Based on Ernest Hemingway’s story, an old fisherman in Cuba is helped by a small boy. After a long streak of bad luck, the old man hooks a great fish and struggles to land it and bring it back to shore.
In a small boat the old man (Spencer Tracy) has not taken a fish in the 84 days. A boy (Felipe Pazos) no longer fishes with the old man. The old man is still cheerful, but the boy is sad that the old man comes in each afternoon with an empty boat. Men help them bring the boat on the shore. The old man carries the mast, sail, and his equipment to the town. The boy offers the old man a beer, and he accepts. The old man has become humble. The boy offers to get sardines for him to use for bait, and he thanks him. The old man carries the mast to his shack, and the boy helps carry the tools. The old man sits down and hopes the 85th day will be lucky. The boy wants to go with him again, but the old man says no. They remember when he caught big fish every day. The old man says the boy is in a lucky boat, and he is not his son. The old man reads yesterday’s newspaper, and the boy goes out.
The boy sees boys playing baseball but goes on and orders a dinner for two to go. The café proprietor says the old man may be too old.
The old man is sleeping in his chair, and the boy wakes him. The boy has brought supper and tells the old man he cannot fish without eating. They eat in the dark and talk about baseball and the manager John McGraw. The old man says DiMaggio’s father was a fisherman. After dinner the boy leaves. The old man lays down on newspapers over the springs of his bed. He dreams of beaches, the surf, and native boats. He smells the land breeze and goes on dreaming of the Canary Islands and lions playing.
At dawn the old man wakes up and gets dressed. He walks down the road with a lamp and gently wakes the boy in his house. They carry the equipment down the road along with other fishermen carrying their masts. They stop at the café, and the boy goes out to get the sardines. The old man drinks coffee and does not eat anything.
They walk to the boat, and the old man sets out before sunrise. The boy wishes him good luck. Many boats are going out to sea. The old man uses the oars. He sees flying fish whom he considers his friends. He feels sorry for the birds who find little. He thinks their life is harder than his. As the sun rises, he can see the other boats spread out.
Alone at sea the old man has four lines on poles in the water with the bait at different depths. The sardines cover the hooks. He hopes for good luck today. He sees a man-of-war bird and says he found something. One of his lines comes loose, and the old man pulls up a fish he can use for bigger bait. The old man is used to talking aloud to himself now. He sees another line move and pulls in a heavy fish. He lets the line out and thinks it must be very large. He urges the fish to eat the sardines and the tuna. He wonders if he is gone, but he realizes he was turning. The fish takes the line out. He tells the fish to eat the bait so that the hook will puncture his heart. The old man begins to jerk the line, and he feels the fish is hooked. The fish moves away slowly, and he holds the line taut. The fish pulls the boat slowly. He wraps the line around his back and says he can’t keep it up.
Four hours later the fish is still towing the skiff out to sea. The old man can no longer see land, but he still has not seen the fish. He does not want the fish to break the line and so lets him go.
The sun has set, and the old man wishes he could see him. He sees two porpoises by the boat. He pities the great fish and wonders how old he is. He says the fish could ruin him with a jump. The old man thinks he is a male.
That night the fish keeps moving the same way toward deep water. One of the other lines is pulled into the water, and he cuts the line, losing his hook and line. The old man hears a sound. His back is tired, and he hopes the fish will jump. A small bird lands on his boat, and the tired bird jumps on to his finger. The old man says he must take his chances like every man and bird. Another sound is heard, and he says the fish is feeling it now. That pull caused his hand to bleed. He wishes the boy was there to cut up the bonita. He uses his knife to cut it and eats some raw fish. Another pull causes his left hand to cramp. He puts it in water and does not blame the hand.
In the morning the sea is calm. He asks his hand how it feels. He prays the cramp will go, and he wonders what his plan is. He says the fish is coming up, and a great swordfish jumps out of the sea into the air. The old man says he is longer than the skiff. He is grateful they are not as intelligent as the humans who kill them, though they are more noble and able. He wonders why he jumped.
