Snows of Kilimanjaro, The (1952): Henry King’s Melodrama Based on Hemingway’s Story, Starring Gregory Peck, Susan Hayward, Ava Gardner

Exiled American writer Ernest Hemingway considered The Snows of Kilimanjaro to be one of his finest stories.  First published in Esquire magazine in 1936, it was then republished in 1938 in The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories. Twentieth Century-Fox bought the rights to the story in June 1948, paying $125,000, and assigning it to Henry King to direct.

Hemingway gladly accepted the money to his short story, but he claimed that he never liked the film due to the changes in the transfer from page to screen, especially the imposition of “happy ending.”  In a 1954 article in Look magazine, Hemingway said a hyena was the best performer in the picture, which the writer called The Snows of Zanuck.

Bogart and Brando were considered for the male lead, which ultimately went to Gregory Peck. The screen tale begins with the opening words of Hemingway’s story: “Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai ‘Ngje Ngi,’ the House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.”

Gregory Peck plays Harry Street, a character based in unflattering fashion on Hemingway’s friend, F. Scott Fitzgerald. While hunting in the African mountains in the company of his faithful friend, Helen (Susan Hayward), Peck is seriously wounded; in fact, it doesn’t look as though he’ll survive the night. In the few hours left, Peck reflects upon what he considers a wasted life.

Having aspired to be the Great American Novelist, Peck has only turned out minor books, or drivel. The only time he truly felt as though he’d made a contribution to the world was when he fought on the Loyalist side in Spain.

This element isn’t in the short story, but is drawn from Hemingway’s own experiences. He still cannot figure out what went wrong with his lost romance with his late wife, Cynthia Green (Ava Gardner), a character invented for the film. The Hemingway story originally ended with the Peck character dying from his wounds, but producer Darryl F. Zanuck changed it and  Peck not only survives, but he is resolved to write more valuable and significant books.

Helped by its star cast and polished production values, the film was one of the most successful ones of the 1950s, grossing $12.5 million at the box office. Technicolor location photography of Oscar-nominated Leon Shamroy and the musical score of Bernard Herrmann elevate the quality of the otherwise mediocre movie.

Credits:

Fox (Darryl Zanuck)

Release date: September 19, 1952

Running time: 117 minutes

Detailed Plot

The story centers on the memories of disillusioned writer Harry Street, who is on safari in Africa.  Severely wounded from a thorn prick, he lies outside his tent awaiting a slow death, though in the film it’s implied that he may have acquired the infection from leaping into a river to rescue one of the safari’s’s porters from a hippo. His female companion Helen nurses Harry and hunts game for the larder. The immobility brings self-reflection, and he recalls memories from his deathbed. In a delirious state, he remembers his relationship with Cynthia (Ava Gardner) after meeting in Paris as members of the “Lost Generation.” Upon selling his first novel, Harry goes on safari to Africa, where he is very happy.  Upon their return to Paris, Cynthia’s love for Harry and her desire not to impede his travels as an author lead her to bring about a miscarriage. Suffering depression and sinking into alcoholism. she eventually leaves Harry for a flamenco dancer, when she hears Harry is off as a war correspondent. Harry later becomes engaged to the wealthy socialite, Countess Elizabeth (Hildegard Knef) who he meets on the French Riviera, though he still loves Cynthia. On the eve of their wedding, a drunken Elizabeth confronts Harry with a letter from Cynthia, now in Madrid. Harry goes to Spain, but unable to find Cynthia, he enlists in the Spanish Civil War. During a battle he meets Cynthia, an ambulance driver. Cynthia is mortally wounded and Harry is shot and wounded when he deserts the battle to save the dying Cynthia. Harry returns to Paris where he meets Helen who reminds him of Cynthia. After the death of his mentor Uncle Bill (Leo G. Carroll), Harry receives a letter that gives him the riddle of the leopard. Harry’s bartender suggests the leopard ended up there as he was on a false scent and became lost, but Harry takes Helen on a safari to Kenya to decode the riddle. He is injured and develops an infection. As Harry nears death, Helen fights off a witch doctor by relying on a first-aid manual.  At dawn, medical help arrives by airplane. The vultures and hyena, who have been awaiting Harry’s death, leave and Harry embraces Helen.

Oscar Nominations: 2

Cinematography (Color): Leon Shamroy

Art Direction-Set Decoration (Color): Lyle Wheeler and John DeCuir; Thomas Little and Paul S. Fox.

Oscar Awards: None

Credits

Running time: 117 minutes

MPAA: G

Directed by Henry King

Screenplay: Casey Robinson

Released: August 1952

DVD: Jun 30, 1998