Saturday 18 August 2007

A Farewell to Arms (1932) Frank Borzage

As I'm sure I've detailed somewhere in some review or other, I haven't read a lot of American classic literature. I haven't really read that much English classic literature, at least compared to how much of it there is, but I'm way ahead on percentages compared to its American equivalent. I've read and enjoyed Hawthorne and Poe and Conrad, but haven't found my way to Ernest Hemingway yet. Like Steinbeck, Faulkner and Melville, I've never really had any desire to. Yet all three are massively important names and while I'm not reading their books yet, I'm seeing the films that were based on them.

A Farewell to Arms was a semi-autobiographical novel that followed the relationship of Lt Frederic Henry, an American serving during World War I as an ambulance driver in the Italian army, and Catherine Barkley, working as a nurse. The novel threads along through five books to detail how they meet, fall in love, part, reunite and finally have their child. Hardly inspiring stuff, it would seem, but it's been filmed twice with a third film based on it to a serious degree.

Frederic and Catherine meet towards the start of the film during an air raid, but are soon introduced by a mutual friend, an Italian soldier called Major Rinaldi. They fall for each other just like that, which stretches belief a little, even given the circumstances, but the acting makes up for it. Having the parts played by actors of the calibre of Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes lends plenty of credence that possibly shouldn't be there. Both are superb, the subtlety and sincerity of both and the discomfort that Cooper was always so good at showing working very much to the advantage of the whole thing.

Anyway, Lt Henry gets injured in the course of duty and ends up in the hospital where Catherine works, and they love each other, she gets pregnant against all rules, but he's sent out and has to escape his erstwhile captors by leaping into a river. They send each other a lot of letters, none of which arrive, and by the time Lt Henry finds out that she's now in Switzerland and as he rows over to find her she's busy giving birth while the enemy surrender, but this is a tragedy and the ending is as powerful as it is unfortunate.

Beyond Cooper and Hayes, there are few people of note here, but the story doesn't have much room for anyone else, especially as this is presumably a long book that's been condensed into only eighty minutes. Given that the finale steals probably a quarter of that, you can see how rushed everything else had to be to get to that point early enough. It's really Hayes and Cooper and very little else, only Adolphe Menjou being memorable as Major Rinaldi, but it's more than a little offputting that he keeps calling Gary Cooper 'baby'.

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