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The Old Man and the Sea

CritiqueQuotes • At the movies

1958, 1990, 1999

The Old Man and the Sea scene
You can believe Anthony Quinn is the old Cuban fisherman in 1990's The Old Man and the Sea.

Old man with a past

The Old Man and the Sea (1990): Television miniseries; director Jud Taylor; writer Roger O. Hirson; featuring Anthony Quinn, Francesco Quinn, Alexis Cruz, Gary Cole, Patricia Clarkson, Joe Santos

The 1990 made-for-TV British production of The Old Man and the Sea is forgotten when critics talk about Hemingway adaptations or even about the films of Anthony Quinn.

And when it is critiqued it is usually treated harshly, especially for the screenwriter and director trying to open up the story to make it more accessible to television viewers. Which is unfair.

The running time of the whole thing, when the parts are seen together, actually works out to about an hour and a half, a normal movie length, and only slightly longer than the more famous 1958 movie treatment with Spencer Tracy.

What is most often objected to is how the narative is opened up, with a back story added for the old man and the appearance of characters never seen in the original novella.

With flashbacks, we get more of the history of the old man—whose name is given as Santiago, as in the book, but used more often here—including his marriage and his arm-wrestling contests in the village.

In some of the past scenes, Santiago is played by Quinn's own son Francesco. In some of the present-day scenes we are introduced to the old man's daughter, Angela, played by Valentina Quinn, Anthony's own daughter. Her role is to visit from Havana where she lives now and press her father to give up fishing and come live with her young family in the city. It's a thankless role, and few viewers thank her for it. Valentina is often singled out as the worst actor in the film, or lumped in with Francesco as showing how nepotism—Quinn wanting to have his family around him in the film—wrecked the production.

But even more annoying to some viewers is the addition of a U.S. writer and his wife, played by Gary Cole and Patricia Clarkson, who act as observers of the whole saga in this remote fishing village, which helps revive their own flagging romance. Someone seems to have taken a cue from The Snows of Kilimajaro and other works in which Hemingway provides a writerly perspective through a character like himself.

Or maybe the producers just thought a sophisticated audience could better relate to the struggles of the old fisherman if they were filtered through modern American eyes.

But all these complications to Hemingway's simple story don't hurt the film much. They take little away from Quinn's brilliant performance as the old man.

Promotion for the 1990 television production of The Old Man and the Sea.

It's easier to imagine the seventy-something, Mexican-born actor as the gaunt, ill-starred fisherman. Okay, Quinn may not be physically gaunt with that substantial paunch of his, but he plays gaunt very well.

And as always, Quinn resists the temptation to show his character as overly wise. He's a ignorant, fallible fisherman with normal fears and misgivings, but who has nevertheless learned—and is continuing to learn—some life lessons.

The boy, given the name Manolo here, is precocious without being irritatingly so. (Alexis Cruz, of Puerto Rican descent, may be best known for his later appearances as the alien child Skaara in the Stargate film and television series.)

Despite the intrusion of the inquisitive Americans, it's mainly through Manolo and the generous bartender Lopez (Joe Santos) we get the full measure of the old man.

Overall, a better film than it's given credit for, anchored by a great performance in the lead role.

— Eric


CritiqueQuotes • At the movies

1958, 1990, 1999