Romanticism and the Frontlines of War: On A Farewell to Arms

Tristan Ettleman
7 min readDec 12, 2022

Note: This is the hundred-and-sixty-sixth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites can be found on Letterboxd, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my favorite 1932 film, A FAREWELL TO ARMS, directed by Frank Borzage.

Ernest Hemingway famously hated the first film adaptation of his semi-autobiographical 1929 novel A FAREWELL TO ARMS. Well, Hemingway was certainly not always right for various reasons, but especially because director Frank Borzage’s interpretation of the author’s source material is a beautiful Romantic picture and an intoxicating immersion into a classical Hollywood style. Aided by screenwriters Benjamin Glazer and Oliver H.P. Garrett, Borzage, the King of Sentiment, made a melodramatic and sumptuous film out of the horrors of World War I. Setting personal tragedies in the foreground and global violence in the background (which is ultimately felt), Borzage leverages all of the powers at his disposal to bring at least this viewer to tears, fully earning the emotional catharsis that ends A FAREWELL TO ARMS.

But that truly sad ending wasn’t seen for decades, a reality I can’t fathom as the tragedy cements A FAREWELL TO ARMS’ profundity. Although I never really shy away from spoiling 90-year-old movies, this may be one time that I steer clear and stay vague in my description of a movie’s closing moments. It’s worth experiencing fresh on your own. In any event, censors found Borzage and Co.’s original ending too concerning, so in some cases it was swapped out for a happy or more ambiguous one. And then the full-length version of A FAREWELL TO ARMS, plus what I’ll call “the weepy ending,” was finally shown again beginning in the 1990s.

Although I somewhat define the movie by its tragic conclusion and the tears it has made me cry multiple times, A FAREWELL TO ARMS is not some cheap play at a tearjerker. Instead, it’s a rich piece of sentimentality. First and foremost, Borzage brings his patented languorous pace and Expressionism-informed eye to a World War I story. He creates a pocket universe where the war and its bombs burst overhead, but somehow the movie’s central ambulance driver, Frederic Henry (an American in the Italian army, played by Gary Cooper), never reacts with the vigor you would expect out of such a figure in such a setting. It seems to be something built into Frederic, at least as far as Cooper plays it. His tall frame strolls through scenery, taking in his surroundings calmly and, in an early “save the cat” moment, covertly patting a disciplined nurse kindly on the back.

This separate, ahistorical realm is also embodied by the nurse Catherine Barkley; again, at least as far as Helen Hayes plays it. Catherine consistently utters the most understated of existential lines, speaking philosophically and ruminatively beyond the standard of Hollywood dialogue at the time. Perhaps there was some influence from Hemingway at that. And when Frederic and Catherine are together, after a chance meeting in which he mistakes her for a prostitute, the sensation of a bubble, of a romance apart from the mayhem, is really created.

But of course, the Great War looms large. It’s the only reason Frederic and Catherine were even thrown together in the first place. Their second meeting, which leads to a sexual encounter that, as we discover, leaves Catherine pregnant, is tinged with regret. Catherine slaps Frederic upon his first attempt at kissing her, then warms up to him and wishes he would try again. This progresses until Frederic leans in for an embrace and more than a kiss, when Catherine mutters “no, no, no” and Borzage cuts to black. This is the most troubling aspect of A FAREWELL TO ARMS, an example of the problematic masculinity and “lovemaking” put to screen then and even now: that of the “forceful lover.” But when it comes to their spooning in the moonlight, in the courtyard of a church no less, neither Catherine or Frederic are necessarily regretful of the sex itself. Their qualms lie with the situation. Frederic explains that in a normal world, he would have courted her and lavished attention on her. Catherine thinks back to the man she didn’t marry before the war began, before he was killed in action. And then the two are meant to go separate ways, never to see each other again.

Of course, that intent doesn’t last long. Frederic comes back to see Catherine the next day before heading off to the front again, and after being injured there, he comes to the hospital she has been transferred to. This re-entrance into the heavenly world of Catherine’s orbit is rendered brilliantly by Borzage and cinematographer Charles Lang. Frederic is brought into the facility on a stretcher and we see his first-person perspective as nurses and caretakers crane over into his view. Then, Catherine appears, rushing in to embrace him and bring her face so close to the camera that it has trouble focusing. But that blur is exactly what makes the moment so emotional, so intimate and visceral. It’s one of the most beautiful sequences in all of A FAREWELL TO ARMS.

But these moments don’t last long in the grand scheme of the movie’s run time. Frederic and Catherine are covertly married by a friendly priest; a constant thread of A FAREWELL TO ARMS is the central couple’s small network of supporters who operate in opposition to the rules concerning ambulance drivers and nurses. But it’s not uncomplicated aid that is given to them. Most prominently, Adolpe Menjou’s Major Rinaldi, initially pursuing Catherine himself, takes steps to separate Frederic and Catherine for much of the movie, less out of desire for her and more about making sure his friend doesn’t “lose his head over some girl.” Some friend. And yet, when he comes to realize what Catherine means to Frederic, when he learns she is pregnant with his friend’s child, Rinaldi acquiesces and surrenders her location: Switzerland. Catherine had gone there to have the baby covertly after Frederic went to the front once more and Rinaldi had prevented their letters from reaching each other.

This sin is apparently wiped clean, even in Frederic’s eyes, once Rinaldi feels the import of the relationship. Frederic is on the run, a deserter as he frantically searched for Catherine, but his old friend gives him the solution, the way out. In this way, the relationship between Cooper and Menjou’s characters in A FAREWELL TO ARMS echoes the kind of self-sacrifice Menjou takes part in in MOROCCO (1930), leading Marlene Dietrich’s character back to Cooper’s. Less symbolic but still present is Catherine’s friend and fellow nurse Helen Ferguson, who figures Frederic is bad for Catherine. In a way, she’s right, but she goes along with the couple’s schemes due to her friendship, a more begrudging form of cooperation.

Much of A FAREWELL TO ARMS, however, entails Frederic and Catherine’s separation and the former’s frantic search for her, on the run for desertion. In one powerful montage sequence, Frederic marches through rain and mud as innocent refugee-seekers are fired upon by planes and dead bodies pile up on the side of the road. This marks A FAREWELL TO ARMS’ most obviously Expressionist moments, with stark shadows and miniatures creating an apparently expansive yet obviously stylized scale. It may be worth mentioning now that the movie and Lang won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography, a deserved outcome.

The reason for A FAREWELL TO ARMS’ other Oscar win is partly exemplified by these “war is hell” moments, which are especially shocking as the relationship in the center of the movie had earlier worked some magic to keep the grimness at bay. The shrill whines and exploding bombs are collectively a reason for A FAREWELL TO ARMS’ win for Best Sound Recording (awarded to Franklin Hansen), but I think the emotional soundtrack playing under many dialogue scenes, not quite the norm at this time of sound film technology, deserves credit as well for its part in cementing the mood. A FAREWELL TO ARMS was also nominated at the 6th Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Art Direction but didn’t receive those distinctions.

Nevertheless, A FAREWELL TO ARMS is indeed the greatest film to be released in 1932. Its cultivation of a reality apart, both in the sense of Frederic and Catherine’s loving relationship in the midst of a war and the elevated effects of Hollywood artifice, is unequaled. In spite of its Romantic environment and storytelling mode, the emotional stakes feel as real as anything, piercing through logic and cynicism to deliver a true sentimental masterwork. A FAREWELL TO ARMS always leaves me feeling both empty and full, yearning for a happier ending as I stare into the movie’s final, heavenly image.