Monday, April 08, 2002


In my experience, Hemingway has not been well served by Hollywood. They got close with this one, but his sparse writing style, which usually gives his work a certain tension and immediacy, is lost in the translation of this novel to the screen. Gary Cooper is Lt. Henry, an ambulance driver in France during the First World War. He meets up with a nurse (Helen Hayes) and falls in love. They have a brief, torrid affair (clearly involving sex, a point that could not have been made so boldly only a few years later when the Production Code kicked in) and while he's hospitalized, a priest whispers a wedding ceremony for them so they can feel married in the eyes of God, if not the state. A jealous commanding officer (Adolphe Menjou) tries to keep them apart, but also, oddly enough, occasionally helps get them together; it's almost like he's a capricious god playing blithely with their lives. While apart, she goes to Switzerland to have a baby (with Menjou assuring that their letters do not get through to each other, Cooper doesn't know she's pregnant). Cooper eventually tracks her down but not in time to avoid a tragic ending.

The director, Frank Borzage, was clearly not terribly interested in the war angle, which comes across more stongly in the novel. We see little in the way of battle except for an impressionistic montage late in the movie. The cinematographer, Charles Lang, deservedly won an Oscar for his luminous and fluid black and white camera work. A standout sequence is shot from Cooper's point of view as he's carried through the hospital on a stretcher; we see the cathedral-like main floor, the intruding faces of nurses looking down on him, and finally Hayes bending down to kiss him/us. As Hemingway, not great, but worth seeing for the acting and the camera work.

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