Ernest Hemmingway's literary masterworks have never translated well to the big screen. Perhaps it's because most of Hemmingway's celebrated novels are not really works of fiction at all, but thinly disguised first person accounts of the author's own expeditions around the world. This semi-autobiographical approach may read well as literature but it doesn't necessarily play well as pure cinema. Such is the case with Frank Borzage's adaptation of A Farewell to Arms (1932); a sumptuously mounted super production from Paramount that regrettably only comes to life in brief fits and sparks.
Difficult to assess the crux of the problem. Benjamin Glazer and Oliver Garrett's screenplay moves the action along at a swift clip (perhaps a little too swift), while Charles Lang's lush B&W cinematography transforms the internal decadences of the First World War into sublime cinema art. So too is the film blessed with first lady of the American theater, Helen Hayes, and matinee idol Gary Cooper, as the star-crossed lovers of this harrowing tale. Each is in fine form. Together they manage to generate more than a thread of empathy that makes their doomed romance all the more palpably engaging and tragic. Still, the thing doesn't come together as it should - a genuine mystery.
The title of Hemmingway's bleakest novel is excised from a 16th century poem by English dramatist, George Peele. The book cynically contrasts the intimacy of a personal loss with the more nationalized and epic destruction of a civilization. The film does not have the luxury of this comparative exposition or at 85 minutes even enough time for that matter to explore such dualities. Hence, we are left to align our interests with the rather banal story of an American Lieutenant in the Italian Ambulance Corp., Frederic Henry (Gary Cooper). A carousing devil-may-care sort, along with his suave sidekick, Maj. Rinaldi (Adolph Menjou); the two frequent the more salacious brothels and bars in search of diversions to numb their psychological wounds.
Rinaldi is the real womanizer; Frederic, his protégée. Yet, despite the many seductions they share, Frederic's heart is never in the same place as his loins. After a particularly vicious bombing raid, Frederic meets Nurse Catherine Barkley (Helen Hayes). At first she is very curt and standoffish. However, during a music recital Rinaldi encourages Catherine to share a drink with him in the garden. She agrees. When Rinaldi returns a few moments later with a bottle and two glasses he finds Frederic seated next to Catherine. Frederic attempts to take advantage of Catherine. She slaps his face, but then decides to allow him to kiss her anyway. She then reveals to him a broken heart over the loss of her boyfriend in the war and he discovers that she is a virgin. Learning of their affair - an entanglement forbidden by army protocol - Rinaldi has Catherine reassigned to a hospital in Milan. But when Frederic is wounded in battle he is taken to that very same hospital where his affair with Catherine continues.
Well enough to return to the front, Frederic departs without ever knowing he has impregnated his beloved. She flees to Switzerland to have the baby but writes Frederic most every day. Unfortunately, Rinaldi has decided for himself that Frederic does not need any more 'distractions'. He confiscates the letters and files them away. Meanwhile, Frederic continues to write Catherine at the hospital in Milan - unaware that she is no longer there. Frantic to learn what has happened, Frederic deserts the army. He is discovered by Rinaldi who reluctantly tells Frederic where Catherine is. But Rinaldi has forwarded Catherine's unopened letters to Frederic back to her. Fearing that this means Frederic is dead, Catherine suffers a collapse. Her baby is delivered prematurely and stillborn. Frederic arrives in Switzerland to find her gravely ill. And although Catherine's faith in Frederic and their love is restored with this reunion, it comes too late to save her broken heart. She dies in Frederic's arms, just as the town's steeple bells begin to peel, heralding the armistice between Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
A Farewell to Arms has its moments to be sure. And certainly, this adaptation is light-years ahead of its 1957 remake – a lumbering affair co-starring a very wooden Jennifer Jones and unconvincing Rock Hudson. Yet, on the whole the story simply does not gel - even as a straight forward romance. The first third is very strong, with Cooper earnestly excelling as the dreamy-eyed Lothario. But from the moment his Frederic meets Catherine that charisma evaporates; less appealing as a lover than a ‘don’t fence me in’ stud. Helen Hayes is an odd choice for Catherine.
As an actress she's more than adequate. But as a woman made desirable to a man who, arguably, has had plenty of them, she is less so. It's hard to see why Cooper's Frederic would be so intoxicated by Haye's sexually inexperienced ingénue. The hurdle in this explanation is never entirely resolved and, as the affair between Catherine and Frederic blossoms it becomes even more of a perplexing issue. There are flashes of chemistry between Cooper and Hayes, but these are fleeting at best. The overriding arch in their romance is absent. In the final analysis, A Farewell to Arms is like a diamond in the rough; attractive but with a serious flaw running through it, never entirely buffed out.
The same might be said for Kino Lorber's Blu-ray release of the film. Remastered from original 35mm fine grain elements, the image is fairly impressive in its reproduction of film grain. Contrast levels are very good with deep blacks and clean whites. But age related artifacts are everywhere and distract on more than one occasion. Overall, the image is sharp, exposing a fair amount of fine detail. There are, however, moments when the elements lapse into a murky soup of soft focus and weaker than expected tonality. The audio is mono as original recorded. it exhibits consistent hiss and pop throughout. Save three trailers there are NO extras to consider.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)