David Thomson – he of the Biographical Dictionary of Film and many other fine books on the cinema – has written a characteristically illuminating article for the June issue of Sight & Sound about the way the First World War has been depicted in the movies. Its fascination lies not only in the sheer range of films covered by Thomson – whose encyclopaedic knowledge of certain areas of cinema history is rightly renowned – but in his reminder that movies so often tell us lies.
The cinema’s most frequent resort to dishonesty concerns human mortality, and not only because Hollywood and its imitators have long believed that there’s probably more money to be made from a happy ending than from a downbeat one. Death, in fact, is incredibly common in the cinema – it’s almost as ubiquitous as it is in real life – but it’s seldom depicted or explored with any truthfulness. Rather, it’s usually deployed as a kind of narrative button to elicit a particular response in the audience, be it fear, anxiety, sadness, disgust, laughter, vengefulness or exhilaration. Only very occasionally are we invited properly to ponder what it really feels like to experience the imminent or actual end of one’s own life or that of a loved one.
And that’s one reason why war – where death proliferates – has given rise to all manner of cinematic deceits. (There are other reasons, of course, particularly those linked to propagandistic purposes, but I won’t go into those here.) And it’s presumably why, as Thomson mentions in his article, Ernest Hemingway – who prided himself in a certain kind of tough-talking, no-nonsense honesty – had little time for Frank Borzage’s A Farewell to Arms (1932), adapted from the partly autobiographical novel he’d had published a couple of years previously.
But perhaps we shouldn’t set too much store by his disdain: writers are often dismissive of adaptations of their work, especially if the story in question was, as here, based on personal memories and experiences. Besides, even if one accepts that a film isn’t wholly faithful to its source, it doesn’t automatically follow that it’s not a good film. Let’s not forget that some extremely fine movies have been made from not very good books, and that many great literary works have been deemed ‘unfilmable’. The quality of the one has little to do with the quality of the other; it’s possible that a film and its source may both be equally good (or equally bad, for that matter), but for entirely different reasons. A book and a film are not at all the same thing, and we expect and get different things from them.
So, in assessing Borzage’s A Farewell to Arms, considerations of whether it’s faithful to, or even as good as, the source novel are not of primary concern. What counts is surely how well the film works as a film. And I for one believe it works extremely well in that regard; it’s a masterpiece, as fine as anything the now underrated Borzage made.
One of the finest and most successful American directors of the late 20s and 30s, he’s now largely forgotten, partly because his films are rarely shown and so difficult to see, and partly, perhaps, because his distinctive, almost mystical brand of transcendent romanticism isn’t fashionable (even though many filmgoers are perfectly happy to watch more recent works of a supposedly ‘spiritual’ nature).
Yet it’s this very quality – his profound commitment to the passionate emotional lives of his characters, so strong that he often allows love to triumph, in its own incandescent way, over poverty, despair, oppression, even death itself – that makes his films so remarkably moving, and, somewhat unexpectedly, so remarkably modern.
A Farewell to Arms is a heart-rendingly brilliant example of his artistry. It has a lot going for it anyway: sexy, insolent Gary Cooper as the American serving with the Italian ambulance brigade; Helen Hayes as the sweet but surprisingly direct British nurse he falls for; Adolphe Menjou as the protagonist’s meddling, intriguingly jealous friend (he repeatedly calls the Coop character “Baby” and stays awake at nights awaiting his return).
The evocation of the war-gutted landscape is memorable; though the opening scene may now show its age through the use of models, other sequences are distinguished by a nightmarishly strange Expressionism suggestive of a highly physical, agonised brutality. Lighting, composition, camera movement and choreography of the performers contribute to a mise-en-scène of enormously expressive intensity.
And then there is an astonishing climactic Liebestod. Whereas other filmmakers, as noted earlier, have tended to use the prospect of death as a button to produce tears, pity, anxiety or whatever in the viewer, and have avoided confronting the very real finality of a human’s life on earth, Borzage gets in there and grapples with it, rather as a Carl Dreyer, Ingmar Bergman or Terence Davies might do. If they come to different conclusions, that’s not what concerns me here; what matters is that in acknowledging the inevitability of death, their films tend to tell the truth as they see it. In Borzage’s A Farewell to Arms, that truth is at once as painful, as regenerative and, finally, as unfathomably mysterious as love itself.