The Clare Spark Blog

July 9, 2012

HBO Does Gellhorn in Red

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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 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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