“I was blown up eating cheese.”
Gary Cooper’s explanation of how he came to be injured is probably the line of dialogue that will stay with me longest from Frank Borzage’s A FAREWELL TO ARMS, which may just be a demonstration of how memorable dialogue is not really what the film’s for. It’s a beautifully absurd and anti-heroic line though.
The film, a WWI romance, to reduce it to the most basic level, begins with the strange miniature sequence cited earlier, which looks for all the world as if a one-legged man has gone to sleep in the middle of the miniature landscape from the flight sequence of Murnau’s FAUST.
Then we jump over to the miniature trucks, in one of which a man is bleeding to death as Gary Cooper snoozes. Arriving at a military hospital, Coop strolls sleepily off in search of assistance, but seems to get distracted by the sight of a nurse being sent home pregnant. This all set off a weird dissonance with me, since I was still worried about the injured men, still lying in their trucks awaiting attention while the hero is preoccupied with a knocked-up nurse.
Helen Hayes’ whose skeletal beauty always makes me see her as the little old lady who had a career renaissance in AIRPORT, and whom I encountered on the big screen when I was taken to see HERBIE RIDES AGAIN as a kid. It became increasingly necessary to thrust those images aside.
As in MOROCCO, Cooper is partnered with Adolphe Menjou, who here plays a comedy Italian army doctor who calls Cooper “Baby”, which is a trifle strange, but who can blame him? Cooper is a lumbering beauty, looking the way Colin Clive probably intended the Frankenstein monster to turn out, and there’s a sense that Menjou’s attempts to keep Cooper apart from his true love may be partly down to jealousy, a frustrated desire, not for Hayes, whom he’s wooing at the start, but for Cooper. It certainly seems like Hayes’ best friend Fergie (more inappropriate associations to contend with) is determined to keep the lovers apart for sapphic reasons of her own.
So, we’re in an Italian garden, and Cooper has just snatched Hayes away from Menjou (“Girls usually prefer him,” says Coop, implausibly) and it seems a bit cruel the way they just stare at him, waiting for him to get the message and piss off, and then they’re lying down together with beautiful snowflake-like crystals of light arranged in the background and then…
Wait, did Gary Cooper just rape Helen Hayes? Sure seems like it. She’s protesting, and there’s a fade to black (which ALWAYS means penetration is occurring) and then she’s crying and he’s apologising. It seems he didn’t take her refusal seriously until he discovered she was a virgin. As if there was no other reason she could have had for refusing. I know he’s Gary Cooper, but that seems a bit conceited (no one likes a conceited rapist, Gary). But soon she’s fine and it seems this was one of those pre-code violations that nobody minds too much (see TARZAN).
Pre-code films are weird things. When you have the code, there are all sorts of values you can take for granted, and certain plot elements, like crime not paying, which can be predicted. Even the most bizarre moments, like the happy ending + miscarriage in CAUGHT, make complete sense when you factor in the peculiar rulebook movies were following. But in pre-code films, there’s not only greater license, there’s a moral free-for-all in which anything’s up for grabs and no normal standards can be assumed to apply. It’s a lot like what I imagine Amsterdam must be like.
Anyway, Coop and Hayes are now a couple, and then he goes to the front and cuts that near-fatal slice of cheese that lands him on the operating table of Dr. Menjou…
Asides from the Murnau influence, fading slightly as the ’30s go on, the film shows the impact of Rouben Mamoulian’s DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, another Paramount production, when Cooper is transported by stretcher through a Milanese hospital, which appears to be a converted church or monastery or something. It’s a lot like going to Heaven. The Mamoulian connection is that the sequence is a prolonged P.O.V. shot, with characters talking to the lens as if it were Coop. I had thought that the subjective camera hospital admission shot dated from around 1946, with A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH and POSSESSED vying for first place, but Borzage is there first by some considerable distance. It’s a magnificent coup de cinema, with elaborate forced perspective ceilings keeping up the tone of theatrical artifice.
