After seeing Borzage’s Depression drama Man’s Castle, I was keen to see more of his pre-Code work – and, having now seen A Farewell to Arms twice, must say I think it is a masterpiece. I’ll admit that I don’t remember Hemingway’s novel very well and am not sure how much resemblance the film bears to the book (not much, according to Hemingway himself, who was unimpressed). But, if you don’t worry about comparisons with the printed page, the film itself is powerful – with great performances from both Gary Cooper and top-billed Helen Hayes, Oscar-winning cinematography by Charles Lang, and a blend of wild romance and dark, unsentimental depictions of war and suffering.
When seeking out this film, it pays to be careful which version you watch. There are a lot of public domain DVDs around containing a censored version from a later cinema release, cutting out 10 minutes of footage, including two sexual encounters which are vital to the plot. I ended up watching the film in this mutilated form to start with, and was confused by how much it jumped around in the early scenes – and also by the fact that some conversations made no sense. However, when I looked up some information about the movie, all became clear. I realised that it was in fact 89 minutes long, and what I had seen was a 79-minute version cut to remove the pre-Code content.
I then got hold of a complete version and discovered just how much I’d missed first time around. The DVD from Dynamic available in the UK appears to be complete (despite being extremely cheap), while in region 1 I’m told the version to go for is the one from Image Entertainment. The quality of the sound and picture are also much better in the longer version than in the short one, so it looks as if there has been some restoration. One way to tell immediately whether you have a censored print is the introductory writing in the opening frame – the later cut version refers to “the First World War”, whereas the original says “the World War”, since the second one hadn’t happened yet.
The film is set in Italy, where American Frederic Henry (Cooper) is working as an ambulance driver for the Italian army, just as Hemingway did in real life. Frederic and his best friend, Italian Major Rinaldi (Alphonse Menjou), lead a life of ferocious drinking and womanising whenever they are off duty, and an early scene sees a drunken Frederic in a brothel, caressing the foot of a prostitute as he tries to explain to her that the arch was the oldest architectural feature. Due to confusion during an air raid, he is thrown together with English nurse Catherine Barkley (Hayes), takes her for the prostitute and starts to caress her foot too – much to her disgust.
However, when Frederic meets Catherine again in the light of day, after he has sobered up, the couple are instantly attracted. Because it is wartime, they decide there is no time to lose (Frederic does actually quote Andrew Marvell’s great poem of seduction, ‘To His Coy Mistress’ at one stage in the film) and sleep together on their first date, under the stars in a churchyard. This is one of the scenes that was lost in the censored version (as is the brothel sequence) – and that is a shame, because it is quite breathtaking. “What’s the sense in waiting anyway?” whispers Frederic, lying on top of Catherine on the ground and kissing his way down her neck. “You give me your mouth today… your throat tomorrow…”
The next day he is sent away to the front, due to the jealous machinations of the sexually ambiguous Rinaldi, who claims he loved Catherine first – though I thought there are suggestions he is really interested in Frederic. Whatever his motivation, he is always trying to keep the couple apart, all through the film. However, Frederic asks Catherine to wait for him before he goes, and he is soon back in her arms, this time as a patient, after being badly injured in unheroic circumstances. “I was wounded while eating cheese,” he admits. The whole scene where he is wheeled into the hospital on a stretcher is shown from his viewpoint, with faces peering down at him from above and whirling in and out of view, something which works well and gives a feeling of his fear and helplessness.
A young priest (Jack La Rue) who is a friend of Frederic’s visits him in hospital and unofficially “marries” the couple by saying a prayer – in effect giving his blessing for them to have sex again, as they do, in Frederic’s hospital bed, as soon as their visitor has left. This is like the unofficial wedding ceremony in Man’s Castle – and there are quite a few similarities between the films, most of all the intense romantic relationship between the central couple and the feeling that they are making a world of their own despite everything being stacked up against them.
The rest of this review gives away the ending.
I won’t go over all the rest of the plot in detail, but once Frederic has gone back to the war Catherine faces her own battle. She reveals to her best friend, fellow-nurse Helen Ferguson (Mary Philips) that she is pregnant and goes off to Switzerland to give birth alone. Frederic is unable to get in touch with her or discover where she has gone (due to Rinaldi tampering with the mail), and decides to desert in order to find her, declaring that the war and army now mean nothing to him. The most powerful sequence of the whole film is a devastating dark montage of the men marching and fighting in mud and rain, accompanied by music. It is interesting to see how there were still, in effect, silent film sequences being made even three years after the introduction of talkies.
When Frederic does finally find Catherine, she is dying, after losing their baby, and there are some emotional scenes between them. One moment which really struck me was when Frederic is sent across the street to get something to eat and says to the middle-aged cafe owner: “You’ve had children… what was it like?” “I beg your pardon! What did you say?” she demands furiously, and he backs down, murmuring “Nothing… just a cup of coffee.”
The very final scene sees Frederic scooping the dead Catherine up in his arms and carrying her body, in her long white gown, over to the window, just as the bells are ringing out for the end of the war. “Peace… peace,” he whispers in a voice full of despair, making it clear that he means both Catherine and the country. (I’ve seen a suggestion that this scene might have influenced William Wyler’s Wuthering Heights.) The Liebestod section of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is playing loudly in the background and there is a glimpse of birds flying away, presumably representing Catherine’s soul, and it does all get a bit much – but that shot of the couple at the window is magnificent. I’ve read that in the US a happy ending was tagged on where Catherine survived, but my DVD doesn’t include this and I haven’t been able to find it online – if anyone can point me to this scene anywhere, I’d be grateful, though I’m glad that the original tragic ending has now been restored.