This month, two years ago, London saw the re-release of A Farewell to Arms. The digitally restored classic is part of a series of movie releases marking the anniversary of the Great War.
Its source is Ernest Hemingway’s eponymous novel, published just three years prior to the film’s original 1932 release. The book is loosely based on the wartime experience of its author whilst serving as an ambulance driver in the Italian Campaign; the movie’s plot is in turn a loose adaptation of the novel.
The author was to later recount there was an odd incident from those wartime experiences when the young Hemingway lay wounded from shrapnel and a Catholic Chaplain came to his aid, administering the Last Rites. In the years that followed, such was its impact, the writer was to refer to this episode as “making him a Catholic.” As to what actually took place, there is no independent collaboration; nevertheless, what we do know is that ten years later the writer had indeed become a Catholic. Many have viewed the stimulus for this being the fact that by then he had contracted a second marriage to a Catholic. Recently however, some have challenged this simplistic interpretation, citing the author’s own words and actions prior to that marriage as evidence of his leaning ever “Romeward.”
As it turned out, the movie version of A Farewell to Arms was to be a straightforward love story with war as a backdrop. It was also a “Pre-Code movie.” The Motion Picture Production Code finally came into force two years later in 1934, and was more or less adhered to by Hollywood until the late 1960s; providing a list of prohibitions ensuring that certain subject matter, and situations, were kept well off screen. So as a result A Farewell to Arms seems frank for its time, involving a premarital sexual relationship engaged in by the two principals played by Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes, and one that results in pregnancy.
The thrust of a then contemporaneous review in the New York Times was that the movie feels disjointed, packing a great deal into scenes that seem to move too quickly; I tend to agree. Viewed today, it proceeds at such a pace that the audience could be forgiven for its attention drifting as a result. Something I found myself identifying with, until that is the character played by Cooper is wounded, and, then unexpectedly, whilst convalescing, visited by a priest.
It was from this point on that I began to watch the screen more closely.
Helen Hayes too enters the room with the priest and Cooper. She plays a nurse who is romantically involved with Cooper’s character. Before her entry the clergyman had been in deep conversation with the patient. That ends with the couple’s evident joy at once again seeing one another, however, this is tempered by the priest’s concern that their love is “outside God’s Grace.” At this, the lovers look shame-faced. Thereafter the priest turns away and is heard praying in Latin, Cooper asks if he is saying the Wedding Ritual—it appears he is, and the young couple take it as such. When the priest finishes, he turns and blesses Hayes and Cooper in God’s Name, and then this enigmatic scene ends.
It is a curious scene, nonetheless, and not one found in the novel. In addition, this being a ‘Pre-Code movie’ there was no necessity for its inclusion to offset any fears around theatrical exhibition. Nevertheless, it becomes a pivotal, if mysterious, point in the narrative.
And, yet, in another sense, it may have been something more.
Prayers uttered do not return “empty-handed.” True even for those said on stage or film. If you think this is a somewhat fanciful statement then take a look at the witness of St. Genesius—the Patron Saint of Actors no less. The young Genesius lived in third-century Rome, and was part of a troop of actors very much of their time, and that included the mocking of a despised and persecuted minority known as Christians. The troop decided to stage a play satirizing the beliefs of that group, with Genesius a more than willing participant. In fact, the part given him included an onstage mocking of the Sacrament of Baptism. When eventually the time came for this to be performed, the young actor lay center stage… The only thing was that, by the end of the ritual, something had changed: him. From then on Genesius was to find himself a believing Christian, converted by the words of the Sacrament recited onstage. Consequently, that part was not only to be the end his then burgeoning career, but also his life; soon after, willingly going to his death for this newfound faith.
As my thoughts returned to that hospital scene in A Farewell to Arms, I began to wonder. Could there have been some form of spiritual power present here also, and one that both Hayes and Cooper had entered into?
The twice Oscar winning actress, Helen Hayes, had been brought up a Catholic, but, then, in 1928, four years before she made A Farewell to Arms, she found herself barred from receiving Holy Communion on account of marrying a divorcee. In 1956, however, after his death, she returned to the Faith. It was by all accounts a solid faith, one passed down from her Irish forebears, and so perhaps it was apt that it should be on St. Patrick’s Day 1993 that she was to die to this world; her subsequent Funeral Mass conducted by a Prince of the Church. In the end, maybe that blessing on screen had indeed been heard?
