Not only the best film version of a Hemingway novel, but also one of the most thrilling visions of the power of sexual love that even Borzage ever made. An American ambulanceman, serving in Italy in World War I, falls in love with an English nurse; he finally goes AWOL to rejoin her, only to find her carrying his child and dying of hunger and loneliness. No other director got performances like these: Cooper at his youngest and sexiest, moving from drunkenness to intoxication; moon-faced Hayes, at once a mother-figure and a lover; and Menjou as Cooper’s repressed homosexual friend, jealously coming between the lovers. And no other director created images like these, using light and movement like brushstrokes, integrating naturalism and a daring expressionism in the same shot. This is romantic melodrama raised to its highest degree, fittingly set to the music of Wagner’s ‘Liebestod’.
There is a well known publicity still from A Farewell to Arms showing Gary Cooper running his finger along the top of a woman’s foot as he looks up into her face, which is out of frame. While the image suggests something of the fetishistic world of Luis Buñuel, its function within A Farewell to Arms itself is not quite of this order. Cooper’s character in the film is an architect by profession (“The most ancient of arts,” he says, an almost Masonic statement) and he discusses the foot here in architectural terms, emphasizing the beauty of a foot’s arch. (Joe McElhaney, Frank Borzage: Architect of Ineffable Desires)
As with a number of directors working in the late 1920s, Borzage fell under the influence of F.W. Murnau. Although Borzage directed some significant films prior to the international awareness of Murnau in the mid-1920s, it is after this that we find in Borzage an increasingly voluptuous response to the properties of light and shadow, to clothing and decor, and to movement. … But Borzage’s lovers seem at once more sexual and more innocent than Murnau’s, a paradox which stands at the center of much of Borzage’s cinema. … The eroticism of Borzage’s work, though, extends to another major element of mise en scène: the actor. This cinema is clearly one of expressive gestural bodies and beautiful faces responding to one another with directness and transparency, the camera transmitting this eroticism to the spectator in an equally direct and transparent manner that seems at once movingly naive and boldly modern. (Joe McElhaney)
Aside 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. (David Cairns, “I was blown up eating cheese“)
Hemingway disliked most of the movies based on his work, and he was grandly contemptuous of Frank Borzage’s version of Farewell to Arms, but time has been kind to the film. It launders out the writer’s “I love you, you’re good and plain and clean, but we’re all going to die”-style pessimism and replaces it with a testament to the eternal love between a couple. This was Borzage’s lifelong theme and he goes as far with it here as he ever went, past death and beyond. It was his favorite of his movies. (Dan Callahan, review of Kino DVD)
The winding sheet that visually weds the soulmates at the end of A Farewell To Arms signals a special kind of holy ground. “Time’s wingèd chariot” may threaten but never conquer this charmed circle of warmth and light (think of hearth in Man’s Castle: Trina’s luminous face, the emblematic stove); even the grave can become a “fine and pleasant place” where lovers do embrace. (Marvell’s poem “To His Coy Mistress” informs Farewell‘s every stolen moment; it might stand as epigraph to Borzage’s cinema.) Such a heaven’s proof against grounded life, visualized in constricted, dehumanizing spaces where isolated, inauthentic souls are darkly deformed. (Kathleen Murphy, Pilgrims’ Progress: On the Road with Frank Borzage’s Earth Angels)
Simply stated, Borzage’s main theme is the power of love to transform those who love. Love is a healing and redemptive force that propels the lovers and those who surround them into a transcendental dimension, a spiritual realm beyond death, time, and space. The quintessential Borzagean narrative involves a couple braving the storms of life — mainly poverty and war, but also intolerance and selfishness — to find, through their love and suffering, a safe port. The opening intertitle of Street Angel summarizes the defining theme of Borzage’s whole work: “Everywhere . . . in every town . . . in every street . . . we pass, unknowing, human souls made great through love and adversity.” (Maria Elena de las Carreras Kuntz, Transformed by Love: The Films of Frank Borzage)