A Farewell to Arms (Frank Borzage, 1932)

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.

Gary Cooper and Adolphe Menjou in the brothel scene

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.

Gary Cooper, Helen Hayes and Jack La Rue in the "wedding" scene

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.

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21 thoughts on “A Farewell to Arms (Frank Borzage, 1932)

  1. I’ve never seen this version Judy. I do have the Selznick remake and I’m a huge Hemingway fan so I ought to get around to this one. I think it’s mainly my reservations about PD print quality that’s been putting me off but I may give that Dynamic disc a go if I can hunt it down.

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    • I think you’d enjoy it, Colin – I got the Dynamic disc via Amazon.co.uk for a couple of quid, including postage! The sleeve of it is the second poster in my review, with the brown background. The picture quality is definitely much better than the usual PD in this version. I haven’t seen the Selznick version but hope to do so in the future. Thank you!

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  2. Very nice post! Thank you.
    My only problem with the film is Gary Cooper who had limited dramatic range. Frederick March would have been so good in this film! The Borzage version is so much better than the later version with Jennifer Jones and Rock Hudson. Rock Hudson (who actually gave one of his better preformances) had the dramatic range of a fence post and Jones was too old for the character, but at least she could act.

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    • Thanks, Muriel – I really like Gary Cooper, so can’t agree with you there, but glad you like the film. I haven’t seen the later version as yet, but just recently saw Rock Hudson in Douglas Sirk’s ‘The Tarnished Angels’ and must say I thought he was really good in that! I would mainly like to see it for Jennifer Jones, though, as she is such a good actress. As I get older I find I tend not to notice so much if actors are too old for the parts, as they all look young.:)

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  3. I agree with you about age. Unless it’s is egregious miscasting, it doesn’t matter if the acting is good.
    When I was a teenager, I thought Cooper both handsome and talented. He’s mighty handsome, but I can’t stand his acting anymore. He seems wooden and self concious to me. There is no other actor whose films I used to actively seek out and now, refuse to watch.
    Sirk seemed to bring out the best of Hudson. Hudson was cute in light comedies. He should have done more.

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  4. “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.)”

    Most interesting Judy! I can’t seem to recollect what ending is tacked onto the DVD I am holding (the Image) But I’ll certainly check it out, as I haven’t watched this minor classic in years. You done a fantastically detailed job in presenting the film here, and I quite agree that the montage sequence is the best in the film, easily. The film stands as one of the best versions of a Hemingway novel in the cinema.

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    • Hi Sam, I believe from what I’ve read that the print on the Image DVD is probably the same as the one on the DVD I’ve got. Glad we agree on that montage sequence, which is really haunting in its power. I haven’t seen all that many Hemingway adaptations, but did like Negulesco’s ‘Under My Skin’, starring John Garfield, which is based on one of his short stories – I reviewed that one a while back. Thank you so much for the very kind comments!

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  6. Judy, I saw this a few years ago on TCM. I’m not sure which version they show, but I thought it was beautifully filmed and very romantic. My strongest memories are of the scenes in the hospital at the end and especially that montage of war scenes. I’m with you that in cinematic terms, this was the best single part of the movie. Like some others who have left comments, I find Gary Cooper’s acting rather stiff, but I thought Borzage brought out a romancticism in him that Von Sternberg and others didn’t really seem to be able to tap into. Hayes, while not a conventional screen beauty, was marvelous, projecting the grace and sensitivity of her character through her emotions. The film was one of ten nominated for an Oscar for best picture, and Charles Lang was a deserving Oscar winner for best cinematography, his only win out of an incredible 18 nominations. I’ve seen many, many films of all genres he photographed, and he was one of the great studio cinematographers, always shooting a picture in a way that complemented its mood.

