A FAREWELL TO ARMS
½*/**** Image B Sound B- Extras D
starring Rock Hudson, Jennifer Jones, Vittorio De Sica, Mercedes McCambridge
screenplay by Ben Hecht, based on the novel by Ernest Hemingway
directed by Charles Vidor
FRANCIS OF ASSISI
*/**** Image B Sound B- Extras D
starring Bradford Dillman, Dolores Hart, Stuart Whitman, Pedro Armendariz
screenplay by Eugene Vale, James Forsyth and Jack Thomas
directed by Michael Curtiz
by Walter Chaw One of David O. Selznick's many attempts to shape the largely immutable mug of lady-love Jennifer Jones into the face that launched a thousand cinematic ships, the badly-fumbled Hemingway adaptation A Farewell to Arms finds Jones, about two decades past the age of her Red Cross nightingale Catherine, paired opposite the not-quite-long-in-the-tooth-but-almost Rock Hudson as her doomed love Lt. Henry. The setting is Italy during The Great War; playboy Lt. Henry falls for mad "Cat," who, as written by the legendary Ben Hecht (himself a decade removed from his best work and well on his way to becoming king of cheese epics), comes off as an entirely inappropriate nod to Blanche Dubois. Selznick served John Huston--the right man for this picture--his walking papers early on for correctly identifying the love story in Hemingway's novel as just a metaphor for the tragedy and irony of WWI's carnage, subbing Huston with second-stringer Charles Vidor, who meekly agreed to amplify the alleged love between Lt. Henry and Cat while pushing all manner of hysterical spectacle to the wings of the proscenium.
The results aren't appalling so much as overwrought, the whole exercise boiling down to the horrific performances of Jones and Hudson as they emote madly against a huge-budgeted backdrop of corpses nursing babies and sleeping mothers in caravans letting infants slip from their hands. It's every Special Episode of "M*A*S*H" bloated to a sadistic 152 minutes through repetitive alternating scenes of masses of extras marching around in the mud and Lt. Henry's jovial dumb-guy shtick among the tittering nurses. When Cat succumbs to a complicated birth, gone is the cool denial of Hemingway's cult of manhood, and in its place is one of the most ridiculous (and ridiculously protracted) death scenes in the annals of embarrassing moments captured on celluloid. Hudson's tearful calls to the heavens are one thing, but Jones's ridiculous death throes sound for the world like porn-queen moans dubbed over footage of a big giant hambone in a bad wig and filthy bedclothes. Not a good war film and quite a terrible romantic drama, A Farewell to Arms is guilty of all the grand delusions of Selznick's run and none of its flashes of redemptive brilliance. Think Duel in the Sun without King Vidor--and shudder.
Better yet, think Duel in the Sun with placeholder Michael Curtiz, a man who never met a stationary camera he didn't romance, as evidenced by his bloated historical biopic Francis of Assisi. Appearing four years after A Farewell to Arms in 1961, it's a relic in the middle of one of the most important, most courageous years in mainstream cinema (The Hustler, The Innocents, One, Two, Three, West Side Story, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and so on). Francis of Assisi is more of the stale old stuff the Sixties were trying to address: another airless, suffocating costume melodrama (moreover, another '50s spiritual epic) that hits on the highlights of a saint's life with slipshod brevity (and an almost feckless sense of fait accompli), looking for tension in sainted Francis's (Bradford Dillman) relationship with worldly best pal Paolo (Stuart Whitman) while plucky ingénue Dolores Hart is saddled with the lion's share of horrific faux-Biblical dialogue. Mostly, it's people standing around in felt costumes as Mario Nascimbene's lyre-heavy score does its best to convey place and time.
Worst is Francis's confrontation and cowing of a band of cowardly Muslims. Meanwhile, the picture's final revelation of his blessedness comes not in his celebrated kindness to animals, but in the appearance of stigmata that, by themselves, are meant to sanctify the soft, half-whispered platitudes of a Shakespearean cast-off in a tunic and tights. Clocking in at a completely reasonable 105 minutes but lacking any sense of how to pace itself, Francis of Assisi feels almost as long as A Farewell to Arms. And that's really friggin' long.
Fox presents A Farewell to Arms and Francis of Assisi on DVD in glorious 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfers (the latter misidentified on the box art as 1.85:1) that preserve their CinemaScope origins and, more, honour them with popping the colours and by saturating the screen with the curious sterility of the process. (Mud never looked so clean.) Both pictures suffer from their immaculate reconceptions in that the expert scrubbing has revealed the essential ugliness of their colour schemes: primary hues rule the day in Francis of Assisi, making it look like a Teletubbies version of religious hokum; A Farewell to Arms, steeped in a palette of gunmetal grey and rock, only takes a break from the tedium to splash on nurse whites and red crosses.
Each epic, in its way, is an example of what happens when a lot of money is spent on everything except the things that truly matter to a film's longevity, like a speakable screenplay, for instance, or affecting performances. DD 3.0 audio decorates A Farewell to Arms, showing some fairly impressive channel separation but exhibiting a noticeable hollowness in its many distended dialogue sequences. Francis of Assisi adds an additional channel with its DD 4.0 track, and, sure enough, not only does the score filter in from the skies, in one odd moment, a flock of doves races across the right registers, too. Not bad, all things considered.
Francis of Assisi comes with the brief, audio-free "Behind the Scenes of Francis of Assisi" (7 mins.), which shows black-and-white B-roll footage of an aged Curtiz (this was one of his last films) directing his actors on the set. Another supplement, "Mayor of San Francisco receives a statuette from Assisi Italy" (1 min.), is exactly what it sounds like done in the Movietone News style. A theatrical trailer and trailers for The Agony and the Ecstasy, The Bible, Demetrius and the Gladiators, Hangman's Curse, The Robe, and Satan Never Sleeps round out the Francis of Assisi disc.
A Farewell to Arms is similarly sparse. "A Farewell to Arms Hollywood Premiere New Year Sensation" (1 min.) gives the Movietone treatment to footage of Vidor, et al walking the red carpet, and "Photoplay Magazine Awards" (1 min.) does the same for the titular ceremony's bestowing of their gold medal to Rock Hudson for this dud (Hedda Hopper does the honours, telling me that yesteryear's Photoplay is today's Hollywood Foreign Press). Lastly, "Meg at the Premiere of A Farewell to Arms" (1 min.) catches Princess "Meg" Margaret arriving at the London premiere. A theatrical trailer drops the curtain on this mess. Originally published: November 8, 2005.