People who've been reviewing films for a while will almost inevitably be criticised for being 'down' on a certain genre. Many famous critics have got where they are for being snooty about action films, or erotic thrillers, or romantic comedies. I have no problem with any of these: an evening of Die Hard, Basic Instinct and Four Weddings and a Funeral would do me just fine. What I do have a problem with is films which are considered classics simply by virtue of being old. The Snows of Kilimanjaro is a classic case in point.
Like many old romance films, The Snows of Kilimanjaro is essentially a leading actor's romp; where Gone with the Wind had Clark Gable, we get Gregory Peck. The film is based on the autobiography of Ernest Hemingway, with Peck clearly standing in for the author and therefore getting all the best lines. The film retains all the rich and playful darkness of Hemingway's language, and the romantic tension between Peck and Susan Hayward is initially very well-played against the epic setting. The nature footage of the wilds of Kenya looks pretty good, although it does seem lifted straight from documentaries, and the scenes of Harry and his wife on the boat are creakily staged, even for the period.
The film is at heart about how one's first love, or at least the feeling of it, lingers and haunts us throughout one's life. There are a couple of scenes of Harry Street chasing after women whom he mistakes for 'Cyn', and towards the end his wife remarks that he married her solely because she resembled her so closely. Street battles through his fevered delirium and somehow comes to terms with his failed relationship -- the vultures' departure at the end of the film signifies that he has made peace with his past and can now live with and love his wife.
This is a heart-warming thought, but it gets lost or neglected within the various distractions of the film. If director Henry King had been more adventurous with the material, this could have been a very interesting thriller about a man searching for his first love. The theme of coming to terms with lost love, even at the cost of one's own life, has been widely explored, whether in contemporaries like Citizen Kane and Casablanca or subsequent efforts like Don't Look Now and in a twisted way Fatal Attraction. Instead we have a film which stays faithful to Hemingway's language and life, without really knowing what to do with it.
The great thing about Hemingway was that he was able to take something very small, like a fishing trip, and through rich and lengthy description turn it into a life-changing event. The Old Man and the Sea works not because it's a ground-breaking plot, but because his flair with language gives the story na unimagined level of metaphoric depth. The central problem with The Snows of Kilimanjaro is that it takes this approach rather too literally, spinning out into two hours what would have worked perfectly well as a 40-minute short. The opening three-quarters of an hour, right up to when Cynthia Green leaves Harry, are well-done, but after that the film becomes really tiresome.
Apart from the baggy storytelling, our patience is further tried by the film's reliance on melodrama for emotional effect. There's nothing inherently wrong with melodrama, but like all things in cinema it's only a good thing when used properly. By and large we can deal with the bigger emotions of the leading women, including the bizarre moment of Street's second wife Liz shouting "Horses!" at him as walks out on her. The bigger problem is the score, which is over-the-top and out of place. Every single romantic scene between Peck and Ava Gardner is squandered by musical cues which overpower any subtlety of face, and the scene towards the end where the hyena enters the tent is completely blown out of all proportion. It has the same problem as Gone with the Wind, in that it tries to make up for the actors' understatement by turning up the volume; in doing so it constantly overcompensates and the film becomes ridiculous.
Despite winning an Academy Award for its cinematography, the film is not well shot. Even considering the technological limits of the period, there are many scenes in which the colours blur and run into each other. Many scenes are too darkly lit and the screen is often cloudy as well as grainy (though this may vary according to individual prints). There are also irritating 'pops' on the soundtrack, which begin after an hour and a quarter and persist until the end of the film. Again, this may be a problem with the surviving print rather than the master, but it is a huge distraction nonetheless.
Because of its multiple handicaps of silly music, bad cinematography and irritating sound, many of the film's genuine attempts at drama are hopelessly undercut. The battle scenes during the Spanish Civil War look staged, with no attempt made to explore the chaos or mechanics of war; the film doesn't even tell us which side Street is one. This means that his brief reunion with Cyn on the battlefield feels hopelessly contrived. Indeed any attempt to suggest that this is his moment of honesty, with the only woman he really loves, is spoiled by the fact that he openly lies to her about reading her letter (which was destroyed by Liz).
These annoying elements constantly undercut or overcook the drama, so that by the time we get to the good stuff, the stuff that actually makes sense and is relevant, we're almost too fed up to care. Peck is in decent form, but he is nowhere near as good as in To Kill A Mockingbird, or his scenery-chewing turn in The Boys from Brazil. His character steadily becomes more unlikeable as the film unfolds, seeming less a doomed romantic and more a serial playboy. Street has an ungrateful streak which makes it difficult to empathise with him beyond a certain point. Take his curt remark as he is stretchered into the tent: "a man can't live as he pleases -- he can't even die as he pleases". That may well be true, but it's delivered in such a stuck-up way that we start to give up on him.
On top of all this, the film is decidedly sexist (or perhaps 'old-fashioned') in its attitude towards women. Admittedly there's nothing that could constitute rampant misogyny, but there are a number of lines that will stick in the craw of many modern viewers. Take the encounter between Liz and Harry's uncle. She is sculpting an interesting work of art, and the uncle remarks that Harry must be in the study, "doing something constructive." The theme of hunting comes up time and again throughout the film, as if women are little more than game, to be chased and hunted down. Hitchcock may have treated his actors like cattle, but he never went that far.
The Snows of Kilimanjaro is old-fashioned escapist tosh of the highest order. Like so many films from the 1950s and 1960s, it has not dated at all well; it certainly doesn't hold up to King's later and better works, like Carousel. The performances are decent, but the film is not put together in a way which befits the material, and in the end the entire project overstays its welcome. It's technically inept, the music is overcooked, and all the interesting ideas within the story are fatally compromised through contrived dramatic devices. As escapist talky rubbish, it does its job, but anyone looking for an insightful romantic drama should probably look elsewhere.