A Farewell to Arms: war as it would play out in heaven

Frank Borzage’s adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s novel A Farewell to Arms is an opinion divider of the highest order. Although Hemingway wasn’t a fan, the director ranked it as one of his finest films, perhaps because the final version explored the power and implications of eternal love – a theme that Borzage would return to again and again through out his career. Whilst these are undoubtedly worthy filmmaking considerations, they sit uneasily alongside Hemingway’s tough-talking, no-nonsense pessimism. At its core, A Farewell to Arms is a sentimental take on a semi-autobiographical novel that concerns itself much more with the endurance of love rather than senselessness of conflict.

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Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes take the lead roles playing Lt. Frederic Henry and Catharine Barclay – he’s an American ambulance driver, she’s an English nurse. Both are stationed on the Italian Front, and meet by chance during an air raid when a drunken Frederic caresses Catherine’s foot – much to her disgust. Swiftly – and predictably – love blossoms after Frederic’s best friend Major Rinaldi (Alphonse Menjou) formally introduces the pair, despite jealous Rinaldi’s attempts to thwart the affair and the disapproval of the army.

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As it’s Pre-Code there are loose morals aplenty, including an implied sex scene in a churchyard (a particularly effective merging of the sacred and the profane), sex – and pregnancy before marriage – and Frederic and Rinaldi’s brothel jaunts. If that paints Frederic in a bad light, the mark on his character is not unfounded. He’s a heavy drinker who, later in the film will hide empty bottles under his hospital bed mattress, and a womaniser – by no stretch a hero. Of the wound that leads to his hospital internment he observes: “I was wounded while eating cheese.”

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One of the most enduring aspects of Frederic and Catherine’s relationship stems from each actor’s physical attributes. He towers over her (indeed, her head barely reaches his armpit) but his physical size is not matched by mettle – it’s Catharine who has the inner strength and the presence of mind to act in a way that preserves both their interests. She is strong, he is fragile.

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Borzage wasn’t one to let weakness of mind get in the way of sentiment. Indeed the churchyard love scene is shimmering and intensely romantic – this is war as it would play out in heaven. This fundamental incompatibility between Borzage’s soft, almost celestial aesthetics and the horror of Hemingway’s war is disjointed and unsatisfying, particularly frustrating when Borzage proves that he can do ‘war’ – indeed some of movie’s most emotional scenes come straight from the battlefield. In one scene, rows of white crosses marking the fallen, other sequences are marked by nightmarish Expressionist-inspired visuals that describe the pain and brutality of war. Frederic and Catherine’s love seems to exist on a different plane – they might be impacted by the logistics of war, but their shimmering bubble remains intact.

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Yet it’s this transcendental love that elevates Borzage’s version of war above other films from the era. In the film’s final scene – as the bells celebrating the Armistice ring out across Milan – Frederic lifts Catherine’s body off the bed, her white gown trailing behind her. He turns to face the window, looking out across the city. “Peace… peace”, he whispers in a voice full of despair. At this moment he’s referring both to her and the events unfolding outside – finally the external and internal a completely intertwined. In this scene, the soft light illumination utilised in the churchyard love scene is an effective emotional signifier – as both Catherine and Frederic accept the separation the screen is infused with an almost celestial light – this is a love that will last and endure, no matter what.

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Whilst it should be assumed that Catherine has died in childbirth, the ending is deliberately ambiguous, and the film is all the more powerful for it. In films, death – and the discourse around it – often becomes a cliché, a simple narrative device to move a story along or create emotion or elicit sympathy from the viewer. A sad ending (no matter how ambiguous) forces the audience to consider what the end of life really means, how it resonates on a personal level. The celebrations outside serve only to highlight the idea that despite the inevitability and finality of death, life – and love – can and will go on. It has to – both are unfathomable and mysterious.

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Interestingly, Paramount asked Borzage to film a happy and a sad ending, and made both versions available to cinema owners, suggesting they choose the one that would best resonate with their particular audience. Apparently Hemingway was particularly unimpressed with this pick-and-mix approach, feeling that a ‘happy’ ending softened his vision. He was probably right, but audiences – fresh from the real horrors of WWI – might have desired something more escapist and been prepared to overlook sentimentality. And Hemingway wasn’t so unimpressed that he refused to sell the rights to subsequent novels to Hollywood.

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But in truth, judging Borzage’s A Farewell to Arms based simply on how faithful an adaptation it is misses the mark – after all, writers are often dismissive of other creative takes on their vision (especially where personal memories are concerned), and a ‘good’ book doesn’t always equate to a ‘good’ film. It’s a poor adaptation, that’s much more Borzage than Hemingway, but it remains a thoughtful film from an often-overlooked director. Borzage’s mediations on love and date were – and remain – totally resonant and universal. It’s just a shame his tendency to illuminate them up in transcendental romanticism will likely put some viewers off…

Further reading: Frank Borzage: The life and films of a Hollywood Romantic

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2 thoughts on “A Farewell to Arms: war as it would play out in heaven

  1. Hey! I’m covering this film for an upcoming blogathon, and I will link to your post. It’ll be a tag-team film review!

    Love, LOVE, how you wrote this, and you’ve given me things to think about the next time I see it. Yes, it’s not a great adaptation but, as you said, it’s still a thoughtful movie with lots to say.

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