Hemingway and the filming of The Spanish Earth-Another Viewpoint

“Death comes each morning to the people of this town.”  Ernest Hemingway wrote that sentence about Madrid during the Spanish Civil War, the most prolific period of his literary career.   If Paris in the 1920’s was Hemingway’s moveable feast, then the war-torn Spain of 1937-38 was his well-stocked wine cellar, his cave from which he endlessly drank magnums of grand cru scenes and dialogue, all topped off with belts of Fundador brandy from the ever-present silver hip flask.

Best known of his work about that tragic conflict is his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls.  He also wrote a play and five solid short stories—stark, cynical in their descriptions –as well as over thirty bylined journalistic dispatches.  But that simple sentence “Death comes each morning to this town” was written in none of those.

It appears in the 1937 documentary The Spanish Earth.  The black and white film is only fifty-two minutes long but filled with commentary by Hemingway and narrated by Orson Welles.  Commentary that is chilling in its simplicity, spoken the way Hemingway wrote it.  The way he always wrote about war.

Produced by an outfit called Contemporary Historians under the nominal auspices of Archibald MacLeish, Lillian Hellman, John Dos Passos and Hemingway, the film’s intent was to rally American support for the Spanish Loyalist (Republican) government which was under siege by Generalissimo Franco’s Nationalist army of monarchists, fascists and Moroccan mercenaries. 

Hemingway had spent much of 1936 bouncing from Key West to Havana to Wyoming and back, struggling with the first draft of To Have and Have Not while battling severe depression and bouts of paranoia.  When he finally finished the first draft, although not happy with it, he set it aside and angled a lucrative contract with the North American News Agency to cover the Spanish conflict.  Participation with other writers in filming the documentary would become a valuable bonus.

He traveled to Spain for his own purposes, not the least of which was earning money, and met up with Dos and some the other writers for the project, which Dos later described as “so typical of the blundering of well-intentioned American liberals trying to make themselves useful in the world.”  I will not discuss them here as it is a digression from my topic but for those interested, the best work is We Saw Spain Die: Foreign Correspondents in the Spanish Civil War by Professor Paul Preston of the London School of Economics.[i]

Some critics, notably Stephen Koch and George Packer, have accused Hemingway, by participating in the production of The Spanish Earth, of being overly-sympathetic to the Marxist-dominated Loyalist government in Madrid and acting as a pawn of the Comintern and Moscow.   Nothing could have been further from the truth.  In fact, in April of 1936 he was complaining about the “chickenshit communists” who were urging him to write about American labor strife; in November, he refused to vote for Roosevelt, despising FDR for his “socialist tendencies,” and in December he was busy planning his new trophy room and swimming pool.[ii] 

Hemngway was never really sympathetic to anything or anyone; his dominant emotion was empathy, the capacity to experience and understand the thoughts, feelings and experiences of others; the essential quality of any great fiction writer.  It is his empathy that you see and feel in The Spanish Earth, as well as in his reportage and fiction.  There can be no doubt that the civil war and the battles and suffering of the Spanish people had an emotional effect on him.  An effect that he was able directly translate into the written word.  He arrived in Spain having completed a mediocre first draft of To Have and Have Not; when he left, his mind was filled with golden kernels of For Whom The Bell Tolls gestating in his brain.


When queried for this blog, international thriller writer David Morrell, who knows more than a thing or two about Hem, said:  “Hemingway, both as a reporter and a fiction writer, always went where the action was. His For Whom The Bell Tolls isn’t only a definitive novel about the Spanish Civil War–it is one of the finest war novels ever written. In it, he abandoned his famed short-simple-sentence style and went in the opposite direction, with long compound-complex sentences that dramatized the complexity of his theme.”

Indeed, Hemingway had originally wanted to use many of the same themes in To Have and Have Not, struggling with its first draft in Wyoming and Key West, never really quite working it out the way he wanted.  What he really wanted was to be in Spain, to be there before the fighting stopped, as he told his editor Maxwell Perkins.[iii]  For that was what really interested him about the war.  Not which side ultimately won or what political or economic programs were finally put into place.  

What Hemingway wanted above all was to observe battle with all the raw emotions that he could absorb.  To create an internal sturm und drang that would chase away the ghosts haunting him.  To commune on equal terms with the shadowy angel whose beating wings would hover over him throughout his life.  And The Spanish Earth was the perfect vehicle to accomplish this as it gave him journalistic permission from a desperate Loyalist government to prowl the battlefront to find fodder not only for his wire-service dispatches but for his fiction.

No, it was not the Comintern with its documentary directed by the Communist Joris Ivens that used Hemingway as a dupe; rather it was Hem using them.  Going places with Ivens and watching blunders, failed assaults, retreating forces, talking to soldiers and officers, seeing the callousness and stupidity of war, things that were never put in the documentary, making notes for his later use.[iv]


For those of us who have absorbed our visual war news through television, this documentary, despite its propagandist slant, provides a reminder of what war has always been about.  Death.  While spending a month on the battlefront with Ivens and cameraman John Ferno who filmed the sequences, Hemingway, with all the bravado of a man with something to prove, faced artillery, rifle fire, and strafing from the German and Italian “volunteer” pilots on loan to the Nationalist side.  Back in his room in the Hotel Florida he filed news dispatches for the North American News Agency (NANA) while sketching out short stories and writing a play that would be called The Fifth Column.Planning a film sequence

The documentary opens with scenes of the barren rocky soil around the poverty-stricken village of Fuentidueña del Tajo on the strategic Madrid-Valencia highway.  Hemingway talks about the villagers’ project to irrigate the arid land.  It quickly shifts twenty-five miles away to the capital of Madrid which is under attack by the fascists.  With each bleak scene starkly filmed by Ivens and Ferno, Hemingway provides equally stark commentary:[v]

The words are as haunting and chilling and sad and wonderful as the bleak black and white imagery they describe:

Madrid is bombed by German Luftwaffe pilots flying in support of Franco.  A body lies crumpled on a rubble strewn sidewalk.  “This is a man who had nothing to do with war.  He was a bookkeeper.  So now they take the bookkeeper away.  But not to his office or his home.”

