Again, I must confess that I have not read yet another revered American Classic. I have not read A Farewell to Arms…But from the admittedly minor things I know about Hemingway’s prose and general tone, this film adaptation is certainly not a perfectly faithful translation of its source material. Not by any stretch of the imagination.
However, I do know at least a little something about Frank Borzage a filmmaker that time has been less kind to, though he contributed some quality pictures during the silent era and during the ensuing generation of talkies — even a couple of reputed classics. And yet watching A Farewell to Arms you can see his philosophies working themselves into the story line — the very themes that he would repeat again and again in many of his movies.
It soon becomes apparent that Borzage’s film is not about a war at all though WWI is a major plot point. He would examine an analogous idea with The Mortal Storm. Its his predilection not to focus so much on the carnage or alienation of war and more so on the effects that such a cataclysmic event has on the lives of those thrust into the middle of it. So his narrative borrows from Hemingway but hinges on this idea of lovers battling against the wiles of the world through the sheer euphoria of their romantic fling and yet it proves to be more than transient.
There’s without question a verisimilitude and a candor to the portrayals of Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes as said lovers — an ambulance driver and a nurse. Two seemingly unextraordinary individuals who nevertheless become extraordinary in each other’s arms. They will go to such great lengths to remain together despite the obstacles hindering them on every side. Perhaps it’s heightened by the times but still, there is this general belief in what they do on the part of the audience — that they can actually fall in love and will do whatever it takes to stay together.
Even if it’s not wholly plausible, they lend that needed credence to the parts. Their emotions feel genuine even as their romance gets crippled by the very circumstances they find themselves in. Where years are sped up into days and marriage must be forged in the most humble of moments. There’s no time or space for a normal life with a normal love affair even if that’s what both parties desire. It cannot be so.
Gary Cooper exudes a gentle tenderness in the majority of his scenes and he manages to be as vulnerable as we’ve ever seen him in the part because this romance tears him apart. Helen Hayes is an actress that I, unfortunately, know very little about but she strikes me as a beauty like Claudette Colbert and yet I find an easier time liking her and by some form of transference, the same goes for the character that she plays. It’s also crucial to note the splendorous black & white cinematography of Charles Lang which paints the contours of this love affair with expressionistic shades while never quite allowing us to forget the war at hand.
Though we can compare Borzage’s film with the original novel it seems equally compelling to juxtapose this cinematic adaptation of A Farewell to Arms with Joseph von Sternberg’s romance, Morocco, of only two years prior also starring Gary Cooper and Adolphe Menjou with von Sternberg’s muse Marlene Dietrich. Hayes doesn’t have the same gravitas or allure of Dietrich but that actually serves her better in this film with what Borzage is trying to accomplish.
Because this story is a tragedy as much as it is a romance of faithful devotion. Whereas von Sternberg seems most interested in the locality and the depictions of his stars — allowing them to have looser morals, you could make the argument that Borzage film holds a greater stake in its thematics and what such a romance can represent in such a turbulent world. The Great War is only an unfortunate backdrop to play the action against and it’s unfortunate because love is a rapturous thing. But it’s the many evils of the world that tear it asunder. The kind of troubles that force two people to bid each other a tearful adieu even if it’s the last thing they want in the world.