In the late afternoon it begins to rain, and the old man is suffering. He prays that he may catch the fish and promises to make a pilgrimage. He thinks about baseball and a tavern in Casablanca.
The old man years ago is arm-wrestling an African man (Don Blackman), and many are betting during the contest that lasted many hours. The African makes his move, but the fisherman turns it and wins in the morning before the men have to go to work.
At sunset the old man has taken a dolphin on the small line. He is eating it raw, but he prefers it cooked. He sees the stars coming out and thinks of them as his friends. The fish is also his friend. He is glad he does not have to kill the stars, moon, or sun. The old man has not slept in a day and a half. He decides to rest and puts his head on his arm. He dreams of many porpoises mating, of sleeping in his village, of the lions, and of whales mating.
The full moon is up, and he wakes up to a jerk in the line. He sees the fish jumping and pulls the line. He will make him pay for the line. His left hand is bloody, but he keeps pulling. The fish is getting closer to the boat and keeps jumping in the air. The fish goes down, but the old man knows he cannot go deep because of the air in him.
At dawn the old man is very tired and asks God for help, but he is too tired to pray. He sees a dark shadow go under the boat, and then he sees how big the fish is. He feels faint and pulls the line. He intends to get him alongside the boat. He turns the fish and strains at the pulling. He uses his last strength to get him close. He throws a harpoon at the heart of the fish and kills him. The fish floats in the water. The old man says now he must do the slave work. He heads to the southwest with the fish tied to the side of the boat in the water. His head feels unclear, and he opens to bring him in. He takes a drink of water from his jug.
An hour later the first shark attacks the dead fish. He takes the harpoon and throws it into the back of the shark which swims off. The old man holds the line, but it breaks. The shark took a large bite out of the great fish which bleeds profusely. He expects others will come now. He felt he was hit when the fish was hit. He realizes that the fish is leaving a trail of blood for all the sharks. He wonders what he can do and lashes his knife to one of the oars. The sun is hot, and he sees two sharks coming. He picks up the oar. When the sharks start eating the fish, he tries to stab them with the knife on the oar. One shark is wounded and bleeds. The sharks keep eating, and he keeps stabbing at them; but the knife breaks. He uses the tiller to hit them, and finally the sharks swim away. He feels sorry for the fish and for himself.
At sunset he says he violated his luck when he went too far out. He tries to stay awake and hopes for luck. He has nothing left with which to buy luck. He wishes he could see the lights of Havana.
At night his body hurts, and he no longer talks to the mutilated fish. He apologizes to the fish for going out too far. He says they have killed many sharks. He wonders what he will do if they come in the night. He hopes he will not have to fight them again. He sees several sharks coming and clubs them as they feed, but he realizes it is useless. He becomes exhausted and falls down in the boat. He realizes he is beaten, sits down, and puts the tiller back in its place.
The sea is calm, and he feels he is near the beach. He looks forward to bed. He wonders what beat him and says he went out too far. He thinks that man can be destroyed but not defeated. He sails into the harbor, and no one is there to help him.
The old man carries the mask and realizes how tired he is. He walks slowly through the town and falls down. He hears a cat and gets up.
The next day the boy runs to the shack to see if the old man has come back. The old man is asleep, and the boy comes in and notices his bloody hands. The boy cries and covers the old man before going out. The runs to town. He goes to the boat and sees people measuring the length of the fish’s skeleton. The boy gets coffee and takes it back to the old man. As he pours it, the old man wakes up, smiles, and drinks some. The old man says he is not lucky anymore, but the little boy says he will fish with him and bring luck. The old man says they need another knife that will not break. The boy asks how long before he will go out again, and he says three days. The old man asks him to bring him the papers he missed, and the boy goes out.
The tourists notice the long backbone of the great fish by the shore. The proprietor explains to them what happened.
The old man is sleeping, and the boy sits by him. He dreams of the lions again and the shore.
This drama depicts the difficult life of an old fisherman who has adapted during his declining years in poverty; but he is glad to have the companionship of a fine boy who helps take care of him. The story explores the struggle between man and nature in a world where all animals have to eat to live.