Maddening to one’s sense of fairness to read back-cover promotion like this: A Farewell to Arms is “the best American novel to emerge out of World War I...an unforgettable story of an American ambulance driver on the Italian front and his love for a beautiful English nurse. Hemingway’s frank portrayal of the love between Lt. Henry and Catherine Barkley, caught in the inexorable sweep of war, glows with an intensity unrivaled in modern literature...his description of the German attack on Caporetto bears comparison to Stendhal’s depiction of the retreat from Waterloo. Richer in language, more subtle in expression, and emotionally astute, (the novel) symbolizes Hemingway’s farewell to an attitude, a time, and a literary method. Published when Hemingway was just thirty, it confirmed his stature as the greatest single influence on the American short story and novel.” After that, what’s left but the Nobel Prize? If the Hemingway cult is a bit much, what’s undeniable is his gift for the laconic—his shorthand prose and dialogue achieve his stories’ purposes better than just about any other stylist. For example, when Catherine says “It’s just a dirty trick” before she kicks the bucket, you’re tempted to jeer at the fatalism, but at the same time you may find yourself applauding Papa’s 1929 audacity—it’s the kind of “paying for your sins of happiness” one could have expected Carol Burnett’s skit writers to make into classic camp. Irrefutable that his punchy economic technique has infected generations of writers—your immune system warns of them in just about every kind of entertainment writing: high classers, pulp, pop trash, science fiction, horror stuff, in movies, on TV dramas, sitcoms and soaps, on talk radio. Even news has become bastardized Hemingway: the day’s stories are compacted into pugil stick tutorials and pithy reproaches. Hemingway’s impatience, arrogance and intense lack of subtly represent who we tend to envision ourselves as and even if some of us aren’t as appreciative of his art as others hold we should be—Camille Paglia thinks it’s scandalous that some resist worshipping him as “the inventor of the lingua franca of American journalism”—what he gives us as imagery of himself is so powerful that, like we do with Mailer, we absorb the bravura myth disproportionate to what’s real. (They’re monsters, but they’re our monsters as literary royalty, though Papa would likely regard the joint adoration as treason, in that he once said of Mailer’s The Naked and The Dead: “The whole book’s just diarrhea of the typewriter.”) What Hemingway doesn’t produce as novelist is in-depth character and detail: unlike Mailer, he hasn’t the tolerance for more than broadstroking, he can’t be bothered with biography or, in Farewell, with much historic context. The book’s a blend of some of his nonfiction and a lot of personal and travel experiences that eclipse the catastrophe of war; so it’s simply bogus praise that he’s compared to Stendhal (or John Reed, the real architect of American-style news reporting) when what he’s really doing is editorially dramatizing a travelogue. (He’d do the same with The Sun Also Rises.) It’s Aldous Huxley who found the cloak of insufficiency inherent in the argot: “What Hemingway had to say was in the white spaces between the lines.” (And before Huxley, D.H. Lawrence wrote: Hemingway “keeps on making flights, but he has no illusion about landing anywhere. He knows it will be nowhere every time.”) Ben Hecht, who gets the screenplay credit for the ’57 A Farewell to Arms, screamed at producer David O. Selznick about the hopelessness of adaptation, “That sonofabitch writes in water!” But in An Open Book, John Huston, who was first director and promptly opted out, exposes a more deadly obstacle: Selznick’s “love for Jennifer Jones was very real and touching but in it lay the seeds of the failures that marked the last years of his life. Everything he did was for Jennifer...to the detriment of his good judgment. He never did anything worth a damn after he married her.” The novel’s been turned into one of those Wednesday matinee hard ticket weepies—with Jones suffering for the martini’d blue hairs in the audience. Already seventeen years older than her character, Jones is beyond a little embarrassing to watch; deluded by Selznick and the production’s inflation, she thinks she can do the boozy hospital bed love scenes. There’s one facet we come to believe, however: that not only is Catherine in her own words “a little gone off,” so is Jones. In what performance isn’t she slouching towards Bonkersville? Could anyone call her certifiably sane in Song of Bernadette, Duel in the Sun, Madame Bovery and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit? Farewell does have its compensations: In his dark and shiny hair, Rock Hudson is King of the amiable 50s glamour boys, an American strapper; with a super drop-dead friendliness, flashing an “I’m yours” smile, he’s nothing if not a CinemaScope glossy. (Original cinematographer Oswald Morris was fired by Selznick for giving more attention to Hudson than Jones.) Not Hemingway as Hemingway writes about himself in the novel, but Hudson’s quite possibly what Hemingway might have hoped for himself at his most physically ideal. (What a John Waters moment it must have been when the studios discovered that Hudson was getting more fan male than mail.) Mercedes McCambridge in her third of four consecutive bids to be the bitch movie goers love to hate the most. Though some of the wintery mountain pans of the troops and weaponry have impressive scale, Selznick can’t help himself by inserting GWTW bits like wagons moving through fires and Jennifer imitating Scarlett’s after-sex glow. Mario Nascimbene’s score gets a little too funereal with the organ. After watching 35 minutes of the movie, Hemingway told writer A.E. Hotchner, “You know, Hotch, you write a book like that that you’re fond of over the years, then you see that happen to it, it’s like pissing in your father’s beer.” In Showman, biographer David Thomson reports that when Hemingway spotted Selznick in Pamplona, he blew a fuse: “I’m going to kill him! Son of a bitch! He ruined my book!” Hudson won the Harvard Lampoon’s Worst Actor of the Year; Vittorio De Sica won an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. Very limited unsuccessful run as a roadshow.
Text COPYRIGHT © 2002 RALPH BENNER All Rights Reserved.