The shelling of the city continues.  Building facades crumble. “The smell of death is high explosive smoke. Acrid.”

A Loyalist soldier in uniform and his wife or girlfriend hold hands, hug and kiss each other.  “The old goodbyes sound the same in any language…they know that when they move you out in trucks, it is to a battle.”

Evacuation of civilians from the besieged city.  Worried faces of the old, the children, the wives.  “Where will we go?  Where will we live?  What will we do for a living?”

The scene pans to a village outside the capital, a bomb-shattered village close to the battle lines along the Jarama River.  “Before, death came when you were old or sick.  Now it comes to all the people of this village…high and shining silver.”

A quartet of tanks goes up a dusty road and then traverses across rocky barren terrain.  Sparse infantry columns follow behind.  Hemingway does not comment on the efficacy of the Republican’s tank warfare but concentrates on the soldiers. “The men in echelon in columns of six…six walk forward across a stretch of land to their deaths; to prove this land is ours.” [vi]

“We took no statement from the dead but the letters we read were very sad.”  That was Hemingway describing the dead Italian soldiers sent by Mussolini to fight on Franco’s side.[vii]

The final scenes pan the fields of Fuentidueña.  Hemingway tries to bring the audience around as the film shows the completed irrigation project, with water flowing into the now-furrowed land.  “Men who were never trained in war; who only wanted work, fight on.” 

Hemingway, never missing a step to self-promote, cut Dos Passos completely out of the final print and went as far as to even narrate some versions himself.  It was propaganda, perhaps.  But wonderful propaganda and magnificent prose. Sparse words filled with empathy for its subjects, not sympathy for any political cause.  To set the Spanish Civil War onto a Left-Right, Marxist-Fascist grid is to commit a disservice to political analysis, history, and most of all to the people of Spain.  And to try and place Hemingway on that grid is to commit an even more egregious fault: Missing the point.  Hemingway wrote and fought as he ate, drank and loved.  Full of gusto for one cause only.  Hemingway.  Perhaps that did not make him a wonderful human being but it made him the greatest writer of the modern era.

[i] We Saw Spain Die, Paul Preston, 2009, Skyhorse Publishing, New York

[ii] The “chickenshit communists” statement is from private letters cited in Hemingway, the 1930’s, Michael Reynolds, P. 225.; see also p.239 for Hemingway’s feelings about FDR and the planning of the trophy room and swimming pool.  Despite Koch’s overreaching on Hemingway and Communism, he has done much sertious and valuable research.  See Double Lives, Spies and Writers in the Soviet War of Ideas against the West. The Free Press, NY, 1994; The Breaking Point. Hemingway, Dos Passos and the Murder of  José Robles. Counterpoint, NY, 2005.

[iii] A prime example was Hem’s coverage of the XV International Brigades at the Battles of Quinto and Belchite.  In his dispatches, he barely mentions American history professor Robert Merriman, who was the brigade’s chief of staff and commander of the Abraham Lincioln Battalion, but studied the man carefully at length and used him as the model for his tragic hero Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls, Reynolds, pp277-278; EH-Perkins, Sept. 26, 1936, written at the ranch in Wyoming where Hemingway was writing To Have and Have Not.

[iv] Hemingway may have also taken photos as well as using those made by the famous war photographer Robert Capa.  Capa, while a leftist, was close to the Trotskyist POUM movement in Spain and certainly would not have allowed himself to be used by Moscow or the Comintern.  Capa, who photographed five wars (his most famous work was for Life Magazine on D-Day) and for a time was Ingrid Bergman’s lover, took many photos of Hemingway in Spain.  A collection of the photos can be found in the John F. Kennedy Library at Harvard University.  One of the more graphic scenes, that of the Loyalists executing a woman and two men by hanging, is reproduced in Hemingway in the 1930’s, Michael Reynolds, P.255.  Scenes like that were never part of the documentary, although Ivens may have filmed them for other purposes.

[v] The commentary was originally by both Hemingway and Dos Passos.  Hemingway cut Dos completely out of the documentary before it was released, dramatic evidence of the break between these once close friends and great American writers.

[vi] For longer and brutal descriptions of these battles, read EH’s short stories “Landscape with Figures,” “Night Before Battle” and “Under the Bridge.”

[vii] On March 22, 1937, Hemingway filed a dispatch to the North American News Agency in which he described the scene involving the dead Italian soldiers and comparing them to “curiously broken toys.” A fuller description can be found in  Reynolds, Page 265.  While Hemingway was writing this dispatch in his room in the Hotel Florida, an artillery round crashed into an abandoned floor above him.


  1. Paul Hulatt says:

    erm …Sorry Stan!
    Hemingway narrated the film from his own script, (and had a brawl with Welles to make it so.)
    Orson spoke very kindly of Hem in his later years, despite this.
    Probably one of the most valuable things about the film is that we get to hear Hemingway speaking in his prime, of whom few recordings now exist.

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