A Farewell to Arms (1932)





Director: Frank Borzage.

Starring:  Helen Hayes (Catherine Barkley), Gary Cooper (Lieutenant Frederic Henry), Adolphe Menjou (Major Rinaldi), Mary Philips (Helen Ferguson), Jack La Rue (Priest), Blanche Friderici (Head Nurse), Mary Forbes (Miss Van Campen), Gilbert Emery (British Major)

World War I romance between an American soldier and a British nurse seems doomed from the start.  Based on the famous novel by Ernest Hemingway.



O.k. movie.  Lt. Frederic Henry works with the ambulance corps in Italy.  He enters the hospital when nurse Molly is being chastised and told that she will be sent home.  Another nurse, Catherine Barkley, is very nice to console the upset Molly. 

Lt. Henry is friends with the physician Major Rinaldi.  Rinaldi is in infatuated with Ms. Barkley.  He convinces the reluctant Lt. Henry to double date with him.  Nurse Ferguson is Henry's date, but Henry and Ferguson are no match at all.  Soon Henry jumps in with Ms. Barkley as Rinaldi goes to get the drinks.  Before Rinaldi returns the couple is off for a walk.  Catherine finds it interesting that Frederic, an American, is serving in the war with the Italians.  Her fiancée was killed in the Battle of the Somme.  Frederic kisses Catherine and she slaps his face, but in an instant, she is apologizing and encouraging him to kiss her. 

The next day Frederic is given an assignment to head north of Plova.  He starts out on the assignment, but soon turns the ambulances around to head back to see Catherine.  He tells her that he will be away for two days and promises he won't get wounded. 

With friends like the petty Rinaldi, who needs enemies.  He gets Catherine reassigned to far away Milan. 

Frederic gets wounded in the right knee and foot and heads back to the hospital.  Rinaldi tells Frederic that Catherine is in Milan and Frederic gets himself transferred there.  In Milan Catherine and Frederic continue their relationship.  About four months later, Frederic is all better and has his convalescence leave canceled.  He is to be sent to the front.  To be closer to Frederic in northern Italy, Catherine travels to Switzerland to live in the village nearest the Italian border and, therefore, closest to Frederic.

The two lovers try to stay in touch by letters, but Major Rinaldi interferes.  As the military censor, he is able to collect Catherine's letter to Frederic and then suddenly releases 32 of them all at once, all marked with Return to Sender, Address Unknown.  He does the same with Frederic's letters to Catherine.  He finally releases 20 letters to her all marked Return to Sender, Address Unknown.  (She promptly faints.)  This trick by Rinaldi drives Frederic to go A.W.O.L. from the Italian army in a desperate attempt to find Catherine.  As he makes his way back to the hospital, he gets arrested by the police for desertion.  But Frederic breaks away and escapes to continue looking for Catherine.  He learns from nurse Ferguson that Catherine is pregnant. 

Saying that he never knew the depth of Frederic's love for Catherine, Major Rinaldi eventually tells Frederic that Catherine is in Switzerland.  Frederic heads to Switzerland and finds Catherine in the hospital.  She has already lost the baby and her own health prospects are not good.  While Frederic is waiting to see Catherine, the announcement is made that Italy has won.  The Austro-Hungarian Empire accepted the armistice terms of the Italian General. 

Frederic is finally allowed to see Catherine, but she is near death.  As he talks to Catherine, she slowly dies.  The bells ring announcing that Peace in Europe has arrived.


The quality of the movie is very poor.  Especially the night scenes are extremely dark and it is hard to tell what's going on.  The voice quality is also poor.  It was interesting to see the famous actress Helen Hayes when she was a young woman.  Gary Cooper looked a little funny in that strange Italian hat he had to wear.  The movie was very short, around 80 minutes or so.  They should have taken more time to stretch out the courting phase of the relationship.  The love relationship just develops too fast for us to feel good about it.  And then, before you know it, Catherine is sick, dying, dead.  

