveté was how communism infiltrated the New Dealers and their populist sympathizers: Only the Stalinist Left was held to be serious about fighting fascism or criticizing the Neutrality Act of the Western democracies that prevented the supplying  of arms and oil to the Spanish Loyalists. “Trotskyites,” the Comintern declared, were in league with fascism and Nazism! The Comintern-controlled Abraham Lincoln Battalion is still presented as comprised of idealistic young Americans, for instance in the atrociously slanted and mendacious HBO movie Hemingway and Gellhorn, most of which is devoted to the Spanish Civil War, and which ignored the bloody, faction-ridden history of that crucial conflict, without any political criticism from dozens of reviewers all over the world. (For a brief review of the HBO offering, see http://clarespark.com/2012/07/09/hbo-does-gellhorn-in-red/,) [...]

    Pingback by Ernest Hemingway, Carlos Baker, and the Spanish Civil War « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — August 20, 2012 @ 10:13 pm | Reply

  5. [...] The most important idea in this blog: that the original Progressives wanted a regulated capitalism that would stave off the specter of red revolution. Their enemies were Gilded Age robber barons/ finance capital, but more so, a militant working class that seemed to be on the march, especially during the riotous year of 1919. In the first eight months of 1919–in August introducing the first article publicizing the ostensibly forgotten Herman Melville (1819-1891), The Nation magazine advised its conservative readers to move sharply to the left, outflanking the International Workers of the World and its evil twin the Socialist Party. Oswald Garrison Villard’s influential magazine preached “honest Anglo-Saxon populism” of the communitarian sort that such Anglo-Saxon upper-Midwesterners such as Ernest Hemingway would embody in his novels, for instance in A Farewell to Arms (where war is blamed on the upper classes, and suffered by hapless peasants), and then For Whom The Bell Tolls (1940, by which time EH had been recruited by the KGB as revealed in The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, 2009, see http://clarespark.com/2012/07/09/hbo-does-gellhorn-in-red/. [...]

    Pingback by Communist ideas go mainstream « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — July 19, 2012 @ 9:42 pm | Reply

  6. Clare — to clarify — my teacher acquaintances will find the HBO show absorbing … they should be reading your review! :)

    Comment by churchmouse — July 16, 2012 @ 8:05 am | Reply

  7. Thanks, Clare, for this review. I can think of a number of teachers I know who, despite having postgrad degrees, will find this totally absorbing. I can imagine that they will recommend it to others, including students. (There’s no telling them otherwise; I’ve had similar discussions with them before.)

    Last year, I read and blogged on the ex-Communist Bella Dodd who devoted a large part of her life to the CPUSA, mostly by infiltrating (interestingly) teachers’ unions.

    She was active in the Party during the 1930s. Although this link is to my blog, the following quotes are from her book School of Darkness, the URL to which is in the post:

    http://churchmousec.wordpress.com/2011/07/15/bella-dodds-school-of-darkness-chapter-7/

    ‘Beginning in 1936 a prodigious effort was made by the Party in support of the Spanish Civil War, and this continued until 1939. Perhaps no other activity aroused greater devotion among American intellectuals …

    ‘Since 1932 the Communist Party had publicized itself as the leading opponent of fascism … Its propaganda machine ground out an endless stream of words, pictures, and cartoons. It played on intellectual, humanitarian, racial, and religious sensibilities until it succeeded …

    ‘In the Spanish Civil War, the Party called upon its many members in the field of public relations, agents who made their living by writing copy for American business, for the sale of soap, whisky, and cigarettes …

    ‘The communist publicists carefully took for their own the pleasant word of Loyalist and called all who opposed them “Franco-Fascists.” This was a literary coup which confused many men and women. Violent communist literature repeatedly lumped all of the Church hierarchy on the side of the “Fascists,” and, using this technique, they sought to destroy the Church by attacking its priests. This was not a new tactic …

    ‘In the Spanish campaign the Communists in the United States followed Moscow directives …

    ‘Various unions were combed for members who would join the Abraham Lincoln Brigade which was the American division of the International Brigade. The Communists used the prestige of Lincoln’s name as they had other patriots’ names to stir men’s souls for propaganda purposes.

    ‘I, myself, swallowed the Party’s lies on the Spanish Civil War. There was little forthcoming from American national leaders to expose this fraud …

    ‘As one example of the puzzle that finally became a picture there is the story of the Erica Reed, which will serve as an example of hundreds of others. It was supposed to be a mercy ship taking food, milk, and medicines to hard-pressed Barcelona. It was chartered ostensibly by the North American Committee for Loyalist Spain. In reality it was financed by Soviet agents …

    ‘The “relief ship” with its supplies reached Barcelona where she was immediately ordered to Odessa. And so the Erica Reed, ostensibly chartered by the North American Committee for Loyalist Spain, was sent to Odessa by her real charterer, the Soviet Union. The Spanish people were expendable …

    ‘The International Brigade was eulogized by many Americans. They failed to realize that the first international army under Soviet leadership had been born; that though all the national subdivisions had national commissars, these were under Soviet commissars ! There was the Lincoln Brigade and the Garibaldi Brigade …

    ‘We teachers recruited soldiers for the Lincoln Brigade …’

    Comment by churchmouse — July 16, 2012 @ 8:01 am | Reply

  8. [...] [Added 6-10-12: It was revealed in 2009 that EH was recruited by the KGB in October 1940.  For my review of the HBO movie on the Hemingway-Gellhorn marriage see http://clarespark.com/2012/07/09/hbo-does-gellhorn-in-red/.%5D [...]

    Pingback by Ernest Hemingway and Gellhorn in China, 1941 (4) « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — July 10, 2012 @ 2:27 am | Reply

  9. [...] [Added 6-10-12: It was revealed in 2010 that EH was recruited to the KGB in October 1940. Details on part one. Keep this in mind as you read this segment and the others. For a hint regarding EH's attraction to anything smacking of Spanish culture, see http://clarespark.com/2012/02/09/glee-goes-la-raza/. For my review of the HBO movie on the Hemingway-Gellhorn marriage, see http://clarespark.com/2012/07/09/hbo-does-gellhorn-in-red/.%5D [...]

    Pingback by Ernest Hemingway and Gellhorn in China, 1941 (3) « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — July 10, 2012 @ 12:09 am | Reply

  10. [...] [Added 6-10-12: Hemingway was recruited to the KGB in October 1940; it is not yet known if he gave them anything. Keep that in mind as you read these segments and see part one for details. Also, if you don't read the introduction (part one), you won't have a clue as to what you are reading in other segments. Added 6-15-12: for my views of Gellhorn's achievements see http://clarespark.com/2012/06/16/the-social-history-racket/. Her views were ever so far Left that she might as well have been a communist. No wonder the British Leftists took her up in her old age. For another blog on celebrated primitivists, see http://clarespark.com/2012/04/24/the-subtle-racism-of-edna-ferber-and-oscar-hammerstein-ii/. For my review of the HBO movie on her life with Hemingway see http://clarespark.com/2012/07/09/hbo-does-gellhorn-in-red/. %5D [...]

    Pingback by Ernest Hemingway and Gellhorn in China, 1941 (2) « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — July 10, 2012 @ 12:01 am | Reply


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