This is the perfect example of how an excellent novel is not always the guarantee of a superior film. It was the second version of Ernest Hemingway’s classic novel (The first was the excellent 1932 version starring Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes) and it is definitely the weaker of the two.
The film seems to have all the required elements to be a classic: a dashing leading man, an epic classic novel as the story, World War I as a backdrop, two excellent directors in Charles Vidor (Gilda and A Song to Remember) and John Huston (The Misfits and The African Queen), producer Charles Selznick (Gone With the Wind), and the huge Fox Studio backing the film. It, however, was not enough. The passion that is the heart of the novel does not come through in the film because the two leads have very little chemistry. Jennifer Jones, who is really too old to play the young naïve nurse, seems to remain aloof and distant and does not act at all like a woman madly in love. Also the length of the film (2 and a half hours) is a problem; it seems to go on forever and is very slow paced. The strengths of the film are the cinematography (beautiful shots of Switzerland and Italy) and one of the saddest endings ever in film.
Even Ernest Hemingway came out and distanced himself from the film. It has always struck me as odd that one of the United States most respected novelist’s work seems to rarely translate well onto the screen.
World War I Italy is the backdrop for the story. It is not just a story of war but also of a love between an American man and an English woman. Lieutenant Frederick Henry (Rock Hudson) is an ambulance driver for the Italian army as part of the Red Cross. Miss Catherine Barkley (Jennifer Jones – Madame Bovary and The Towering Inferno) is a British nurse also working for the Red Cross. Her fiancé was killed during the war. They meet and Henry is attracted to her immediately. She resists him initially. Henry has to leave the next day for an ambulance run on the front lines. Catherine finds him and they kiss; she makes him promise to come back and says that she will be waiting for him.
The ambulance drivers get caught in a shell attack. Henry’s leg gets hurt in the attack and a few of the other ambulance drivers are killed. He is transferred to a hospital and Catherine arrives shortly after to work there. They spend the night together and he professes his love for her. The next day Henry finds out that he has to have an operation on his leg.
The head nurse warns Catherine not to get involved with Henry, that he seems like a love ’em and leave ’em type. Catherine tells her that Henry has already proposed. She then tells Henry that she is pregnant and that she has known for a while but did not want him to feel trapped. Henry wants to get married right away. She declines saying that she wants to wait until the war is over. The head nurse finds the two together and says that his convalescence is over and he is going back to into action the next day.
Catherine and Henry part ways. Henry gets sent back to the front lines. During the battle at Caporetto, in which the Italian army was defeated, Henry is captured and thought to be a German spy. Before they have a chance to execute him, he escapes. Henry returns to the hospital and finds out where Catherine is. The head nurse thinks he is a deserter and wants to turn him in. Henry runs away. He finds the hotel that Catherine is staying at. He tells her he is through with the war and admits to deserting. Catherine is worried about what will happen if he is caught. Henry tells her that he would be executed. The two lovers decide that they have to figure out a way to get to Switzerland (neutral during war) in order to survive.
- Audio Commentary by Film Historian Sheila O’Malley
- Trailer Gallery
- Optional English SDH subtitles