A Farewell to Arms (1932)

The Dukes Theatre in Lancaster recently had a run from progressive multimedia Theatre Company imitating the dog that adapted Ernest Hemingway’s anti-war novel A Farewell to Arms. During the same window, BFI issued a Blu-ray/DVD release of Frank Borzage’s 1932 Oscar-winning film (Best Cinematography and Sound) adaptation of the classic anti-war text. Both events were designed to commemorate the centenary of the Great War. Frank Borzage’s A Farewell to Arms with its screenplay by Benjamin Glazer and Oliver H.P. Garrett is a tale of the love between ambulance driver Lt. Henry (Gary Cooper) and Nurse Catherine Barkley (Helen Hayes) during World War I. Taking place within the Italian military and medical effort, they fall in love with one another and stop at nothing to be together.

As there are two sides to every romance and every story, so too are there two sides to the appreciation of Borzage’s film. The first and much more successful means is via the means of the time, the 1930s and 40s where rife with their melodramas. By that measuring stick both Cooper and Hayes have an appreciable chemistry with the sacrificial ends they both go through to be together timelessly romantic. The other notable achievement is the camera work and use of montage. The camera work is notable one scene where Lt. Henry is sent to hospital with an injured leg and his arrival is tracked by an impressive Point of View perspective that elegantly exemplifies the gorgeous architecture the filmmakers afforded – an achievement that stands all the more prominently through the gorgeous restoration.

A Farewell to Arms

When talking about the other notable success one begins to stray into the all-pervasive issues in Borzage’s film. The use of montage depicts the chaos of war with expressive brushstrokes across the Italian countryside, such a statement is an immutable truth. Unfortunately that is in outright contradiction with the tone of the film and any illusion in capturing the chaos of war, wonderfully edited these montages might be but not one shows any real threat to either Gary Cooper or Helen Hayes, additionally the film involves itself with the World War for a marginal proportion of the films brief runtime.

This 1932 depiction of A Farewell to Arms sadly removes the bulk of the context leaving only a melodramatic romantic drama to do any of the lifting. While it is true that the film is undoubtedly set during the Great War, it is presented as a underutilised background dressing. There is no danger for what was imagined as a hotbed of violence, neither is there much of a sense of danger for a relationship which is actively banned by the establishment – even abandoning the military doesn’t produce any consequences beyond a stylised melodramatic revelation/dereliction of duty (delete as applicable) from Adolphe Menjou (Maj. Rinaldi) and his chorus of ‘baby’.

A Farewell to Arms

With the power of hindsight, this BFI issue used to celebrate the centenary can be seen as nothing more than a waste of promise and an even more frustrating waste of Hemingway’s potent anti-war novel. This may well be one of the best examples of post-world war I romance that harks back to a simpler time for cinema, but when there is such a discrepancy between what the film is and what it could have been it’s difficult not to feel short-changed. Moving away from the dramatic sentiments, as previously mentioned a Farewell to Arms isn’t without its charm. With an admirable restoration job and a generous bounty of supplementary material putting the film into a greater creative and cultural context, this BFI release is an impressive one. Disappointed as one may be, the work of Frank Borzage, Benjamin Glazer and Oliver H.P. Garrett is a historical artefact of a simpler time, a document of a bygone era of popular chocolate box romance and for many more educated people, that’s more than enough.

Special features
• Presented in both High Definition and Standard Definition
• Alternative ending (1932, 5 mins): more optimistic ending to the film that was shot for American audiences
• War Scenes in Italy (1915, 1 min): a Topical Budget newsreel item showing crowds gathering in Rome to hear the announcement of Italy’s entry in to the war
• Austrian Prisoners in a Concentration Camp (1916, 3 mins): scenes of Austrian prisoner’s of war in Italy in 1916
• The Latest Crime of the Sinister Hun (1918, 2 mins): a Topical Budget newsreel item documenting the burial of nurses and wounded soldiers killed in an air raid on British and Canadian hospitals in France.
• Frank Borzage Talks to Cecil B. DeMille (1937, 3 mins, audio): an interview segment extracted from the Lux Radio Theater production of A Farewell to Arms
• Fully illustrated booklet featuring full film credits and essays by Geoff Andrew, Adrian Wootton, and Kent Jones



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