The religious setting comes in handy for another incredible scene, a sort of unofficial wedding, with a priest mumbling the service over a recuperating Cooper and Nurse Hayes (“At least I’m in white,”) without telling them at first what he’s up to, and in defiance of the fact that he can’t legally marry them when, as enlisted soldier and nurse, they’re both basically the property of their country. The hushed quality of the scene, with the weird mumbling Italian and Hayes and Cooper going through an incantatory evocation of the ideal wedding they’d like to have (“No orange blossoms.” “I can smell them.” “No organ music.” “I can hear it plainly.” ) manages to be both holy and romantic, and I particularly love the sudden wide shot looking past the priest, which makes him look 50ft high.
Deserting from the forces to be with his love, Cooper wanders ironically into the first real war scene, a chaotic montage that looks like Slavko Vorkapich got drunk and decided to blow up the sets from FRANKENSTEIN. Miniature planes arc through the air on invisible wheels, explosions shower sparks, and a pram filled with live chickens is overturned. Ain’t war hell? This Bunuelian poultry catastrophe is also accompanied by armies of crucifixes, part of the overall Christian slant here. In Borzage’s hands, the Hemingway novel becomes about a man coming to God through romantic love, which may well be the BIG THEME of F.B.’s whole career.
Amazing moments are now piling up like rugby players. Hayes has confessed to a fear she might die in the rain, and Borzage, who believes in prophecy, cuts to a downpour as she is operated on. Her hand clutches the sheets and he cuts to Cooper’s hands rowing his boat to get to her. Could be cheesy; isn’t.
As Cooper finds Hayes, she’s lost the baby she was having, and is now mortally ill. Cooper crosses to a café, pausing to help a dog that wants to get into a covered pail (“There’s nothing there, dog,” — Borzage loves dogs) and prays. It’s an incredible scene. Everyone’s reading about the SURRENDER, and this is Cooper’s unconditional surrender to the Creator. He prays into the flower on the café table like it was a tiny petalled microphone (“You took the baby. That was alright. But don’t let her die.”) then, in an astonishing moment, eats the flower.
Cooper at Hayes bedside gets the full Wagner soundtrack, Tristan und Isolde at maximum volume, pausing for peace to be declared. Man, filmmakers back then just went for it with Wagner, didn’t they? I mean, Bunuel uses it rather slyly, but here and in CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY it’s pouring out of the speakers without irony whatsoever.
This film may not entirely cohere, but that sort of works in its favour. Rather than being faithful Hemingway, which I gather it’s not, or a full-on religious tract, it’s much too mysterious to be a straight message movie. I believe the very expensive Borzage book, which is very good, suggests a reading of the work based on Mozart’s masonic opera The Magic Flute, which may be true, but I think I prefer the mystical confusion this film provokes to any precise allegorical interp.
Of course, you can get some lovely Christians, but it’s a way of seeing things I’ve never understood. Not only do I not believe in God, but the only God I can clearly envisage looks like Robert Crumb’s Mr. Natural cartoon and acts like Dr. Mengele, so Borzage might seem like someone I would struggle to apprehend. But I quite like the struggle.
Borzage is a Christian from Mars! Not only is he shockingly devoid of prejudice and surprisingly open about sex (even for the pre-code era), he also appears not to care a fig for ecclesiastical convention — in both this film and MAN’S CASTLE, marriages are performed (having already been consummated) that are clearly designated as having no legal force or official recognition, but which we are obviously meant to accept as, if anything, all the more valid for that. It may form part of the answer to this mystery that Borz was a Freemason, though he had grown up under the influence of Catholicism and Mormonism, so his sense of spirituality was naturally both broad and rather quirky.
It’s an exciting adventure for me to delve into such a strange, alien sensibility, to explore the world of these films leaving my own prejudices at the opening credits, and collecting them at the end to find them slightly altered, hard to recognise.