A Farewell to Arms – “A dark commentary on military action…”

Based on the Ernest Hemingway semi-autobiographical A Farewell to Arms, Frank Borzage’s 1932 film is considered one of the best adaptations of his novels.

An important film that tackles the war pessimistically, it celebrates the unique and romantic love forged between a Lieutenant and nurse and the tragic outcome. A Farewell to Arms boldly stated how commonplace pre-marital sex was during the Great War, while also tackling the fracturing relationship and conflict soldiers had towards the cause itself. Something frowned upon by the Hays Code who deemed that “lustful kissing” and the scenes of childbirth needed to be excised from the film. Thank God David O. Selznick had an original nitrate copy after garnering the rights for his remake in 1955, for Lobster Films to restore.

Bombs explode during the opening credits. A Farewell to Arms charts Lt. Frederic Henry’s (Gary Cooper) career as an American, working for the ambulances on the Italian Front. Arriving at a local hospital, Major Rinaldi (Adolph Menjou) recommends the nurses – and specifically Ms. Catherine Barclay (Helen Hayes). Frederic and Catherine meet, by chance, when bombs hit the town and he drunkenly plays with her foot, mistaking her for someone else. Their romance blossoms, something the nurses are displeased with. Officers, including Rinaldi, become worried Frederic will “lose his head over some woman”. Fate brings them together in Milan, whereby Frederic is injured and Catherine by his bedside. Their love distracts them from the war, but it isn’t long before Lt. Henry is called back to the front. Reluctantly they part ways, though Frederic is unaware of her pregnancy…

One would expect the Lieutenant to fight, return to his girlfriend with child, to live their life together. Slight alterations from the book are expected, but a positive end is not Hemingway. The Lieutenant doesn’t see what he is fighting for and, against regulation, runs away from the front. Arrested, he flees to Switzerland, only to hold his lover as she dies in his arms.

farewell1The opening alone hints at such a dark commentary on military action, as we pan over a hill to reveal a dead soldier with a missing leg. A throwaway attitude to women is also callous and flippant. “What sort of town is it? Any girls?”/”…a house full of them”. The Hays Production Code in 1934 cut these “sordid” moments, and even inserted a shot of a wedding ring being placed on Catherine’s hand (despite talk of a wedding later in the film!) to try and create a more “decent” picture.

But this is what makes A Farewell to Arms so powerful. The re-release of Rome, Open City revealed the pressures and losses during World War II and All Quiet on the Western Front told us about the horrors. we can look back on war with a certain nostalgia, or sense of pride. A Farewell to Arms tells us how awful it can be – while in the foreground is a loving relationship that we should all be so lucky to have.

This post was originally written for Flickering Myth on 30th May 2014

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