American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
"A Separate Peace" takes place mostly on the campus of an upper class New England prep school, a quiet and isolated corner of a world on the brink of World War II. That war was so different in so many ways from our Vietnamese adventure that this movie serves as a reminder of how much things have changed. The boys at the school wait impatiently for the day when they will be released at last from their senior year, and are free to enlist. Their separate peace is a tentative and very temporary one, lingering through the last days of peacetime.
The movie is based, of course, on the John Knowles novel that's become something of a standby in college lit courses. It's a novel that's especially handy for teaching undergraduates, because it's so easy to take apart and put back together again, and students can see how the pieces are all supposed to fit. There are several levels of symbolism -- none very hard to find -- and just enough ambiguity to convince us there are psychological depths we haven't quite plumbed. Also, by the way, it's a good read; Knowles uses a first-person narration that creates his young hero in much the same way that J. D. Salinger created Holden Caulfield in "Catcher in the Rye."
These are all literary qualities, however, and tricky to reproduce in a movie. Director Larry Peerce ("Goodbye, Columbus") does as good a job as is probably possible, however and readers of the novel will not feel disappointed or cheated. All of the characters and most of the situations are here, presented with great fidelity to the book. And Peerce shot on location at Knowles' own old prep school, so the locations inevitably look just as we'd imagined them.
The Knowles story was as simple on its surface as it was complex underneath. He told of two roommates at the school: Gene, who was a good, somewhat shy scholar, and Finny, who was a natural athlete brimming with charisma and trust. Gene has a love-hate relationship with Finny, admiring him for his limitless good qualities but at the same time envying him. And Finny -- well, Finny is one of those saint-like young men who cannot imagine evil in the world, and joyfully participate in life.