After I graduated from college, my efforts to watch as many different movies as possible began in earnest. There are, naturally, many different paths a person can take on such a quest, and I’ve tried almost all of them — watching more new movies than ever before, acquainting myself with major world directors past and present, filling in the gaps of Disney animated films, French New Wave films, and so on. One project that explored widely but not especially deeply was my goal of completing “top 10” lists for every year of cinema back to 1920. When I’d given ten movies a rating of 3 stars or more, I’d move on to another year. It was a way to set a baseline for the whole sweep of cinema history. To that end, I first watched Frank Borzage’s A Farewell to Arms (1932) in April 2014. The film was part of a box set I had received for Christmas, filled with other public domain movies on rather poor-quality DVDs. Despite the fuzzy images and what I only recently learned was a post-Production Code cut of the film that excised the more risqué passages, the film still impressed me for some memorable directorial flourishes and the earned sweetness of the story. Some combination of melodrama and Gary Cooper held me back, however. So, I marked the film off for further study.
Adapted from the Ernest Hemingway novel of the same name, A Farewell to Arms is the story of Americans in Europe during the Great War. Frederic Henry (Cooper), who first arrived in Italy to study architecture, works as an ambulance driver for the Italian army, while Catherine Barkley (Helen Hayes) works as a nurse for the English Red Cross. The war brings them together suddenly and just as swiftly separates them. And then brings them together again, when Frederic is wounded. They fall in love, but misunderstandings and the realities of army service conspire to prevent their happiness. The story ends with a moment of chilling irony, as armistice is declared just when the war claims its final victim, albeit indirectly.
I haven’t read the novel, so I have to trust secondhand accounts that say the film takes a much different tack with the material than Hemingway preferred. Another interpretation of the story could easily focus on the futility of war and its capacity to shatter all of humanity’s noblest dreams. Borzage turns that idea on its head, telling a story of love’s capacity to outshine such circumstances. The movie’s first twenty minutes contain three amusing meetings between Frederic and Catherine. In the first, he catches her spying on another nurse’s dismissal, standing on a ladder to look through a window at the meeting. Second, on the night of an air raid, the two bump into each other in the dark and Frederic mistakes Catherine for the prostitute he’d been with a few minutes before. Later, at a party, they are properly introduced and ultimately head into the garden for some affection. In quintessential Pre-Code fashion, the scene is interrupted by a fade-to-black, followed by a discussion, in no uncertain terms, about what the young lovers have just done.
All this is prologue. The last hour of the film is possessed of a fine symmetry, in which first Frederic then Catherine must go under the knife and remain bedridden while the other character attends to him or her. These sequences bridge the vast philosophical gulf between marriage and warfare, childbirth and death. The characters are linked via individual shots, as well, even when they’re physically apart. They both drop their heads on the pillow and look up at the ceiling after their garden encounter. At a crisis moment near the end of the film, a closeup of Catherine’s fist clutching a sheet dissolves into a shot of Frederic’s hands clenched over boat oars. Combined with the actors’ strong chemistry, these parallels allow the film to make a great case against a war that would drive these people apart, even though there are only a few minutes of actual violence.
Subtlety of expression is consistent throughout the film. The camera movement is fluid but not ostentatious, with some lovely crane shots. The visual coup I best remembered from my first viewing was the scene in which the camera takes a subjective point of view, looking up at the ceiling as Frederic gets wheeled into a hospital room. This is the flashiest moment in the film, and even this is clearly motivated by intimacy with the characters. The story’s melodramatic beats, still familiar more than eighty years later, are hit with conviction, at least. Gary Cooper is an actor whose virtues have been known to escape me, but he always seems like the kind of guy who could fall in love quickly and hard, and he does great work with a delicate monologue toward the end. Helen Hayes is every bit his equal, attacking a role that requires her to absorb multiple tragedies.
After finding a complete and pristine version of the film on YouTube, then quickly skimming through the DVD again, I found that I had never seen a couple of this movie’s best moments until this week. I wasn’t annoyed by this. It’s always salutary to get a reminder of what made Pre-Code cinema distinctive, and wonderful. It certainly meant that I couldn’t demote the film from my original star rating. Looking over my list from 1932, however, I also don’t see A Farewell to Arms leapfrogging over Love Me Tonight and Grand Hotel to reach the next echelon. It’s not that I blame Adolphe Menjou, who lends a lot of verve to his Italian character. But the role itself is so completely functional, always directing Frederic to wherever the plot needs him to be at a given moment. Menjou is just one symptom of an overall strategy of contrivances that, despite their symbolic weight, push me away from the film to some degree. These minor complaints are enough for me to keep the film perched at 3 ½ stars, but a deeper exploration of melodrama could ultimately expand my appreciation.