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:


Italy flip-flopped into the war. Austria is now the enemy and is now involved in a three-front war: Russia, Serbia, Italy. The Austrian emperor had tried to buy off the Italians with territorial concessions, but this failed. Afraid of what Germany might do, Italy delays for a year the declaration of war against Austria.  It will be a war of agony.

May 24, 1915 – action at sea. Italian fleet keeps the Austrians bottled up in the Adriatic Sea.

In Trentino, where the Alps are cut by two broad valleys, the Austrians have brought four battle-tried divisions from the Russian front for the attack on the Italians. They amass 2,000 heavy guns and zero them in on the Trentino bulge.

The Italians have two of their four armies guarding the 130 mile line. Their army chief, Gen. Luigi Cadorna, fair strategist, poor tactician and reckless with human lives is convinced that the Austrians will not attack – the Alps provide an effective shield.

May 1916 – Austria strikes. In less than a month the Italians are pushed back 10 miles. Then the Austrian attack bogs down. Four divisions have to be pulled out and shipped east to face a new Russian offensive. Behind them the Italians will struggle back to their original positions. Casualties were 145,000 for the Italians and 80,000 for the Austrians.  The net gain: nothing.

Southeast of Trentino is Italy’s other front, the 55 mile Isonzo. Their objective is the town of Gorizia, opening the door to Trieste. A dozen dreadful battles will be fought here:  the 1st battle of the Isonzo, the 2nd, the 3rd, etc. up to the 12th (or the Battle of Capretto). 

The Italians must push upwards to the Carzo plateau, a howling wilderness. Cadorno will throw his army away on the plateau.

August 1916 – the 6th battle. The Italians break through and get to Gorizia. But here Cadorno hesitates and it is fatal. The door shuts. He is forced back.  Stalemate, trench warfare.

November 21, 1916 – Emperor Franz-Joseph dies. The Austrians feel leaderless. The new emperor is Karl, amiable but mediocre. He wants to negotiate for peace and be free from Germany.  Food is in short supply and prices are sky high.

Austria is now a virtual satellite to Germany. The new Austrian emperor turns to Germany for help with the Italians. He needs help for the upcoming 12th battle (the battle of Caparetto).

Oct 24, 1917 – Germans and Austrians have built up a substantial striking force: 6 German, 9 Austrian divisions. The enemy's jugular vein is the alpine market town of Caparetto. The offensive plan is to hit the town, outflank the Italian army, isolate them, then head for the plains which lead to the Italian heartland.

The battle begins with a long artillery bombardment of the Italian lines. The Germans and Italians then punch a 15 mile long wide hole in the Italian lines. They push the enemy back, who are now in headlong retreat.   It was the greatest single disaster of arms in Italian history. Gen. Cadorno is sacked.

The Austrians surge ahead, but are short on ammunition. Their supply lines cannot keep up with the swift advance.

Nov 10, 1917 – the Austrians reach the Piave River. The Austrians try several attempts to get over it, but fail. Italian soldiers rush to the enemy lines to surrender. In a single day, Italy loses 305,000 men of which 270,000 surrendered.

Wounded while serving with the Italian army as an ambulance driver, 19 year old Ernest Hemingway, will write of it in A Farewell to Arms.

The future German General Rommel distinguishes himself in the battle.

Late 1917 –  in order to save Italy, six French and five British divisions rushed in along with detachments of Americans.

35 year old flyer, Capt. Fiorello LaGuardia sees action here.

After the winter lull and the repulsion of an Austrian spring offensive, the Italians prepare for the next attack. Although the forces are about equal, the Allies sweep to victory. (The German divisions had been pulled back for the western front.) The Austrian empire is splintering.

October , 1917 – the last offensive is little more than the pursuit of a beaten army  --  one ready to sue for peace.



DVD: The Complete Story of World War I. Narrated by Robert Ryan. Volume 3: The Tide of War Turns: The Agony of Caparetto. 


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