Thursday, August 17, 2017

War, Baby

Films: A Farewell to Arms
Format: Streaming video from Kanopy on laptop.

This is another of those reviews where I feel I have to come clean at the start. I studied literature in college and have a BA in it. That means that I’ve read a bunch of classics including my share of the works of Ernest Hemingway. The truth of the matter is this: I think Hemingway was one of the finest craftsman of short stories the English language has ever seen, but I hate his novels. I hate them. I find his style to be oppressive when it goes on too long, and the man was incapable of writing a woman character who was anything other than a conduit for a man’s ego. This left me with scant hope for A Farewell to Arms.

And sure, I expected this to be grim. This also happens to be a case where my set against the source material could be slightly mollified because the movie diverges significantly from the book to the point where Hemingway himself evidently hated this film. But, it’s still Hemingway and it still manages to use a lot of his dialogue from the book. Worse, the characters are absolutely drawn from the novel, and that’s where I have the biggest problem with the story.

Simply put, an American named Frederic (Gary Cooper) is an ambulance driver in the Italian army during World War I. He returns from the front one day to be greeted by his friend Rinaldi (Adolphe Menjou). Rinaldi has a crush on a local nurse at the hospital and has attempted to set up Frederic with her friend so that he can spend time with her. The nurse in question is Catherine (Helen Hayes), who decides she likes Frederic a lot more.

They conduct a whirlwind romance which includes Frederic deflowering the young nurse. He’s sent back to the front and is wounded. Meanwhile, behind the lines, Rinaldi is working against his friend because he’s trying to get her for himself. He has her transferred to another hospital, which is naturally where Frederic is sent when he’s wounded. The love that bloomed between the two of them blossoms there until Frederic is determined to be healthy enough to return to the front (mostly because he’s healthy enough to drink a lot). At this time, Catherine has determined that she is pregnant (and substantially pregnant, since she has the baby a few months later), but no one knows. So it’s one of those early movie pregnancies where the woman magically has a baby but looks exactly the same. Frederic heads to the front and Catherine heads to Switzerland to have the baby.

Enter Rinaldi once again, who decides that he knows better than our star-crossed lovers and decides not to forward Catherine’s letters on to Frederic. Frederic searches for her, there are complications with the pregnancy, and he rushes to be with her. And true to form, Hemingway gives us plenty of terrible, terrible irony in the ending. Sorry if that’s a spoiler, but this story has been around for 85 years or more.

My problem with Hemingway’s novels is not simply his choppy prose that I find maddening when it goes beyond a page or two. It’s also his characters, and more specifically his female characters. In Hemingway stories, especially those that are longer than a few pages, his women exist simply to become vessels for the egos of his male characters. At one point in the film (and the book, if memory serves), Catherine says something to the effect that she no longer has any desires or wants—she just wants what Frederic wants. I think that’s supposed to be a romantic sentiment, but it’s actually pretty creepy. And it’s not the only time it happens. Catherine falls for Frederic immediately and she’s suddenly unable to do a single thing that doesn’t involve him.

That’s a problem, and it’s pervasive in the film. While much of the plot didn’t make it to the screen (and I admit, it’s been a long time since I read the book), Hemingway’s misogyny did. Catherine is nothing more than an extension of Frederic. I have real issues with that.

I’m happy to admit that beyond that, it’s actually a pretty good story. If you are okay with movies that have a significant downbeat ending, the story itself is good, and the ending is pretty great (and accurate). More on the war would be worth including here, and that evidently is the biggest area in which the movie differs from the film.

So let’s talk about what works. I like Gary Cooper. I also like Helen Hayes. It’s hard not to like them. They actually make a cute couple, especially with her being so tiny next to the towering Cooper. There are some excellent moments of early cinematography. This is especially evident in the point-of-view shot from Cooper’s perspective of the two meeting in the hospital after he has been wounded. For a few moments, our entire field of vision is nothing more than Hayes’s huge, expressive eyes.

The truth is that I didn’t hate this. It’s depressing and it hasn’t aged very well, but I liked it a little more than I expected to, so I guess that’s a win.

Why to watch A Farewell to Arms: Helen Hayes and Gary Cooper.
Why not to watch: Even in non-accurate adaptations, Hemingway’s characters are infuriating.


