Ernest Hemingway’s reputation was made through his talent for publicity and a self-consciously plain style that seemed fresh in the 1920s and ’30s. Some of his short stories are excellent, but his famous books (the ghastly The Sun Also Rises, the tedious For Whom the Bell Tolls), haven’t fared as well. A Farewell to Arms is definitely his best novel, but its mannered ellipses sometimes read like a straight-faced parody of the admirable stoicism the author was aiming at. Hemingway disliked most of the movies based on his work, and he was grandly contemptuous of Frank Borzage’s version of Farewell to Arms, but time has been kind to the film. It launders out the writer’s “I love you, you’re good and plain and clean, but we’re all going to die”-style pessimism and replaces it with a testament to the eternal love between a couple. This was Borzage’s lifelong theme and he goes as far with it here as he ever went, past death and beyond. It was his favorite of his movies.
Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes play Frederic and Catherine, a soldier and nurse who fall for each other in wartime, and they are matched perfectly. They bring Borzage’s liking for towering, vulnerable men and tiny, tough women to its visual apotheosis (her head barely reaches his armpit when they walk). Their acting styles also contrast and complement each other, so that as the movie goes on, he has more control over his little-boy effects, and her grand-lady affectations melt away into real emotion. Hayes admitted that she fell deeply in love with Cooper while making the film, but she never told him or did anything about it, and this adds to the movie’s feeling of revelation and its pleasing frankness about sex. Catherine loses her virginity to Frederic in a churchyard under the stars, and Borzage melds the sacred and the profane, joining them because they belong together, his contrasts colliding and merging and obliterating all petty, needling consciousness. When Frederic is taken to the hospital, the camera assumes his point of view as he sees the craggy hospital staff. Then Catherine comes in to him and kisses the camera lens, her face filling up the screen until we see only one of her eyes, the film ascending a few further rungs up the ladder to what looks like heaven.
Frederic and Catherine don’t need to be married officially, though a sympathetic priest (Jack LaRue) says a Latin liturgy over them. Borzage is always getting away from society and its customs, from marriage and houses, taxes and details. But war usually looms over his lovers. In the epic hospital bed scene that ends the film, with Catherine dying in childbirth, Borzage builds a terrifying vision of a devoted couple who are being torn apart. Both of them cling to each other and speak desperately, quietly, until the fear of separation that’s tormenting them is destroyed; you can actually see it go, because the screen seems to suddenly burst with bright light on their melded faces. As the Armistice is called and bells ring, Frederic lifts Catherine’s dead body up into the light, her long white gown trailing behind her as he says the word “peace” twice in a choked voice. He’s not talking about the war outside and its end, because that means nothing here. Frederic is asserting the only peace that matters, the peace of love and the peace of death, borne upright by the strains of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde and validated sensually and spiritually through the high art of Frank Borzage.