A Farewell to Arms (1932)
Starring Helen Hayes, Gary Cooper, Adolphe Menjou, Mary Phillips, Jack LaRue
Directed by Frank Borzage
Screenplay by Benjamin Glazer and Oliver H. P. Garrett
Based upon the novel by Ernest Hemingway
Frank Borzage's film version of Hemingway's classic "A Farewell to Arms" depicts the romance of a British nurse (Helen Hayes) and an American ambulance driver (Gary Cooper) serving in the Italian Army in World War I. The film counts the costs of love and war, and the lead characters' struggle to avoid them. It is equally concerned with the ostensibly benevolent social forces that keep the lovers apart. War is hell, but what you really have to watch out for is your friends. Cooper seems a little lost at times, and the movie is not entirely true to Hemingway's eloquent toughness. Still, all the lead actors are passionate and compelling, especially Hayes, and Borzage is very good at conveying the awful effects of the fighting. "A Farewell to Arms" has real tragic power.
Lt. Frederic Henry (Cooper) ferries wounded men from the front back to a military hospital in an Italian town. There, he drinks and carouses with his egotistical pal, army surgeon Capt. Rinaldi (Adolphe Menjou), who has romantic designs on the British nurses who serve at the hospital. However, Rinaldi's plans go awry one evening when his target, Catherine Barkley (Hayes), falls for Frederic instead. Catherine is a compassionate nurse whose "picturesque" notions of war were shattered when her fiancé did not return from the front with the "saber cut" she expected; instead, "they blew him to bits." At first merely jealous, Rinaldi becomes distressed as he realizes Frederic and Catherine are falling so deeply in love that it threatens his playboy brotherhood with Frederic, not to mention his own emotional code. Rinaldi is a man who brags that he is "all fire and smoke and nothing inside." He gets the commanding officer and the head nurse to have Catherine sent away to Milan, but when Frederic is badly wounded, he winds up there in her care anyway. Despite the opposition of her best friend, Nurse Ferguson (Mary Phillips), Catherine's reunion with Frederic is joyful, and they even receive a quickie wedding in his hospital room from a gentle anti-war priest (Jack LaRue). But Frederic is sent back to the front, and Catherine flees Milan to a Swiss town near the Italian border, having apparently kept secrets from both Frederic and Ferguson. The lovers write each other constantly, but their affair has disturbed the social order, and their road will not be easy.
The nursing and other health care shown in the film is not exactly impressive by current standards, though it appears to be a basically accurate portrayal of care given in the World War I setting. The nurses ferry trays of food, do laundry, and bathe patients. In one scene, the nurses fetch a physician when they find that a patient has a high temperature, though in fact the cause appears to be romantic excitement. The nurses must also follow a rigid code of personal conduct set by their sour supervisors, who seem driven primarily by a need to impose moral discipline. The chief nurse makes no effort to prevent one of her nurses from being sent away merely because a surgeon perceives her to be a distraction to his ambulance driving buddy. In fairness, this harsh, menial and relatively powerless work life was evidently common for nurses of the period. And the film does show us some of the negative effects it has on the nurse characters, though it could certainly have done more; it can't really be said to question the merits of this system. Catherine is a strong, luminous character. She is kind even to a disgraced fellow nurse who is being sent home for some (presumably sexual) infraction. There is an implication that some nurses are too casual with their affection. For example, Catherine at first refuses to kiss Frederic because she cannot bear the "nurse's evening off aspect of it," and later events may call her virtue into question under the standards of the day. The depiction of physicians ranges from portrayals of expertise and compassion to selfishness and insensitivity. On the whole, even making allowances for the time period depicted and when the film was made, it is not particularly helpful to the image of nursing.
Reviewed by Harry Jacobs Summers
Nursing Editor: Sandy Summers, MSN, MPH, RN
Reviewed February 22, 2003. Revised July 2, 2003.
The views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the Board Members or Advisory Panel of The Truth About Nursing.