The collected works of Ernest Hemingway are popular for cinematic adaptation. One of the lesser known, and only adapted once for the screen, is Hemingway’s novel “The Short Happy Life Of Francis Macomber”. In 1947, Director Zoltan Korda, of the famous Korda family, brought The Macomber Affair to the big screen with the legendary Gregory Peck, Joan Bennett, and the soon-to-be star of Broadway Robert Preston. The story revolves around the Macomber’s (Bennett and Preston) vacationing in Africa where they hire a hunting guide (Peck) to take them on a hunting exhibition. Things go terribly awry and Mr. Macomber ends us being shot in the back while on the hunt. The event is considered an accident but the truth over what really happened is shrouded in secrets until the pieces are slowly revealed in flashback.
Introduced at the TCM Classic Film Festival by film historian and critic Leonard Maltin, he hailed The Macomber Affair as the greatest screen adaptation of a Hemingway work. He also mentioned how the film has been out of circulation for nearly two decades–this lapse in time due to the rights having been acquired and lost because, similar to the works of Edna Ferber (“Show Boat”), the rights were licensed for a period of time and then reverted back to the owner. The screening of The Macomber Affair was a rare treat then, indeed, and for the majority of the audience, based on a raise of hands when questioned, the first time any of them would see the film. With a running time of just 89 minutes, The Macomber Affair is a true example of lean storytelling. Maltin made it clear he is a fan of lean storytelling and wished more modern films subscribed to the idea today because the length of a film does not dictate a lack in story.
The Macomber Affair is definitely not lacking in story; to the contrary it is a perfectly mastered mystery with an unforgettable femme-fatale in Joan Bennett’s Mrs. Macomber, and a fine example of leading with a catalyst in order to propel the viewer into questioning exactly what happened on the hunt. As more information is revealed you find that the relationship between the Macomber’s was troubled, to say the least. A charade of a marriage where they have toiled with divorce, infidelity, battery, and continue to hold a consistent level of disdain, hatred, and possibly love for one another. The Macomber Affair is not a love story to remember, but a twisted mystery about a couple whose problems surface, culminating in one of them dying, while in the midst of the African desert, and among a handsome guide whose relationship with the Mrs. is far from innocent. The characters are pure Hemingway, with Peck’s Robert Wilson representing the ideal masculine male who is courageous and unable to be controlled or manipulated. Wilson may fall in love with Mrs. Macomber but she does not control him; a stark contrast to the manipulative hold she has over her husband. Wilson is what Mr. Macomber wished he were, and what Mrs. Macomber is presumed to wish her husband was as well, yet when Mr. Macomber strikes back and develops fortitude his untimely end comes quickly. The complicated relationships between the characters and their mixed and constantly changing motivations keep The Macomber Affair interesting, while adding thrills from the hunt–deadly thrills.
Having been made after the Production (Hayes) Code was put in place the ending is neat and tidy, making sure the guilty party is punished as the Code would require. But it is not without controversy over the differences in cultural acceptance of actions as would be seen in film today. The plains of Africa are shot beautifully by Cinematographer Karl Struss, showcasing the natural movement of the animals. Lions and giraffes run free on the land, as the characters pass by in their jeep, marveling at the beauty of the plain. There are striking tracking shots taken along with the game, and on a full-frame scale they envelope the frame with movement. The representation of Africa is from the English/American–White–perspective, and the few characters who are African (Black) are subjected to servitude–common during the era and actually done without being racist or offensive. The questionable inclusions, and surprising that they were approved during this time of censorship, occur during the hunt. Animals are killed by gunfire or stake and shown on screen falling to the ground dead, or near dead. The images are unsettling, especially when the animals used appear to be real. The violence of the hunt takes over the characters emotions and reflections and also affects the viewer. Hunting is a sport of great controversy in modern times; killing a lion just to skin him as a trophy can be frowned upon now. In 1947 our culture approached it differently, and that makes The Macomber Affair a fascinating look at the changing perspectives in cinematic acceptance. What was once deemed normal and not offensive now has a completely different effect. The film is more intense because the scenes of the hunt are shown, instead of hidden away behind edits.
The Macomber Affair is an excellent classic film that features marvelous performances by the entire cast, a thought-provoking look at the social practices of the day with the Macomber’s distorted marriage, all wrapped up in a mystery that you think you know the answer to, only to realize the reality is different, even if familiar.
**The Macomber Affair was screened from an oroginal print on 35MM film**