Saturday, July 25, 2020

Melodramatic Love is Well-Realized All Throughout Farewell to Arms

It is World War I. On the Italian front of this worldwide conflict is Lieutenant Frederic Henry (Gary Cooper), an American architect serving as an officer on an ambulance in the Italian Army. A night of drinking leads him to run into English Red Cross nurse Catherine Barkley (Helen Hayes). Their first encounter isn't so splendid but a later rendezvous in a garden proves much more fulfilling for both of them. That night, the two of them make love, taking Barkley's virginity in the process. After this night of passion, they realize they love each other. Unfortunately, forces much greater than Henry and Barkley ensure the two are quickly separated. Even across endless miles of trenches and warfare, their love continues to burn bright.

Adapted from a 1929 Ernest Hemingway novel of the same name, A Farewell to Arms is a movie that doesn't shy away from depicting just how gut-wrenching war can be. Even scenes of characters reading about battlefield victories are usually punctuated with some kind of somber personal development. Even an ending depicting the end of World War I is laced with sadness as Henry and Barkley's relationship comes to its inevitable bleak conclusion. While researching this film for this review, it was no surprise to discover that Arms faced an enormous amount of pushback and censorship on its grim tone.

The emphasis on constant grand setbacks for the two leads of A Farewell to Arms reinforces how this story very much belongs to the world of melodrama romance. At times, I found myself struggling to get invested in the romance being concocted by screenwriters Benjamin Glazer and Oliver H.P. Garrett. However, that's when I was considering the relationship between Barkley and Henry as something more character-driven, which isn't the intent at all. These two figures are meant to be a vessel for evocative depictions of great human tragedy. This is done in an attempt to show all the humanity that gets lost in times of conflict.

Once I considered Barkley and Henry from this perspective, the whole movie clicked together for me. Suddenly, I was able to admire how well Glaze and Garrett put together sequences with such evocative emotions. Freed from the constraints of emulating real human behavior, Barkley and Henry are free to embody powerful sadness, enormous anger, and pure elation in such vivid ways. Similarly, striking is the cinematography by Charles Lang, which employs traits of German Expressionism to convey the daunting nature of World War I. Shadows dominate the frame while buildings are so tall that they seem to stretch off into the heavens. These visual choices create an intimidating world to surround Barkley and Henry.

Meanwhile, director Frank Borzage shows a gift for remarkable pieces of blocking all throughout A Farewell to Arms. Everyday people may get lost amidst the bombshells but Borzage sure doesn't forget about them. This is reflected in his precise arrangement of characters in any given frame. Wherever a person is placed in a shot always tends to reflect their interior worlds. There's always a purpose to the blocking of A Farewell to Arms. This sense of clarity is especially helpful in any of the scenes depicting Barkley on the battlefield. Even as explosions go off and bodies pile up, Borzage's exact visual style remains a comforting constant.

Also reliable throughout A Farewell to Arms is the lead performance of Helen Hayes. In the confines of a film that's all about bombastic displays of affection, Hayes really excels. She lends a believable quality to Barkley's immediate love affair with Henry while her depictions of Barkley in great anguish are exceptionally hard to watch. Meanwhile, Gary Cooper's exceedingly gruff demeanor was hard for me to really connect to, even on just a melodramatic atmosphere level. By the end, though, Cooper's showing more emotional range in depicting Henry's fervent pursuit of Barkley. That helps to make his performance richer and ensures that the end of A Farewell to Arms hit as hard as it should.

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