A Farewell to Arms (1932)
“Every woman who has loved will understand.”
Director: Frank Borzage
Cast: Gary Cooper, Helen Hayes, Adolphe Menjou
Synopsis: Frederic Henry, an American driving ambulances for the Italian Army during World War I, falls for British Red Cross nurse Catherine Barkley, to the displeasure of jealous commanding officer Major Rinaldi, who transfers Catherine to a different hospital out of spite.
Frank Borzage, an accomplished director noted for the sentimental content of his movies, appears a curious choice to film a screen adaptation of a novel by Ernest Hemingway, whose pared-down prose was pretty much the antithesis of the kind of work Borzage produced. Paramount’s decision to appoint him as A Farewell to Arms’ director must have alerted Hemingway to the fact that the movie version of his novel would focus more on the romantic aspect of his story than its more serious themes. Like much of Hemingway’s work, there are a lot of autobiographical details in his book, so it’s perhaps little wonder that he despised the way in which Hollywood turned his story into a sentimental tearjerker. That’s not to say A Farewell to Arms isn’t a good movie — it admirably achieves almost everything it sets out to do — it’s just not a faithful adaptation of Hemingway’s vision.
During the First World War, Italian surgeon Captain Rinaldi (Adolphe Menjou — A Woman of Paris, Paths of Glory) and ambulance driver Frederick Henry (Gary Cooper — Mr Deeds Goes to Town, High Noon) survive as best they can, seeking refuge from the war in alcohol and women. Henry possesses a detachment from the horrors around him, riding gunshot in the opening scene with his hat pulled over his eyes and his head down, and Rinaldi deflects thoughts of the horrific injuries he witnesses on the operating table with an energetic charm. He is in love with a nurse, and encourages Henry to join him on a double date. But Henry has met the nurse, Catherine Barkley (Helen Hayes – Anastasia), before, mistaking her for a prostitute as he emerged from a brothel during an air raid. The attraction between them is instant and obvious, much to the annoyance of both Rinaldi and Helen Ferguson (Mary Philips), the nurse who was supposed to be Henry’s date (and whom the film suggests might have a crush on Catherine herself).
A romance quickly develops between Henry and Catherine, but a jealous Rinaldi has Catherine transferred to Milan, while Henry is sent to the front. However, when Henry is wounded, Rinaldi arranges for his friend to be sent to Milan so that he can be cared for by Catherine. The lovers enjoy a brief respite from the war, but their happiness comes to an abrupt end when the head nurse finds bottles of alcohol in Henry’s room and has him sent back to the front. He departs, unaware that Catherine is pregnant by him. She moves to Switzerland to be closer to him, but Rinaldi, his jealousy renewed, prevents Henry’s letters from being posted to Catherine, and has all of hers returned unopened…
While A Farewell to Arms should really have been about how war changes people and tears lovers apart, the movie version focuses more on how Henry places a higher value on his personal relationship than his duties during a period of war. Because of this, he doesn’t come across as a character entirely deserving of our sympathy, especially as it is not the war but friends (both Rinaldi and Ferguson) who keep he and Catherine apart. Setting aside the emotional stimulus that prompts Henry’s desertion, his behaviour can be seen as nothing other than selfish, with Hemingway’s intended pacifist message fatally diluted as a result.
Technically at least, Borzage delivers a remarkably assured piece of work at a time when Hollywood was only just beginning to come to grips with the new technology of sound. Charles Lang’s fluid cinematography belies the traditional wisdom that the advent of sound shackled the camera, particularly in the long POV shot during which Henry is carried into the hospital following his injury, and in the way the camera roams around Catherine’s modest hotel room as she writes to Henry (in a letter he’ll never receive) of its opulence. Borzage also devises a closing shot that is justly famous, but which illustrates just how far the Hollywood version of the story had strayed from Hemingway’s vision.
(Reviewed 26th January 2014)