A Farewell to Arms ★★★½

Almost completely robbed of Hemingway's mulling of the nature of war, this is just a purely melodramatic tearjerking romance about a military couple separated determinedly by malicious outsiders and then by illness during WWI; but if you're making that kind of a movie and you want people to genuinely believe it's about love and it means it, the person you bring onboard is Frank Borzage. There are some serious lapses in emotional credibility here; why is the initial abuse and coersion Lt. Henry inflicts on the nurse Catherine instantly glossed over? And why, toward the end, does Henry so readily forgive the person (his superior officer who intercepted their letters) who caused them so much misery? And yet when Borzage turns his camera on what he perceives as the behavior of couples, magic happens because he is almost alone among classic studio directors in his passion for capturing the telling, unguarded moments that form the nucleus of love, and both the pre-Code frankness and the relative freedom at Paramount offer him opportunities to explore this beautifully, even conquering Hemingway's bullshit and Helen Hayes' sometimes off-putting, overly theatrical performing (she attempts to clone her Oscar-winning performance in The Sin of Madelon Claudet and you can repeatedly sense Borzage pulling her in another direction; at those moments her work is much richer). This is probably Gary Cooper's greatest performance, as oversized and unmistakably, irreducibly emotional despite his stony facade as James Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life; and there are perfectly visualized, haunting moments like the late-night break-in at the nurses' ward, or the alarming POV sequence when Henry is taken into the hospital after being bombed "while eating cheese." The finale, too, is striking, but seems strongly to suggest a thematic depth and coherence that the film can't even touch in its 85 minutes of tightly focused personal tragedy; the sense of the war comes less from Henry's struggles with its substance than with his obliviousness to the fighting, which may be more cinematic but is also a tad infantile. Most literary adaptations are creaky and dull; in this one, the cracks that form and widen are where all the intriguing stuff hides.

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