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A truncated labour – why Frank Borzage’s 1932 adaptation of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms fails to capture the subtlety or indeed the story of the novel
When adapting a book for the big screen, it’s of course necessary to cut some things out. It’s unsurprising that Frank Borzage chose to focus on the romantic element of A Farewell to Arms: the forbidden love affair between Lieutenant Frederic Henry (Gary Cooper) and nurse Catherine Barkley (Helen Hayes). Hollywood loves a good romance, after all. It does seem odd, though, that a film remastered to coincide with the centenary of World War One misses out so much of the war itself, and in particular the atmosphere and the attitude to the conflict that the novel captured so well.
Frederic Henry is an American who serves as an ambulance driver in the Italian army. Through his friend Rinaldi, he meets nurse Catherine Barkley, whom he seduces. Despite it being forbidden by army regulations, they continue their affair, and Catherine becomes pregnant. Separated by the war, Henry and Catherine are eventually re-united in Switzerland, where the birth takes place and the story reaches its tragic conclusion.
Taken as a standalone story, the film has not aged well. Though both Cooper and Hayes were huge stars at the time, the romance between their characters comes across as histrionic and difficult to believe. Since this is the main strand of the story, the climax of the film lacks significant emotional impact; the love between Henry and Catherine is just not real enough for the audience to feel their tragedy.
Cooper and Hayes do seem to come alive, however, during scenes with other characters. Rinaldi (Adolphe Menjou) and Henry have a real rapport as they tease each other and joke around. When Catherine and her fellow nurse Miss Ferguson argue, “Fergie” perfectly conveys the mixture of jealousy and genuine concern she feels about Henry and Catherine’s affair.
The film justifies its Academy Award for Best Cinematography. In one powerful montage, soldiers are sleek and wet in the driving rain, fields of white crosses are blown to bits, a man takes a coat from a corpse for himself, a soldier with his face in bandages strikes a thin-limbed pose in the doorway of a hospital. Particularly harrowing is the shot of a machine gun as it mows down retreating soldiers and civilians alike. With the camera focused solely on the gun, it seems almost unmanned and mechanical.
Borzage makes some fairly big changes to the plot of Hemingway’s novel. Rinaldi, for instance, is recast as the jealous, spurned lover. In the film, Henry very definitely steals Catherine from Rinaldi. In the novel, though Rinaldi is obviously a little put out that Catherine prefers Henry to himself, he very much takes it in his stride. This cuckolding certainly doesn’t launch him into the deceitful role he plays in the film: firstly, he conspires to have Catherine transferred to Milan; secondly, he intercepts Catherine and Henry’s letters to each other, ensuring they have no way to communicate and find each other again.
It’s a strange, clumsy change to the plot, which tries to introduce conflict at the expense of the actual conflict: the war. By dedicating screen time to these inventions, the film omits key scenes such as Henry shooting a fellow soldier for refusing to help dig an ambulance out of the mud. It also changes the reason for Henry’s “desertion” from the army. In the film, Henry deserts to go find Catherine. In the book, he escapes because during a retreat, Italian troops start shooting their own officers, whom they hold responsible for the Austrian victory.
What the film loses in its cursory treatment of the war, it partly makes up for in characterisation. Viewers see beyond the limits of Hemingway’s first person narration, and supporting characters get their own scenes. Catherine particularly benefits from this. Sitting in her Swiss hotel and writing to Henry, she details how comfortable she is and the luxuriousness of her room. Meanwhile, the camera moves around the room to reveal that it is actually run down and threadbare. This one scene helps the viewer understand Catherine’s bravery, making her more than just the object of Henry’s desire as she can often seem in the novel.
Whilst it may just be wishful progressive thinking, there’s even the suggestion that Borzage was critical of the novel’s depiction of Catherine. In one of the final scenes Catherine is seriously ill and Henry is about to come into the room. Catherine asks the two attendant nurses to pass her handbag so she can make herself up for Henry. “He never liked me to be pale,” she explains, at which point the two nurses look at each other in complete disbelief. It’s the exact same expression I made every time I read phrases in the novel like “”I’ll try and not make trouble for you. I know I’ve made trouble now. But haven’t I always been a good girl until now?” or “There isn’t any me. I’m you. Don’t make up a separate me.”
Unfortunately, any nuance or subtlety of character is destroyed by the film’s ending. In contrast to Hemingway’s “less is more” style, which is emotive precisely because of its lack of emotion, Borzage opts for full blown Hollywood melodrama at the moment of tragedy. Cooper and Hayes’ performances are brash and bathetic, accompanied by the standard Hollywood “sad ending” violins. In yet another deviation from the book, Borzage decides to make this the moment that armistice is declared, meaning that the denouement occurs against the backdrop of bells ringing out the victory of peace.
Because the end is so off key – and because the romance was so unconvincing – as a standalone film A Farewell to Arms is unlikely to endure in the same way that its namesake continues to do. Neither does it serve as a good adaptation of the novel, since unlike Catherine’s “protracted labour” (which is, coincidentally, much shorter in the film) it is an all too brief treatment of Hemingway’s work. Much is rushed, condensed or simply missed out.