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    • Thank you very much for commenting, R.D. I especially like your description of Hayes’ acting – she is an actress I haven’t seen very much of, but will watch out for her work in future. I do also agree that Borzage brings out a romanticism in Cooper in this film – though I can’t agree on him being stiff as an actor. I am getting to be quite a fan of his and would prefer to describe him as restrained – I think there is often a feeling that the deep emotions are there, but he is keeping them under the surface.

      I’ve just looked up Charles Lang at the imdb and see that he had an amazing career, running from 1926 right through to 1973! I’ve only just realised that the previous film I’d watched, ‘Midnight’ from 1939, also had him as cinematographer – and the photography is great in that one too. I will definitely be looking out for his work in future. Many thanks again, R.D.

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  7. I didn’t realize there were two versions of this movie. I assume I saw the incomplete cut because I wasn’t crazy about it. I wonder if my thoughts will change with the scenes you say were cut restored.

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    • Hi Jason, if you saw a PD copy it may well have been incomplete, as with the first DVD I got from some obscure company… I think the cut shown on TCM should be complete, though. If you have only seen the censored version there really is a lot missing, including some of the best scenes, and even part of one or two conversations – for instance, it is never explained why the nurse at the beginning is being sacked, whereas in the full film it is stated straight away that she is pregnant by a soldier! I’d be interested to hear if your thoughts do change.

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  8. Judy, another excellent review! I haven’t seen this one yet, but I’d like to. And I have to throw my hat into Coop’s ring: I’m a fan. Like you, I consider his style restrained, not inept. He was very effective in many movies (Design for Living, Friendly Persuasion, Desire, Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, Ball of Fire, and so on; and BTW, if you haven’t seen Bluebeard and would like to, send me a message). I wasn’t always a Cooper fan, but I am now. And I see you mentioned Midnight in your comment above. One of my favorite movies! Charles Lang was amazing.

    I’m adding FAREWELL TO ARMS to my ever growing wish-to-see list. Thanks for whetting my appetite! And thanks to the other commenters for their remarks. I enjoy reading them.

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    • Thanks very much, CagneyFan, glad to hear you like Cooper too, and I agree on ‘Ball of Fire’ being wonderful – just recently saw it on the big screen at the BFI in London. Some of the others you mentioned I still need to see. Also glad to hear that I’ve whetted your appetite for ‘A Farewell to Arms’!

      Jason, who commented above, just recently reviewed ‘Midnight’ at his blog, where he is going through his favourite films from each year of the 1930s:
      http://moviesovermatter.com/2011/03/06/midnight-best-pictures-of-1939-7/

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  11. Judy,

    You seem to be able to to select the films that show my weak spots (lol). Actually, I may have seen this as a young kid in my early teens. It is or rather was one of those films my parents would have wanted to watch and at my young age at the time, had no interest in. That confession said, this is a fantastic review and I certainly was unaware of two endings. Great job!

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    • Thanks very much, John – as you know, you also select many films that I still need to see! I suspect this isn’t a film which would appeal much to a young teenager, but you might find it would appeal more now. Thanks again.

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  12. A wonderful review, Judy. I wish I could remember Hemingway’s novel better. I read it when I was about 19 (I think) so that’s a real long time ago. I don’t at all think a movie need reflect the book and probably my memories of the book are so inadequate, but I will say anyway what I remember best is how inadequate Jake is in front of women and that the theme of Jake’s discomfort with the demands of masculinity and heterosexual romance are countered to the story of Frederick and Catherine. This seems to have been omitted entirely from this film :)

    On the substitution of a happy ending with Catherine living on, another memory (vague I admit) from that time of reading the book (it was in a college class, the book was assigned) was that Hemingway actually came under pressure to change his ending — rather like Dickens did over the ending of Great Expectations. He refused. Not all authors have this kind of stubbornness or integrity. I remember that Williams did have an alternative ending to Streetcar where Stella leaves Stanley (in the original version she didn’t) and most play performances chose the normalizing less distressful one where Stella leaves Stanley.

    I just love the Tristan and Isolde comparison.

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