A FAREWELL TO ARMS —- one of the bigger movie adaptation fails of the 50s, managing to overwhelm and submerge the Hemingway novel, keelhaul its stars and founder the career of producer David O. Selznick: an ignominious fini boot to one of Hollywood’s legendary creative (and most interfering) giants.
Rock Hudson plays an American ambulance driver who falls in love with an English nurse (Jennifer Jones) during the Italian campaigns of World War 1. Some of the emoting is so insufferably earnest and breathless that after the first ninety minutes has ground by the idea of another hour of their scenes together has you look forward to a tragic resolution. Checkmating points he’d garnered from Giant, Hudson said this was the biggest mistake of his career, passing on the chance to star in Sayonara (Marlon got that one) and Ben-Hur (that would be Chuck).
He comes off like Olivier, though, next to the hysterical gasping of his leading lady: after this outing, Jones would stay off-screen for five years. Their love scenes may actually hurt you. The terrible dialogue in Ben Hecht’s adaptation punishes them more than the trials of the Italian Front, for which you would volunteer in order to escape their endless pronouncements of LOVE (the “oh, yes, yes, my darling” variety). Give me a frozen trench. Rock gets the best line: “This is the price you pay for sleeping together?” It has more gravity in retrospect when you realize that’s nearly word-for-word what he’d muse in one of his comedies with Doris Day, and with same intonation. Jones, beyond her bad British accent, is just awful: it’s the low point in her career. Rarely in a big film have two leads striven so ardently and produced so little chemistry.
Shot expansively on location in Italy and Switzerland, with $4,353,000 expended (not counting advertising) and 9,000 extras filling up the screen along with the Alps, the spectacle is impressive. The big, long, sweeping film may irritate Hemingway purists, and critics then & now drub it, but it has some worth: saving grace is provided with a wrenching portrayal from Vittorio De Sica, who picked up an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. His scenes, and some moments concerning the disastrous retreat from Caporetto, have power, even if they serve to highlight the disappointment over what could have been.
Selznick broke the bank (and everybody’s balls) trying to duplicate the success he’d had with wife Jones a decade earlier in his monster hit Duel in the Sun. John Huston was originally on to direct, but the overbearing, speed-binging, five-pack-a-day Selznick fired him and replaced him with Charles Vidor. He also went through a cameraman, three art directors, a production manager, an effects supervisor and the entire staff of the Roman villa he and his princess rented.
Co-stars bobbing in the 152-minute flotsam are Oscar Homolka, Mercedes McCambridge (wasted), Elaine Stritch (very good, stealing every scene she’s in), Kurt Kasznar, Alberto Sordi (garbled), Victor Francen and Jose Nieto. The fine cinematography can be credited to Oswald Morris, James Wong Howe and Piero Portalupi. Mario Nascimbene gives it a mushy score. Despite dissatisfaction all around (not least Hemingway), the expensive film did well, swooning or eye-popping audience enough to come in at #8 for the years money makers, amassing $25,000,000 worldwide.
‘Farewell‘ says hello in two other versions: 1932s, the best regarded, with Gary Cooper & Helen Hayes, and the 1996 In Love and War, which required an ambulance at the #196 box-office spot for its year. One could also…read the book….