This left me like Elaine in the Seinfeld episode where she’s forced to watch The English Patient, just staring at the screen and seething, “No, I can’t do this anymore. I can’t. It’s too long….Just die already! DIE!” Looking at the critical reception of the day and the more recently, I am apparently not alone in this sentiment.
This would be the last production from David O. Selznick, and it follows his hardened formula set with Gone with the Wind, the instant classic he eternally chased. A Farewell to Arms also opens with a text scrawl over vibrant landscapes and highly demonstrative strings playing over it all. Whereas Gone with the Wind had enough source material to justify its prolonged running time, A Farewell to Arms does not. Ernest Hemingway’s prose style favored an unadorned simplicity that Selznick annihilates with his showmanship.
Yet it’s this exact choice of showmanship for its own sake that terminates the film from the beginning. Ben Hecht’s script is padded, witness the armistice of WWI occurring and still another thirty minutes of material happening before the final curtain, and much of it is pitched towards Selznick’s sense of grandiosity and cinematic overkill. At times these tendencies could whip themselves into a fury of a film that proved entertaining because of its excesses, but it leaves the romance inert here and Catherine Barkley as an unbelievable female character.
Strong performances could go a long way towards salvaging the material, and we get three of them in supporting players but less so in the leads. Rock Hudson looks adrift throughout and I wonder if the original choice for director, John Huston, could have managed to get something more out of him. Hudson was a blank slate actor that needed a strong guiding hand, look at his work for Douglas Sirk or John Frankenheimer, and Charles Vidor does not provide him one here. Vidor himself seems lost among Selznick’s never-ending demands. Hudson would later admit that taking the part in this film was a career mistake, and it’s a damn shame this turned out so poorly. Much like Gary Cooper, who played the role in the 1932 original, Hudson looks like what we imagine a Hemingway character would look like.
Even worse is the cast of leading lady Jennifer Jones. It was yet another excuse for Selznick to forge Jones as a cinematic Helen of Troy, but she’s about fifteen years too old for the role and flagrantly overacting here. Much like Hudson, Jones was an actor that needed a strong guiding hand to help her shape a performance, and she’s allowed to run wild with her worst instincts here and indulge in an emotional intensity that gives the impression that she needs to take a sedative and calm down. We don’t buy Jones and Hudson as a romantic pairing, and Jones’ crocodile tears and breathless, slurred line readings aren’t helping matters.
Only Elaine Stritch, Mercedes McCambridge, and Vittorio de Sica escape this thing with their dignity intact. McCambridge wasn’t stretching herself too much here, but she does what she normally does very well. It’s Stritch as a wise-cracking nurse and de Sica, Oscar nominated no less, as a morally confused, randy Major Rinaldi that really make this thing tolerable in brief moments. Vittorio de Sica’s haunted face and breakdown during a long march reveal the depth of feeling that was possible in this film that the leads were incapable of producing.
And so, A Farewell to Arms continues to spin out, adding more large scale scenes of soldiers marching, of battles, of more extensive production costs on the screen, but it’s all without a heart. Without a strong central reason to care, it’s all sound and fury signifying nothing. Don’t even bother with this version, just watch Frank Borzage’s romantic tragedy run-through of the material.