THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA (1990) dir. Jud Taylor

17 Oct

Do you have any fleeting memories of films that you saw and enjoyed as a child? There are two that stand out for me: in one, people are on an island crossing rope bridges over a steady lava flow, while in another a man has caught a fish that grows and grows, pulling him out to sea. It was in search of the latter that I stumbled upon The Old Man and the Sea, a television movie made in 1990, starring Anthony Quinn.

Without checking the 1958 version, I can’t be sure that this is the film from that afternoon at my grandparents house, although the man wrestling with a giant marlin out at sea was a familiar shot. The movie is based upon the Ernest Hemingway story of 1952 and had previously been dramatized starring Spencer Tracey. At this moment, I’ve neither read the story nor watched the other movie, so can’t draw any comparisons or analyze too much the symbolism that the director was trying to give the viewer a sniff of.

The plot is that an Cuban old man, Santiago, has gone 84 days without a catch on his line. The other fisherman are saying he is unlucky and to stay away from him. A boy, Manolo, remains loyal. His daughter is trying to persuade him to give up fishing and move to Havana to live with her. Meanwhile, a American couple – a writer and his wife – are in the village, asking questions about the old man.

The old man goes fishing alone. He is gone for three days. The giant marlin that he eventually reels in – tied to the side of the boat – gets eaten by sharks. He returns with the skeletal remains attached to the boat. There is the strong impression that it all means something more than what is presented on the surface. It has the quality of a parable.

The deeper symbolism is hinted at by the director during a cheesy retrospective of the man’s life as he drifts out at sea. As a young man, he sneaks off with his newly wed wife: “This morning, at our wedding, I gave you my heart and now I give you…”. Cut back to the old man talking to himself about fish, dedicating himself to fish, giving his life to fish. What’s a fish about, huh?

Like all great made-for-TV movies, there is the cheese-factor, you know, lines that are way too rehearsed, acting that isn’t really acting rather ego jutting out here and there from behind a casual newspaper, wobbly walls and feigned surprise. My favorite of these cringe-worthy moments is the boy talking about Mr and Mrs Marlin to the American tourists. It’s so bad it’s brilliant. The way the woman pulls her face away from the camera when she asks how long the male fish stayed by the boat with the female fish on it and the boy replies “until she was butchered”. It’s a cinematic classic!


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