Of course, Gary Cooper’s story is much better known, if no less painful for all that. At the time of filming A Farewell to Arms, he was not particularly religious. Nevertheless, religion was to enter his life just over a year later when Cooper met and married a devout Catholic, Veronica ‘Rocky’ Balfe. Unusually for Hollywood, it was to be a marriage that would last to the end, despite Cooper’s many, and at times, public infidelities.
One in particular very nearly destroyed the marriage. After Cooper had finished working with the actress Patricia Neal on The Fountainhead (1949), he seriously considered leaving his wife for his then co-star. Undecided, he sought advice from an old friend, Ernest Hemingway. Flying with Neal to Cuba, Cooper was surprised when the many times married, and divorced, writer withheld his “blessing.” As it turned out, that was to be the beginning of the end for that particular liaison, with Neal and Cooper soon after separating.
As it happened though, there was to be a strange epilogue to that doomed relationship—for both parties.
As the years rolled on, Neal suffered much in her private life and eventually was to seek solace visiting a former actress friend who had chosen a very different path. Through her friendship with the by now Benedictine nun, Dolores Hart—and an even more unlikely one with Gary Cooper’s daughter, Maria, also a friend of Hart’s—Neal was ultimately to become a Catholic; eventually buried in the tranquil grounds of the monastery where she had earlier come seeking peace. A study in the mysterious workings of Grace, Patricia Neal’s very human story came to an unexpected end with an equally mysterious lesson about the interconnectedness of each to another.
The years that followed the Neal affair were to be difficult ones for Cooper. Struggling with his own personal “high noon,” this epitome of an American devil- may-care attitude knew in reality what was being played out in his personal life was an altogether too real drama, and one that appeared to be heading for tragedy. Unexpectedly, a family occasion was to give him the impetus to begin to seek a possible answer. In 1953, whilst visiting Rome, ironically to promote High Noon, the Coopers had an audience with Pope Pius XII. The Pontiff impressed the movie star greatly. Nonetheless, it wasn’t quite the end of the actor’s difficulties. More “drift” followed, before at last, under the influence of a local priest, Cooper finally found the Faith—or allowed it to find him—and then followed the peace he had been searching for.
Could it have been, like the Patron Saint of his craft, that Cooper’s conversion had somehow been begun during the filming of that hospital scene in A Farewell to Arms? What we do know is that from his becoming Catholic it was indeed to be a farewell to arms, all other arms other than those of his wife, whilst finally allowing himself to succumb to the embrace of the “arms” of Holy Mother Church.
He was to need that embrace, for with his conversion came the Cross. By 1961, aged 60, cancer struck the star, who was now to die as he had lived for so long, in front of the world. By the end, his last public words were to sum up where he had come to:
“I know that what is happening is God’s will. I am not afraid of the future.”
No better words had ever been scripted for him.
His friend Hemingway was to die a few months later. Sadly, by then, he had drifted from the Faith he had earlier embraced. His final end remains open to debate, some say accident, others suicide—mercifully, that judgement lies elsewhere. What we do know, however, is that, just as with Cooper, he too had a Catholic burial.
What we also know is that on a set in a Hemingway inspired drama Gary Cooper had received a blessing in a strange way linked to marriage. And soon thereafter, off screen he was to find himself married to a woman with whom his marital bond was, eventually, in spite of everything, to lead him to the Faith.
Going back to that enigmatic scene, there is a feature that the viewer could easily overlook. On screen, behind the priest as he utters the blessing is a Fresco of the Annunciation. As it happened, in the United States, the date that A Farewell to Armswas initially released was December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. And, also, as it happens, the Pope that had made such an impression on Cooper had a strong devotion to the Mother of God, and in particular to Our Lady of Fatima—he was the first Pope to approve those apparitions. In fact, the date of the first Apparition at Fatima, May 13,1917, was also the day the future Pius XII was consecrated Archbishop, and, subsequently, in 1958, he was to be laid to rest in the crypt of Saint Peter’s Basilica on the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima.
May 13 was also the day Cooper died.
Perhaps; but, then one is reminded of what Pope John Paul II said in relation to events on that same day in 1981, namely, in the designs of Providence, there are no “mere coincidences.”
Editor’s note: A version of this article originally appeared on Crisis Magazine and is republished here with kind permission.