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Blu-ray Review: A Farewell to Arms (1932)

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The Film

Two formidable artistic talents meet in Frank Borzage’s 1932 film adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s classic WWI novel A Farewell to Arms. It’s Borzage’s signature stamp that’s imprinted on nearly every frame though — this is no cinematic transposition of Hemingway’s terse, unadorned literary style. Rather, Borzage goes in largely the opposite direction, suffusing the narrative of war-riven love with unabashed romanticism. The result is largely glorious.

Gary Cooper stars as Lt. Frederic Henry, an American serving in the Italian army as an ambulance driver. One gets the impression that Frederic isn’t much interested in soldierly duties, and that apathy becomes magnified by his air raid introduction to Red Cross nurse Catherine Barkley (Helen Hayes), who he mistakes for a prostitute. Despite the poor first impression and the fact that Catherine is none other than the unrequited love of Frederic’s doctor friend Major Rinaldi (Adolphe Menjou), Frederic and Catherine are soon deeply in love.

Trouble is, their relationship goes against army regulation and neither is especially good about keeping the romance under wraps. Transfers and the call of duty soon separate the pair, leading to a succession of moments where Borzage cranks up the longing, allowing the lovers to reunite briefly when Frederic is injured, but rending them apart again and stranding Catherine in a Switzerland hovel, pregnant and alone.

Borzage avoids showing us almost any typically war-like images, even if the effects are clear in the run-down urban locales the characters inhabit. But the wonders of love can supersede the most miserable of realities, and Borzage concocts a lovely, gauzy fantasia of images whenever Frederic and Catherine are together. His overtly melodramatic staging is accompanied by a flurry of expressionistic choices, building up to a fever pitch of emotion by the film’s conclusion.

The Blu-ray Disc

Another rescue from the public domain pit, Kino’s Blu-ray of A Farewell to Arms is a solid disc on all fronts, featuring a master sourced from an Eastman House-preserved nitrate 35mm print. The 1080p high definition transfer is never exceptionally sharp, thanks to Borzage’s dreamy aesthetic, but the images are clean and full of fine detail. The film’s prominent grain structure has been left untouched, and the resulting film-like images are very pleasing.

The 2.0 mono track is limited by age, but the gentle hissing that occasionally asserts itself isn’t a major distraction from the clean, if a little tinny dialogue.

Special Features

Only an image gallery and trailers for several Kino releases.

The Bottom Line

Purist fans of the Hemingway novel may be turned off by Borzage’s achingly melodramatic aesthetic here, but the film is an impressive artistic accomplishment in its own right, and the Blu-ray features it looking better than ever on home video.

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About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.