“The Macomber Affair” (1947) and the woes of Post-Code Hollywood

MacomberAffair When I read Ernest Hemingway’s 1936 short story “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” sent to me via email by my friend three or so years ago, I was absolutely appalled. Which I assume was Hemingway’s desired emotional response even back in those heedless un-P.C. 1930s.

It’s crass and misogynistic, first inviting readers to mock and scoff at the title character–a “weak” American man on an African safari vacation with his wife–and then punishing the wife mercilessly for also looking down on him. The story is so simple it could have been scratched out in crayon by a fifth grader (yes, that includes the not-so-clever ironic title): the weakling in question wants to be manly. His wife wants him to be manly. The patient and civil but very macho safari guide is fearless: he kills lions, no mistakes, no quivering. Macomber shoots at a lion but doesn’t kill it–it charges at him and he flees–so the tour guide has to finish the job. His wife is sickened at Macomber’s failures/impotence. She sneaks off to sleep with the tour guide. Macomber is infuriated but his tantrum doesn’t even make his wife flinch. After all, he’s weak and he deserved the cuckolding. The next day, Macomber is finally about to achieve his first kill–of a buffalo–but the wife’s gun goes off and kills him. Was she trying to help him kill the charging buffalo, not trusting that he could do so himself, and then her aim was off? Or was she trying to kill him, period? The story ends with her weeping, and the tour guide cruelly, nonchalantly telling her that he suspects the latter.

In Zoltan Korda’s 1947 screen adaptation, Robert Preston (of “The Music Man” fame) plays Macomber; Joan Bennett plays his cold-hearted wife; and stoic, sturdy but by no means macho Gregory Peck plays the tour guide. The movie is not only limp and tension-free because of Peck’s miscasting. Because it was made during the Motion Picture Production Code era (established by censor Joseph Breen), the film ends with a dreadful tacked-on epilogue that imposes morals and comeuppance on a story whose only worthwhile component was its decided lack of ethics–or conclusion. Bennett is on trial, and Peck, with zero viciousness, pushes her to tell the truth and pay for her sins.

There are other flaws: it is very easy to see tranquilizer darts sticking out of supposedly slaughtered lions. And the love triangle has no heat. Ugly and stupid as the short story is, it has an undeniable simmering anger that this movie wholeheartedly lacks. Imagine what Sam Peckinpah–or even Quentin Tarantino, who with “The Hateful Eight” seems finally to be working once again on a smaller scale (at least in terms of scene setting and plot dynamics)–could have done with this story.

“The Macomber Affair” is available on various DVD-R sites.


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