Wednesday, July 26, 2006

'Farewell' to film, hello to Hemingway

How many times have you said it?

“You know, the movie just wasn’t as good as the book.”

So it is with the 1932 film version of “A Farewell to Arms.” Course, when the source material is Ernest Hemingway, it is unfair to expect much.

The movie tries hard. Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes turn in fine if overdone performances as the doomed Frederic Henry and Catherine Barkley, playing out their love affair amid the backdrop of World War I. But without Papa’s tough, terse prose, the story plays like a bad B-grade Saturday afternoon melodrama.

“Farewell” records the romance between Henry (Cooper), an American ambulance driver in the Italian army, and Barkley (Hayes), an English Red Cross nurse. Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love. Girl resists. Girl falls in love. Boy is wounded. The lovers are separated. Yada, yada, yada.

Oh, there are moments. Coop plays the tall, stoic type quite well, even early in his career. And director Frank Borzage is ahead of his time – employing the camera as first-person subjective viewpoint quite effectively when Henry awakes in the hospital.

Character actors Adolphe Menjou and Jack La Rue shine as Coop’s Italian buddy and the local priest respectively. And, given the limitations of the period, the film holds up quite well.

But without Hemingway’s talent driving the plot, all this is mute – particularly the ending, which plays like something straight from the vaudeville stage. One halfway expected to see a hook rip the actors back behind the curtain.

Lost amid the overacting is Hemingway’s brilliant, understated ending: “After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.”

Less is more – especially from the master.

If you’re looking for a classic slice of cinema to cool off with this summer, skip this one. If you like Coop, go rent “High Noon” and marvel at one of the finest performances in American film.

And if you are looking for a good love story, head straight for Hemingway’s novel. His prose hits you like a tidal wave. You find yourself lost in an uncontrollable tide. And you are saddened when the undertow finally gives way and the ride stops.

This is one time when the pen is indeed mightier.

“A Farewell To Arms” is available on DVD. The novel can be found at major bookstores and from the Knox County Public Library.


Anonymous Jaci said...

Hemingway's pen is, indeed, mightier! In alomst everything I have read of his...the pen is mightier. So much talent! His life just ended too soon, yet, in his death we find a bit of a voice for some of his writing. Love it!

3:26 PM  

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