  1. re: treatment of women

    It's amazing how this tendency still lingers. As much as I loved "24" for its cartoonish, 80s-throwback action and thrills, I found the show's treatment and portrayal of women generally off-putting. Only two female characters rose above the crowd in terms of being strong and independent: Jack's smart, steadfast friend Chloe O'Brian and Jack's early nemesis Sherry Palmer—and of those two, Sherry was pure evil.

    There were a few other female characters that were almost well written, but for the most part, women in "24" tended to be a lot like Season 7 and 8's Renee Walker. Walker started off seemingly strong, smart, and capable, but she eventually became a submissive part of Team Jack, constantly delivering lines like, "Where'd Jack go?" and "That's great, but what does Jack think about this plan?" It was a real shame to watch her character degrade as those seasons progressed. Maybe something like the spirit of Hemingway lives on in modern TV. Maybe Hollywood has a sexism problem that's as big as its racism problem (I've read complaints about how women are often petty bitches in Judd Apatow comedies). Maybe we could all use some "Game of Thrones"-style screenwriting therapy.

    I suppose there are meta-questions to be asked, at least regarding "Farewell" if not "24": should a film based on sexist or misogynistic source material "correct" problems in the original story? How important is it to be faithful to the original story, and how does one interpret "faithfulness" according to the Zeitgeist?

    1. I'd love to say this is an isolated phenomenon, but it clearly isn't. I can remember when this blog started to switch from the 1001 Movies list to Oscar categories, that the category that needed the most work from me was Best Actress by a large percentage. I spent the better part of a year specifically focused on that category, attempting to watch at least two per week just to get it in the same general ballpark of completion as the next most underserved category (Best Actor, for the record. However, there were something like 50 fewer Best Actress performances in the 1001 Movies list than Best Actor).

      I just did a very quick, unofficial (but I think accurate) check, comparing movies nominated for Best Picture and performances nominated for Best Actor and Best Actress. Here are the results:

      Movies nominated for Best Picture, all time: 538
      Performances nominated for Best Actor, all time: 440
      Performances nominated for Best Actress, all time: 444

      Movies with a Best Actor nomination without a Best Picture nomination: 196
      Movies with a Best Actress nomination without a Best Picture nomination: 285

      Years where no Best Actor film was nominated for Best Picture: 2
      Years where no Best Actress film was nominated for Best Picture: 9

      Hollywood (and television, clearly) undervalue women's roles.

      For further reference, I recommend The Bechdel Test. I also refer you to this comic, which sums up the television problem nicely:

    2. Thanks for doing all this homework. I know your blog doesn't focus explicitly on social commentary, but I think we both agree this is an important cultural issue. And as a culture, we still have a ways to go.

    3. Absolutely. There is still a great deal of resistance to this, and it needs to change. There seems to be an idea in movies that both men and women will go to a movie about men, but only women are interested in movies about women. The success of films like Wonder Woman needs to be remembered and built on. Hollywood needs to start realizing that while there are exceptions, people are interested in stories more than anything else.

  2. I agree that the story is a good one but it is apparently a tough one to make a gripping film out of. This one is clunky and rather scattered though it’s the best of the versions I’ve seen.

    Part of my problem I regret to say is the leading lady. As an older woman I love Helen Hayes with her dignity and elfin charm but in her early films that stage magic that she was so famous for does not translate as far as I can see. She has her moments, mostly her close-ups since her eyes were very expressive but once the camera pulls back she is overly theatrical often playing to the back row. Norma Shearer had much the same style but she registered on film in a way Hayes does not. She was apparently electric on the boards but Oscar or not she wasn’t suited to the screen.

    I did notice that Mutt and Jeff height difference between she and Cooper and it made me think he would squash her if he wasn’t looking where he was going!

    Cooper was very good and with Menjou almost made this a good film but it was all a bit too precious.

    That said its head and tails over the sprawling but terrible 50’s remake with an okay Rock Hudson and an unsurprisingly ghastly Jennifer Jones. Even that was better than the truly dire supposed true version “In Love and War” from the 90’s which was wretched in every aspect.

    1. I noticed that the version in the '50s featured Jennifer Jones and decided on the spot that I wasn't ever going to watch it. Yeesh.