Ernest Hemingway is without question one of America's greatest novelists, and such acclaimed, revered, and diverse achievements as 'The Sun Also Rises,' 'The Old Man and the Sea,' and 'For Whom the Bell Tolls' stand as testaments to his considerable talent. Hemingway's terse prose, vivid characters, and layered subtext continue to attract new generations of readers, yet sadly, the film adaptations of his novels often fail to match the power and complexity of the works upon which they are based...and that includes 'A Farewell to Arms.' Hollywood has tried three times to tackle Hemingway's semi-autobiographical chronicle of a disullusioned soldier in World War I and the nurse he loves, but has never quite succeeded in capturing the book's potent themes, preferring instead to focus on the doomed couple and their tragic affair.
The first version of 'A Farewell to Arms,' produced in 1932 and directed by Frank Borzage, remains the best, due in part to its striking visuals and the heartfelt performances of Helen Hayes and Gary Cooper. (Subsequent adaptations would star William Holden and Nancy Olson, and Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones.) Running a mere 89 minutes, the film can't encompass the breadth of Hemingway's opus, but as a simple wartime romance it exudes plenty of passion and longing, ecstasy and despair. Sprinkled throughout the screenplay are vague allusions to the larger ideas of disillusionment and rebelliousness that define the Lost Generation and permeate the novel, but regretfully they never get in the way of the love story that dominates the film and shrouds its anti-war message.
As a result, the movie's plot becomes little more than a series of agonizing separations and rapturous reunions, accented by a couple of health crises. Cooper plays the fiercely independent Lt. Frederic Henry (Cooper), an American ambulance driver and serial carouser, who meets vulnerable British nurse Catherine Barkley (Hayes) during an air raid. He's inebriated, but his charm still shines through, and an attraction develops. The desperate, uncertain atmosphere of war accelerates their relationship and intensifies their bond, yet the jealous Major Rinaldi (Adolphe Menjou) tries his best to thwart their happiness. Complications inevitably arise, testing the lovers' commitment and faith.
Produced before the notorious Hayes Office began monitoring and policing the content of Hollywood films, 'A Farewell to Arms' contains a refreshing frankness about sex and a slight racy attitude that lends the romance a more adult, modern feel. Hayes is often remembered as a rather prim and proper leading lady before she became a bona fide grande dame, but she lets her hair down here and embraces Catherine's passion, generating some palpable heat with Cooper. Theirs is a believable union, and the unrequited longing they express when parted or faced with dire circumstances is quite tender and moving. Unfortunately, Hayes would soon abandon movies for a legendary two-decade stint on the Broadway stage, robbing film audiences of a natural and accomplished actress who surely would have amassed a stellar body of work.
Cooper, known more as the strong, silent type or naive bumbler, also makes a formidable impression, filing one of his most emotional portrayals. His quiet, tearful plea for Catherine's health and well-being, performed simply in a busy cafe setting, is heartbreaking, and displays the range and sensitivity of which this macho actor could be capable. The lanky Cooper and diminutive Hayes make an odd-looking pair (he was 6'3", she barely scaled five feet), but Borzage wisely shies away from too many full body shots that call attention to the appreciable height disparity.
Such shots may inspire a brief chuckle, but they can't diminish our admiration for Borzage's considerable artistry, which propels the film and lofts it above other wartime weepies. The Oscar-winning director exquisitely manipulates light and shadow to construct a series of beautifully framed and poetic visuals that heighten the movie's romanticism and impact. Long sequences feature little or no dialogue, but Borzage still weaves a hypnotic spell, proving why he was regarded as one of the top directors of silent films. Wordless storytelling is an art form unto itself, and Borzage is one of the craft's undisputed masters.
A Best Picture nominee, 'A Farewell to Arms' may not faithfully follow Hemingway's novel, but it remains an affecting tale of love, loss, and spiritual awakening. Fans of the book may be disappointed with this lush Hollywood treatment, but Borzage's motion picture stands as an early talkie triumph and a high point in the careers of Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes. For those reasons alone, it's well worth revisiting.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'A Farewell to Arms' comes packaged in a standard Blu-ray case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is English LPCM 2.0 mono. When the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
'A Farewell to Arms' didn't receive the restoration it deserves for this release, but according to the packaging, the film has been "mastered in HD from an original nitrate 35mm print, preserved by the George Eastman House Motion Picture Department." That's good news, but this public domain title has received its share of hard knocks over the years, and even a preserved print shows plenty of wear and tear. The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer still exhibits a generous smattering of specks and marks, white vertical lines, and reel change markers, as well as a few missing frames, but I got used to the imperfections over time and didn't let them distract me too much.
The image leans heavily toward the dark side, which hampers gray scale variance, but several scenes exhibit solid contrast that lends the picture more pop. Black levels explode with inky depth, but as a result, shadow detail is weak and crush is often an issue. Grain is pronounced, but never overpowering, and provides a lovely film-like feel that complements Charles Lang's lush, Oscar-winning cinematography well. Close-ups are sharp yet maintain that hint of softness that enhanced the glamour of many early Hollywood stars.
Even in its subpar condition, 'A Farewell to Arms' is often a visual treat; it's just a shame this beautiful film couldn't undergo the kind of refurbishment studio movies often receive. With the proper care, this early '30s antique could be a stunner. In its current state, however, we're left to imagine what might have been.
The LPCM 2.0 mono track supplies decent sound for an almost 80-year-old movie. The lack of any restoration is quickly apparent, as a fair amount of surface noise and hiss afflict the audio, which was recorded on rather primitive equipment. Dialogue, however, remains clear and largely comprehendible throughout the picture, even when spoken in hushed tones. One might assume Hayes, a seasoned stage actress, would over-project her lines, but she possesses a firm command of the medium, and her silky vocal tones are a pleasure to listen to.
The main negative concerning this track is the horrific distortion that accompanies every on-screen explosion (and there are quite a few of them). The track completely breaks down, and it's difficult not to physically recoil when the effect occurs. Subtle accents, such as rain, fare much better, and the incidental music comes across well, but sounds a bit thin.
Given the vintage nature of this soundtrack, expecting much more in the way of fidelity would be unrealistic. It's just a shame more clean-up couldn't have been lavished on this antique audio presentation.
Just a couple of negligible extras adorn this vintage release.
The 1932 version of 'A Farewell to Arms' remains the finest telling of Hemingway's immortal wartime tale. Director Frank Borzage highlights the story's human angle and wrings first-rate performances from Helen Hayes and Gary Cooper. The poetic visuals and emotional story keep us involved in this affecting romance that still possesses the power to move us almost eight decades after its premiere. Unfortunately, Kino's Blu-ray treatment can't compete with titles released by major studios such as Warner and Fox, and the marked up video, noisy audio, and paltry supplements won't win many fans. Still, this elegant motion picture deserves a look, if only to honor Borzage, Hayes, Cooper, and Papa Hemingway.