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A Farewell to Arms

A Farewell to Arms
1957 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 152 min. / Street Date May 24, 2005 / 14.98
Starring Jennifer Jones, Rock Hudson, Vittorio De Sica, Mercedes McCambridge, Elaine Stritch
Cinematography Oswald Morris, Piero Portalupi
Production Designer Alfred Junge
Art Direction Mario Garbuglia
Film Editor John M. Foley, Gerard J. Wilson
Original Music Mario Nascimbene
Written by Ben Hecht from a play by Laurence Stallings from a novel by Ernest Hemingway
Produced by David O. Selznick
Directed by Charles Vidor

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

David O'Selznick's final production is yet another attempt to place his lover (now wife) Jennifer Jones in a classic epic intended to sweep the Oscars and place him atop the Hollywood heap one more time. The Academy has a way of punishing its own but Selznick's hauteur and imperious attitude with talent and collaborators is what really sunk the picture; the only nomination it received is for Vittorio De Sica's frankly terrible supporting performance. You can almost hear the groans as the words of the title slowly crawl across the screen, Gone With the Wind- style. It's the sign that Selznick is looking backward for glory instead of forward to a new challenge.

Is A Farewell to Arms a bad movie? Not really, until one realizes the enormous resources and effort put behind what is really a simple love story between two people. Armies move, entire towns are transformed to recreate Northern Italy in WW1, and we have almost no emotional reaction to any of it. It's a curious mix of filmmaking out of touch with the times and a producer who thinks he has unbeatable formulas for casting and story. Jennifer Jones is simply too old for the role, and she has zero screen chemistry with Rock Hudson, who doesn't even seem to be in the same picture.


WW1 American volunteer ambulance driver Lieutenant Frederick Henry (Rock Hudson) falls in love with English nurse volunteer Catherine Barkley (Jennifer Jones) and they continue their affair in Milan when Frederick is wounded on the Italian front. Catherine gets pregnant but doesn't rush Henry to marry her. Head nurse Miss Van Campen (Mercedes McCambridge) finds out about their fraternization and sends him back to the front, while Catherine goes closer to the Swiss border to have her baby. Fred deserts during some unjust executions, and rushes to be with her.

Seeing this movie increased my appreciation for the 1932 version with Helen Hayes and Gary Cooper - it now seems an even better classic, even with its partial censorship and romantic excesses. Selznick's overproduced epic is clearly shot on authentic locations with an enormous technical outlay that can be seen in the vast mountainscapes of marching men and material. But that's just hardware, and most of the scenes between the lovers take place in fairly ordinary hospital rooms. It's fairly laughable when Selznick makes an effort to show Jones and Hudson relaxing by some Tyrolean lake, dressed in new clothing. In the middle of a devastating war they don't seem to have the slightest problem with money.

Helen Hayes was less glamorous and far more believable as an embittered nurse reenergized by Gary Cooper's love. We know that Jennifer Jones is capable of jettisoning her movie star persona, as seen to good effect in (the English version of) Michael Powell's Gone to Earth - she can play just about anything and often shines whether on her own or under the supervision of David O.. He appears to have ruined some of her later vehicles with his interference and narrow tastes (Indiscretion of an American Wife) and his heavy handprints are all over this show. It's too glossy, too pretty, and oversimplified. Poor nurse Mercedes McCambridge is a one-note martinet that turns into a harpy over Jones' sexual freedom. Vittorio De Sica makes lame humanistic speeches about a war that seems an irrelevant inconvenience to the plot. What's a lieutenant doing driving an ambulance, anyway? Somebody tries to inject some comedy by having a pair of lunatic Italian first aid drivers manhandle the wounded Hudson like he was in a Laurel & Hardy movie. It all just sits there.

The original handled Hudson's desertion and frantic flight to Switzerland in melodramatic terms but at least managed a feeling of desperation and doom; perhaps the very fact that the pair were unmarried lovers in a thirties' film made us expect a grim ending. This 1957 movie doesn't seem to realize that audiences will be unimpressed by Jones and Hudson's affair, and bored by their final reels having a swell time (spoiler) until the unexpected complications in childbirth. Unlike the first picture, there's no particular attitude established about their free-spirit status as unmarried parents. When Jones says she doesn't want marriage, it doesn't add up. Both she and Hudson deliver some rushed flowery speeches that should be accompanied with a title reading "Selznick Memo"; we barely listen to what they're saying. After two-point-five hours of bombast, we get an ending as thin as the later Love Story. Love means the audience is supposed to care because the producer's bankroll is on the line.

Selznick was an old-school gambler who invested his own money and reputation for what he believed in, but in the final analysis what he believed in the most was his own greatness. A Farewell to Arms must have looked old-fashioned next to 1957 blockbusters like The Bridge on the River Kwai or smart-money potboilers like Peyton Place.

Fox's DVD of A Farewell to Arms is a fine-looking enhanced transfer of the non-roadshow 152 minute version of the film. Oswald Morris' cinematography makes the CinemaScope look terrific and Mario Nascimbene's understated musical score is well represented. There are no real extras, which makes us curious about the story we've heard that John Huston began the film but quit or was fired, to be replaced by Charles Vidor. With Selznick in charge, the kind of director needed is simply a speed reader who could get through the constant producer quarterbacking and micromanaging.

What's really left of interest is seeing some fine actors in unrewarding bit roles: Elaine Stritch, Victor Francen, Oskar Homolka, Franco Interlenghi, Kurt Kasznar. Look closely and you'll spot Sam Levene, Giacomo Rossi-Stuart, Joan Shawlee, Alberto Sordi (his priest had a major role in the first film), Bud Spencer and Leopoldo Trieste from The White Sheik and I Vitelloni.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, A Farewell to Arms rates:
Movie: Fair + or Good --
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent English 3.0 Dolby, French mono Spanish mono
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 26, 2005

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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