A Farewell to Arms (1957)

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It’s been a bit of a trudge at times, this journey of mine through the first one hundred years of Great War Films. There have been highs, I’ve seen and reviewed some classics like ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and ‘The African Queen’. I’ve also found some hidden gems like ‘A Very Long Engagement’, ‘Wooden Crosses’, ‘King and Country’ and ‘Alistair1918’. However, there has also been plenty of yang to my Great War yin. I’ve ploughed through ‘Deathwatch’, ‘Hedd Wyn’ and ‘The Red Baron’ and have struggled to restrain myself from launching the cat through my TV.

My film today has a name that has adorned this very blog in the not so distant past. I reviewed the original 1932 version starring Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes a couple of years back. I’ve just re-read that review and can report that I didn’t think too highly of it. I thought it was goodish with a stupid ending and praised Gary Cooper for not making turkey noises as he did throughout ‘Sergeant York’. The version I’m watching today is a Technicolor 1957 remake starring a youngish Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones. For those not in the know it’s a film adaption of the stage adaptation of the semi-autobiographical Ernest Hemingway book of the same title. Rock Hudson plays the lead and Jennifer Jones plays his love interest in what can best be described as a love story set against the backdrop of The Great War.

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This movie ended up being David O Selznick’s swansong in the movie business. His later career following the end of the Second World War was largely an attempt to match or better the giddy heights he attained with ‘Gone with the Wind’. He was also trying to develop the career of Mrs Selznick…or Jennifer Jones as she was also known. I think we can guess she didn’t go through a particularly rigorous selection process. Of course the biggest issue with trying to make another ‘Gone with the Wind’ is that it needs to be as good as, if not better than, the aforementioned critically acclaimed masterpiece. And this film just simply isn’t anywhere near being called a ‘Classic’. Everything is just a little bit off.

The setting of Italy would’ve been a dream come true for the visual types in the crew. The cinematographer would’ve licked his lips at the thought of the endless mountain vistas with sweeping tracts of lush, green countryside. Indeed there are many examples of these natural beauties throughout the film and they are the best thing about the movie. Where the exterior shots are jaw dropping the interior shots are almost universally drab, colourless and featureless. They didn’t spend much money on set design or dressing.

Fare 2

As for the actors, Hudson seems out of place and unable to muster anything that could be considered a performance. He doesn’t do anything outrageously rubbish, he’s just forgettable and wooden. His love interest Jennifer Jones takes some bites at the scenery in various spots in her over-egged attempt at portraying a young woman in love. ‘There isn’t any ME anymore’ she says to Rock, ‘Just what YOU want’. As a father of two headstrong and driven girls I want to punch the writer of this incidental nausea squarely in the mouth. She shakes with rage, gurns in fear and swoons with affection….no subtlety here.

The script follows the book very closely with all the main twists and turns present. This probably explains the two and a half hour running time and I’m sure I’m not the first person to suggest they could’ve dropped 40 minutes or so without doing any overall damage to the story. It feels like this was written into an epic rather than it being one. Sadly the only near epic thing about it is the length which, in reality, isn’t really that epicy.

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One thing I will commend the film for is its’ edgy (for the time) portrayal of sex and a female character with sexual desires. Whilst no flesh is seen and no direct reference is made of the beast with two backs it was blatantly obvious what the two of them had be up to as she fixed her hair and he wrestled with his belt buckle. There’s also a whole section of the film devoted to the human debris of the war. We see displaced, dehumanised Italian peasants marching, trudging towards an assumed point of safety. A mother drops her baby and seems indifferent to the loss and unable to muster the energy to save it, a man dead on a fence is ignored by all that traipse past, and another baby breast feeds from a dead mother. It’s all a bit grim, and slightly jarring following on from the beautifully shot love story I’d been watching minutes before, but at least it was trying to push a boundary.

But, mostly, it’s just a bit rubbish. There are Mario Brothers style Italian stereotypes all over the place, they’re portrayed as slightly clownish, slapstick fools with good hearts. Jones overacts throughout which is painfully balanced out by Rock doing pretty much nothing. There is a scene in Switzerland that’s all chunky jumpers and sleigh bells with big cheesey grins (and schnitzel with noodles). It’s hammy, overegged and dull.

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But (and it’s a big but) it’s not as bad as it’s made out to be. This film is on the 0% list at Rotten Tomato and I don’t think it really deserves to be. On that list you’ll find a great many terrible movies, many of which have been reviewed by my friends Colin and Wes on their blog http://100reasonstogooutside.blogspot.co.nz. I’m no expert on bad films (unlike those chaps) and I think I’d say that this is actually an okay movie. It’s too vanilla in every single way and overtly rubbish in many others but it’s nothing out of the ordinary for the time.

The 1932 Gary Copper version is better, mostly because it’s shorter but it’s really much the same. It’s of it’s time and I feel bad being too heavy on it. Let’s leave it there. I wouldn’t bother watching it if I were you but if you do you won’t hate it. I do have another version of this to watch starring Chris Pine and Sandra Bullock, directed by Dear Dear Dickie Attenborough. I think I’ll leave it a while because I’ve seen it before and again it’s not very good. What is it with this story?

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