The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952)




Director:  Henry King. 

Starring:  Gregory Peck (Harry Street), Susan Hayward (Helen), Ava Gardner (Cynthia Green), Hildegard Knef (Countess Liz), Leo G. Carroll (Uncle Bill), Torin Thatcher (Johnson), Ava Norring (Beatrice), Helene Stanley (Connie, Harry's first girl), Marcel Dalio (Emile), Vicente Gmez (Guitarist), Richard Allan (Spanish dancer).

Hemingway's story based on his own life experiences


Good movie.  Mount Kilimanjaro is 1,971 feet high, the highest elevation in Africa.  It used to be covered with snow, but, because of global warming, now has very little snow on the mountain. 

Harry Street is a successful author who, despite his success, is not really happy with his life.  And it is this dissatisfaction that has brought him back to the area of Mount Kilimanjaro, where at one time he felt the happiest in his life.  Mr. Johnson is the guide for the safari and Helen is his wife.  But right now Harry is in trouble.  He scratched his leg on a thorn bush and it became infected.  The leg is very bad and a doctor has been called.  But that will take awhile, since the area is far removed from civilization. 

Harry is an alcoholic and a bit morose.  He tells his wife that dying of failure leaved a bad taste in your mouth.  And this despite the fact that he is judged a success by others.  As Harry becomes more and more delusional, he has flashbacks of the various women in his life.  The first flashback is about his first love, Connie.  Harry has had a very checkered career with women and Connie perhaps set of pattern of misunderstanding and arguments. 

The next flashback deals with the love of his life, Cynthia Green, who Harry met in a bar in Paris.  He has good memories of his first time in Paris with Cynthia.  He finished his first book about the Lost Generation.  He realizes that it was a lot about Cynthia.  When he gets his first pay check for the book, he takes Cynthia with him to Africa for a safari.  Cynthia goes along and tries to pretend she enjoys the experience, but she the hunting and killing terrifies her. 

Cynthia gets pregnant.  She is afraid to tell Harry.  Harry tells her that her usual ways are those of a writer, whose business it is to buzz around to find out things.  The lifestyle is not suited for children.  This throws Cynthia into a depression.  She suffers a nasty fall and loses the child.  Harry is convinced that she did this deliberately.  He tells her: "You didn't have any right to do it."

They go to Spain for the bull fights and the Flamenco dancers.  Cynthia is still depressed and feels that she is a drag on Harry's life.  While Harry is away from the table at the local nightclub, Cynthia leaves with the dancer leaving the message that she's not coming back. 

Another flashback about a woman is about the sculptress Countess Liz.  He was attracted to her because of her elusiveness, a woman he would have to hunt down and capture.  But his nickname spells future trouble: "frigid Liz."  And Harry continues to be in love with Cynthia.  One day he thinks he sees Cynthia, but is turns out to be Helen (his future wife).  Cynthia finally writes Harry; from Spain.  Liz is jealous and tears up the letter.  This is the last straw for Harry and he walks out of the relationship. 

Harry heads for Spain only to find it deeply involved in the Spanish Civil War.  Before he knew it, he was carrying a gun fighting for the Republican side in the war.  Cynthia happens to be an ambulance driver on the same battlefield where Harry is fighting.  A shell hits the ambulance wounding Cynthia and trapping her under the ambulance.  Harry finds her there and they embrace, the two of them still very much in love with each other.  But Harry is too late.  Cynthia dies of her wounds.

Harry is down on himself.  He tells his Uncle Bill that he has destroyed his talent; a talent that he doesn't use.  He is out nightclubbing with two women at the same time.  His uncle is dying.  He leaves his nephew a legacy in the form of a riddle.  On the top of Mount Kilimanjaro is a dried and frozen carcass of a leopard.  What was the leopard seeking at that altitude?  One answer suggested by others is that the leopard got lost and died. 

Harry meets Helen for the second time, again mistaking her for Cynthia.  He confesses to Helen that he is lost. 

Back to the present.  Helen tells Harry that he has never been able to forgive her for not being Cynthia.  And she wants to know why he suddenly wanted to come to Kenya.  He tells her that he found the answer to the riddle.  It had been good here when he was with Cynthia and he though he could get his life back together and on the right track by returning to Kenya.  He says: "Might have made it too, except for that scratch."  What especially worries Harry is the multitude of vultures waiting atop a nearby tree. 

Harry is getting worse and worse and Helen becomes more and more worried.  A local witch doctor comes to try and help Harry, but this only serves to make Helen more worried and anxious. 

But just as it seems that Harry is going to die, the plane they have been expecting arrives.  "Mr. Johnson is here."  A symbol of his improving health is that the vultures have gone. 


Good movie about a man who is so blinded by his own ambition that he loses the love of his life and is left with a great sense of something missing in his life, despite his worldly success.  Harry is so blind that he has had little real success in establishing long-term relationships with women.  When he becomes sick he reviews the many relationships in his life, all of which he has screwed up.  And he is messing up his current relationship with Helen. 

But Harry has done some soul-searching and is trying to get his life on the right path.  He came on safari because his previous experience on safari was the best time of his life and he thought another safari would help him get his life together.  During his illness on safari, he realizes just how wonderful the devoted Helen is.  He is given a second chance in life, when he survives his illness. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:


See Hemingway, the Hunter of Death (2001) .



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