Sunday, June 20, 2021

Hemingway's Adventures of a Young Man

Another of the movies that's been back in the FXM rotation over the past couple of months is Hemingway's Adventures of a Young Man. It's going to be on FXM again, tomorrow (June 21) at 6:00 AM, so I'm mentioning it now.

As you can probably guess from the title, the movie is based on works by writer Ernest Hemingway. Specifically, it's the Nick Adams stories, which I don't think I've actually read although as I understand it they're loosely based on some of Hemingway's own experiences. After all, they always tell starting writers to write what you know about. Nick Adams (Richard Beymer) is a young man of about 20 circa 1916 living with his parents, Dr. Henry (Arthur Kennedy) and Helen (Jessica Tandy) in a small town in northern Michigan. Mom runs the family and is frankly dominating, trying to force Nick into a marriage to nice local girl Carolyn (Diane Baker) and henpecking Dad. Nick has had enough of it, so after a bender one night with his friend George (Michael J. Pollard), he decides he's going to run off and grow up.

Nick tries to ride the rails, but gets knocked off by another man, ending up in the countryside where he makes the acquaintance of a man nicknamed the Battler (Paul Newman). The Battler was a boxer back in the day, but as with Anthony Quinn's character in Requiem for a Heavyweight, he's obviously taken a few punches too many and isn't good for anything. The Battler has a trainer in the form of Bugs (Juano Hernandez). Unfortunately, while Bugs doesn't dislike Nick, he realizes that the Battler needs to be kept away from everybody, so Bugs ultimately sends Nick on his way.

Nick ends up in another small town where he meets the chronically drunk Billy Campbell (Dan Dailey). Billy's job is to put up posters advertising the burlesque show run by Mr. Turner (Fred Clark), only to leave for the next town before Turner shows up to find Billy drunk and try to get Billy into rehab (or "taking the cure", as they called it back in the day). Ultimately neither Billy nor Turner is ultimately a bad person, but they're just incompatible and Billy really doesn't want to deal with his boss' hectoring him about his drinking. Billy and Nick sleep in late one day, not getting out of town before Turner shows up.

Since Nick hasn't been able to do much in life so far, he thinks about giving up, wiring Dad for the money for a ticket home (James Dunn plays the telegrapher). But just before the telegraph gets sent, Nick decides that no, he doesn't want to go home, and goes to New York City, where he thinks he can get a job writing for a newspaper even though he's never done this before. The editor tells him to come back when he gets experience. He then does some odd jobs, ultimately working as a busboy/waiter who is serving an Italian-American effort to raise money for the war effort in Italy, the Great War going on and the US not yet being involved in the war.

Nick signs up to become an ambulance driver in Italy, even though again he's got no experience and can't speak a word of Italian, qualities which understandably vex his commanding officer, Maj. Padula (Ricardo Montalban). Nick gets paired with another American, John (Eli Wallach), and actually does a fairly good job as an ambulance driver. But a bombing campaign leaves him badly injured and sent to a hospital in Verona, where he meets Rossana (Susan Strasberg), a nurse who takes care of him and with whom he falls in love.

Some people are going to like Hemingway's Adventures of a Young Man, but I had three substantial problems with it. First off was the episodic nature of the story, although that's the smallest of the problems. There are a lot of people in the movie, but for the most part they come and go and you can't really get that invested in them. Secondly, the movie runs at a very leisurely pace, ultimately lasting 145 minutes. Boy does it feel slow at times.

But the biggest problem was with the casting of Richard Beymer as Nick Adams. To me he just didn't have the charisma to pull off the role. Most of the supporting players do well with their roles, drawing an even sharper contrast with the bland Beymer just walking through his part.

I'm not certain whether fans of Hemingway will enjoy seeing the Nick Adams stories put on film, or feel that Hemingway has been butchered and dislike the movie as a result. In either case, watch and draw your own conclusions.

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