When I’ve discussed adaptations in the past, the subjects tended to be on the more faithful side for good or for worse. This week’s topic – the 1932 movie version of A Farewell to Arms – is a little different. It’s based on the novel of the same name by Ernest Hemingway in the most basic way. It retains the core elements of the story, but it changes the tone. Even though the film doesn’t fully capture the spirit of the book, it’s still a fascinating watch.
This is where I would normally discuss the changes from the page to the screen, yet writers Benjamin Glazer and Oliver H. P. Garrett condense everything but the love story between soldier Frederick Henry (played by Gary Cooper, who is no stranger to this website) and nurse Catherine Barkley (played by Helen Hayes). Many of the supporting characters are drastically reduced to the point that I don’t think their names are even mentioned. What secondary roles are left are more integrated into the story. The priest (played by Jack La Rue) unofficially weds Frederick and Catherine, and Rinaldi (played by Adolphe Menjou who charmingly says baby a lot) intercepts letters between the lovers when the nurse flees to Switzerland. Additionally, the cynicism about the war is only present when various soldiers discuss how much they want the conflict to end and when the montage of Frederick and the other men (injured and non-injured) walking in the rain on their way to the next battle occurs.
This is the only adaptation of a Hemingway novel that I’ve seen which understands the entire plot is simple. After all, that author’s strengths lie mostly in writing short stories. There’s plenty of filler in the book, so director Frank Borzage trims a lot of fat out to emphasize the Florence-Nightingale-Syndrome romance. And since that love story is already the focal point, this move makes a lot of sense.
Speaking of that romance, it was still ok. Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes have fine chemistry, which made me believe in their love for each other. However, I couldn’t help but notice the absurd height difference between them. I know that there are couples like this in real life, so it may be a me thing. Also, it’s a bit rape-y in the beginning. Granted this is present in the novel, but after Catherine slaps Frederick, they have sex off-screen with the former yelling “No, no, wait!”
In addition, their individual performances were okay. Gary Cooper is fine. He plays Frederick as one would if he was assigned to embody a stoic alpha male who is surprisingly able to hold his liquor aka a Hemingway Hero. His best work involves humor like his nonchalant reaction when the nurse discovers the alcohol under his hospital bed and describing the woman’s arch in architectural terms while drunk at the beginning of the movie. He’s also great with his surprise reactions, especially after Frederick discovers that Catherine is pregnant. Even though Gary Cooper has the reputation of being stiff and not always 100% there, I wonder if it was the little things that made people like Hemingway himself like his performance. As for Helen Hayes, she plays Catherine with kindness and love-stricken well. She also captures the character’s maturity (something I forgot to mention in my book review of A Farewell to Arms) well. She tackles this with dignity and some confronting. This is especially when she handles the character’s feelings about the rain. However, even though Catherine is from England, Hayes never attempts to do an English accent, but this is just a nitpick.
Another reason why I couldn’t get that much invested in the romance was that I admired the filmmaking more. Borzage is considered to be an auteur kind of director known for his romantic melodramas with beautiful cinematography. A Farewell to Arms is a great example of his work. The overall story is one of love set in the backdrop of war, so naturally, he emphasizes the romance even though there are plenty of times where both aspects could’ve been integrated more instead of one being here and the other being over there (side note: I like the bombs going off during the opening credits).
As for the cinematography, it’s gorgeous to look at. Cinematographer Charles Lang Jr. imposes a haze on most of the movie along with charcoal grays and black shadows. It’s a fantasy element that’s not present in a novel by an author best known for his objective realism, yet it still works for the film because it’s saying that love blurs reality. Moreover, I have to talk about the two crowning jewels which allowed the movie to win the Oscar for Best Cinematography at the 1932-1933 Oscars. One involves the closing shot, in which Frederick lifts Catherine from her hospital bed after she dies. He holds her by the window like a groom carrying his bride into the threshold. Although the ending is not what Hemingway wrote in the book, I love the composition and how it’s juxtaposed with the celebration of the war ending. Frederick can’t honor this event because he just lost the love of his life. My only complaint is that the “Peace, peace” line is too on the nose for the comparison. Moreover, there’s the long, single POV shot when Frederick is taken to the hospital in Milan after he gets injured. Viewers never see his face while various characters like Catherine and other nurses tend to him (side note: I love how it gets away with a makeout session between Frederick and Catherine). It definitely shows a patient has to deal with while being bedridden. From what I understand, it was one of the first films to have this kind of shot. These days, it’s mostly taken for granted as people constantly see this technique employed, especially in video games. But back at that time, it was something new that audiences hadn’t seen before. The gorgeous and unique cinematography is likely the reason why the movie received the Academy Award in that category.
With all the wonderful things to say about the movie and its filmcraft techniques, there were some decisions that demonstrated more of Borzage’s skills as a filmmaker as opposed to enhancing the story. For example, when the injured Frederick is taken to the hospital in Milan, there’s a shot of a train moving along on the tracks. Above it, the word Milano magically appears above it and fades away. I get that it wanted to indicate where the train was going, but having a physical sign saying Milano would’ve done the same trick, but more effectively. Later, as Frederick and Catherine spend more time together at the hospital while the former is recovering, the movie decides that it’s a good idea to have a weird puppet transition. It starts off with the months being shown on screen with each letter on a string. It concludes with two Italian marionettes singing a hand organ version of “Largo al factotum” (the Figaro song) from The Barber of Seville as Frederick, Catherine, and their friends watch. I get that this was to indicate the passage of time, and it does its job well. However, it took me out of the movie because of how strange it was. And yet, I admire it since it’s probably the only time that filmgoers like me will ever see a transition like that.
To summarize, the 1932 movie version of A Farewell to Arms is an interesting one to watch. It doesn’t capture the spirit of the novel, yet it’s translated well to the screen. Critics, filmmakers, and movie buffs can all admire the craft put into the film. Of course, this admiration for the filmmaking itself can distract from the story. Along with the people mentioned above, I would also recommend this movie to those looking for a war romance, and they already watched Casablanca and The English Patient. In addition, watch it on Blu-ray because that one contains the complete version. Of all the adaptations of Hemingway books that I’ve seen, this is the best one so far because it understands the source material in a specific way. Also, it turns out that there was another adaptation made in 1957 starring Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones. Stay tuned for that review!
Also, I recently recorded a guest appearance on The 300 Passions Podcast with Zita Short talking about the 1932 movie adaptation of A Farewell to Arms! We discussed the novel, Hemingway’s legacy, the film, and why the latter failed to make the cut on the American Film Institute’s 100 Years…100 Passions list. It’ll be my fourth time on that podcast. I had a blast like I usually do while on that podcast. Stay tuned for that episode!