Blog Directory CineVerse: Say hello to this 90-year-old "Farewell"

Say hello to this 90-year-old "Farewell"

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, a popular, highly acclaimed, and semi-autobiographical story set during World War I, was adapted to the big screen in 1932. Often, a film of this vintage can’t hide its creakiness, but Frank Borzage’s take on the tale holds up fairly well for a 90-year-old movie. Such was the conclusion of our CineVerse group, which examined this picture last week and discussed the following points (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

What were the most interesting, memorable, unexpected, or surprising aspects of A Farewell To Arms?

  • Helen Hayes was actually a bigger box-office star at this time in Hollywood than Gary Cooper, and she gets first billing. Dubbed the "First Lady of the American Theatre", she is one of only 13 individuals to win all four main American entertainment awards – Oscar, Emmy, Tony, and Grammy.
  • The film features an unforgettable subjective camera sequence in which the POV is Frederic’s, shown as a patient in the hospital. The scene ends with Catherine converging on the camera lens, embracing Frederick and us.
  • This is a pre-code Hollywood film, meaning the production code/censorship rules were not enforced at this time. Hence, there are elements at play in this 1932 film that would’ve been considered controversial for its day, including the notion of premarital sex, pregnancy out of wedlock, a nurse engaging in an intimate affair with her patient, a soldier going AWOL and abandoning his responsibilities, soldiers visiting a brothel, and relatively candid discussions about sex and sin. Recall Catherine’s line: “I wish we could do something really sinful; everything we do feels so innocent and right.”
    • Some things, however, were off-limits, including nudity and the showing of a late-stage pregnant woman; Catherine’s presumably large belly is cleverly hidden throughout the later part of the movie.
  • The filmmakers impressively employ expressionistic and symbolic visuals to represent the shock of combat and horrors of war, using, for example, shadow and darkness juxtaposed with eruptions of light to depict the explosions of bombs and mortar rounds. Creative montages are also used two depict various battles and the passage of time.
  • Likewise, Borzage and company invoke a highly romanticized and symbolic visual style in the concluding shot, in which we see Frederick lift the dead body of Catherine to the window as the frame grows increasingly brighter, fading to white as we hear the peal of church bells and observe the fluttering of doves taking wing.
  • This was the first of many cinematic takes on Hemingway tales, although the famous author did not like the finished cinematic product by Borzage.

Major themes

  • The power of true love can trump country, honor, or creed.
  • Star-crossed lovers and tragic romance.
  • The dichotomies of life: Union and separation, life and death, love and hate, war and peace. These pairing opposites are suggested throughout the film.
    • wrote: “In a war that’s focused on cleaving, on separating the strength and unity of nations (think the line, think the fronts, think the social mores), this couple fights to stay whole. And just like the nation they are aiding in an ugly war, they are too forced into chaos and pain, witnessing a great unraveling as hope becomes scarce.”
  • The cruel, savage, and unfair nature of war and the suffering it causes everyone involved.

Similar works

  • The remake in 1957 starring Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones
  • All Quiet on the Western Front
  • The English Patient
  • Paths of Glory
  • For Whom the Bell Tolls
  • Waterloo Bridge
  • Birdsong
  • The Shopworn Angel
  • Romeo and Juliet
  • Gone With the Wind

Other film adaptations of Hemingway stories

  • The Old Man and the Sea
  • For Whom the Bell Tolls
  • The Snows of Kilimanjaro
  • The Sun Also Rises
  • The Killers
  • To Have and Have Not
  • The Gun Runners

Other works by Frank Borzage

  • 7th Heaven (1927)
  • Street Angel (1928)
  • Bad Girl (1931)
  • History Is Made at Night (1937)
  • The Mortal Storm (1940)
  • Moonrise (1948)

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