One June afternoon in Paris in 1929, Ernest Hemingway stepped into a boxing ring. The day was warm, but the gym of the American Club would have been steamy with the sweat of competition and machismo.
By the second round Hemingway was knocked flat by a friend four years younger, four inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter. His ego never really recovered, nor did his friendship with Morley Callaghan.
Years later, Callaghan wrote about the match in his memoir That Summer in Paris. The prolific Toronto author would complain that he'd rather be remembered for his novels than for that fight. But it is too good a story to quell, and it inspired the best scenes in the four-hour CBC miniseries, Hemingway vs. Callaghan.
Seventy-three years later, the fight is recreated on a late November day in a warehouse at the 19th-century Gooderham and Worts Distillery. It is so cold the boxers can see their breath. Grey limestone walls are decorated in red, white and blue bunting. The sweaty, stinky fog of a boxing club is faked with blasts of dry ice. This only adds to the chill. Worn foot-wide floorboards are strewn with a leather medicine ball, skipping ropes and punching bags while, in the ring, two exhausted actors throw blows. They've been at it for hours and the mood is fervent. The Hemingway vs. Callaghan crew only has this location for 48 hours and the fight scenes must be finished today.
"It is such an important part of the picture," says Robin Dunne, who plays Callaghan as a young man. "What happens in this match is the nexus of the relationship between the two characters."
In one corner stands the burly Irish actor Vincent Walsh, playing Hemingway. Sweat stains his grey T-shirt and shorts. In the other corner, Dunne bounces to keep warm in his singlet. They are both in 1920s boxing garb: light leather booties, no head protection and gloves so small (4 ounces) they look no bigger than warm mittens.
"You might as well be boxing bare-knuckled," says Dunne. The director cues the action and a nattily dressed F. Scott Fitzgerald (played by Kristen Holden-Ried) starts the timekeeper's clock. Walsh and Dunne get their dukes up right away.
"There wasn't a lot of evasion," says stunt co-ordinator John Stead of the old style of boxing. "Guys would get in and toe-to-toe it, and they'd just start to hit."
Stead, who's been working out stunt choreography in film and television and at the Stratford and Shaw festivals for years, studied old boxing matches to learn the right moves. Neither actor had boxed before, though Dunne knows karate and Walsh admits he's "handy in a fight." Both wanted to do their own stunts and worked weekends to learn the 300 moves within Stead's planned pugilism.
Nearing the end of their second day, it seems pretend boxing is more tiring than the real thing. Especially when technical glitches mean ducks and punches need to be done over and over and over again.
"Trying to look like you're hitting someone and you are not hitting them is a weird muscle movement," says Dunne. They've been stopped again by the director. Their bodies are achy and sore but they've got to keep warm between takes. Walsh spars with a trainer, Dunne drops to the mat and does push-ups. They never step out of character. When the crew is finally ready, so are the fighters. Their only injuries have been bruises; not that they haven't come close to punching out each other's lights.
"There were a couple of good ones," remembers Walsh, "like if I was a fraction later, the movie wouldn't have been called Hemingway vs. Callaghan, it would have been Hemingway vs. Callaghan Real TV."
What the trainers didn't need to teach, however, was a fighter's instinct. On set, they're about to film one of the nastier spars. In the ring, Hemingway has learned a new respect for his smaller, wily partner. But he is also mad, and fights back hard. Walsh remembers he couldn't help but get into the spirit of the moment.
"When you start getting jabs like that you're going to say, 'Fuck this, I'm going to give that back,' even when you're playing around." On cue Hemingway/Walsh starts pounding Callaghan/Dunne who throws up his arms to block the blows. "Those ones gotta be real when you're going for the arms," says Walsh. "The only things we can get away with are the fakes to the face."
Dunne's arms are soon covered in red welts and the director calls for a break. The on-set medic grabs two Ziploc bags of ice from a cooler. He rests them on Dunne's forearms to keep the swelling down. That's all the medicine the medic has administered during the boxing scenes. He's been more worried about one of the camera crews perched high up a 20-foot ladder over the ring.
The welts "are part of making it realistic," says Dunne. "You are following this routine and know where you're going to miss, and where you're going to duck. But we're still going after each other. It's a weird juxtaposition between being very controlled and being out of control."
The actors are keen in the ring and it shows. The boxing jazzes up this two-part film based on Callaghan's memoir of his Lost Generation friends. When the book was released in 1963, Norman Mailer critiqued it for The New York Review of Books.
He wrote: "It is in fact a modest bad dull book which contains a superb short story about Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Callaghan." The same can be said for much of the miniseries. Hemingway vs. Callaghan is the story of a friendship, but it suffers from too many people and too many events. The story begins with Hemingway's death in 1961.
Toronto Daily Star reporters look for Callaghan (wonderfully played in his old age by Gordon Pinsent), who gives them the slip as he wanders and remembers the old days. The story flips back to the 1920s when Callaghan met Hemingway at the newspaper. It continues jumping decades and continents as Hemingway and Callaghan sample the writing life in postwar Paris.
The costumes are fantastic and, in Part 2, French surrealist painter André Masson throws one decadent party that should shock a few viewers. This was a fascinating time full of juicy stories about an impressive bunch of literary greats and local legends - Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Hemingway's editor Max Perkins, author Robert McAlmon, Star editor Harry Hindmarsh, broadcaster Gordon Sinclair and socialite Dorothy Connable. Unfortunately, many of their scenes simply pad out the drama and loosen an otherwise fascinating narrative thread.