Classic Woman-centic Movie Review: A Farewell to Arms (1932)

Happy weekend, all! This week’s pick is a film based on Hemingway’s classic novel of love during war, A Farewell to Arms. This version, made in 1932, stars Gary Cooper, Helen Hayes, and Adolphe Menjou and was directed by Frank Borzage.

The film opens with Frederick Henry (Cooper), an American serving in the Italian army as an ambulance driver, meeting up with one of his old friends, Major Rinaldi (Menjou), a doctor in the Italian army, at an army hospital. Thrilled to see each other once again, Rinaldi and Frederic decide to have a few drinks and catch up, but a bombing raid forces them to take shelter. Frederic ends up taking shelter with young, pretty Catherine Barkley, an English Red Cross nurse, and drunkenly makes a fool of himself. They later meet again when Rinaldi sets up a double date between himself, Frederic, Catherine, and another nurse. Rinaldi sees that Frederick and Catherine are very attracted to each other, and he becomes quite jealous, as Catherine was the woman he had initially set his eye on. Throughout the night, Catherine and Frederick grow closer, during which time he discovers that her fiancé, a soldier, was killed during the war. They end up sleeping together, and a romance soon develops.

Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes embrace
Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes in A Farewell to Arms (1932). Image via Wikipedia.

It’s Rinaldi who informs their superiors of their surreptitious romance, and Catherine is transferred to Milan. Later, Frederick finds himself in the hospital in Milan after being wounded in battle, and when he sees Catherine again, the affair picks up where it left off. When Frederick returns to war, Catherine discovers that she is pregnant with his child and flees to Switzerland. She tries to write to Frederick to let him know of her circumstances, but Rinaldi, who seeks to put an end to the affair, intercepts them. Frederick, meanwhile, has been sending letters to the hospital Catherine deserted. Unable to bear the agonizing silence any longer, Frederick deserts from the army to search for her. He travels to Milan, where he learns that Catherine is three months pregnant. Rinaldi later breaks down and informs Frederick that he was the one who intercepted Catherine’s letters, and he urges Frederick to go to her.

In Switzerland, Catherine finally receives the letters, but her heart breaks when she discovers that they all have been marked with, “Return to sender.” She goes into labor and is taken to the hospital, where she delivers a stillborn son. Frederick arrives just after she has given birth, only to discover that she is on the brink of death. As Armistice is announced, she dies in his arms.

The story itself is partly based on Hemingway’s doomed love affair with a nurse during World War One, and it also sheds light on the effects of war on those involved in it. Since the chance of death is always looming over people like Catherine and Frederick, they give in to the impulse to live for today and take from life what they can. Bonds formed over a short amount of time become as deep as those forged in years, and emotions can dictate people’s actions. Frederick and Catherine may not have met during a time of peace, but since war has disrupted their lives, their fates become intertwined. They are both seeking something to look forward to after all of the bloodshed is over, and this is why they connect so deeply. Catherine’s unintended pregnancy gives Frederick a chance to try and scrape together a life with her that would have some meaning while the rest of the world falls apart around him. But he can’t beat fate and cruel irony, and that’s perhaps what is the saddest part of the stories of everyone affected by war.

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