Many years ago, late at night, I caught the last few minutes of Farewell to Arms. I didn’t know what story it was, but I guessed. What knocked me out was the unabashed romantic passion, the intense emotionalism, and the deep vulnerability of Gary Cooper, whom I had thought of as a old-style tough guy. It would be easy to think looking at these images and reading this that it might be pure corn, but it is anything but!
Henry dreams of being an architect (like another Cooper role that Ayn Rand fans love) but for now he’s an ambulance driver in the Italian army of WWI. He’s no gung ho trooper, preferring drink and ladies, but he meets the love of his life in Catherine, a nurse, played by Helen Hayes. They are separated by circumstances, she is pregnant, he deserts – “I’m sick of the war. I must find her.” – and finally, bedraggled and exhausted, he finds her in hospital in Switzerland. She is dying, having miscarried their baby.
In their last moments together, Henry is devastated. This is Gary Cooper, towering icon of masculinity, breaking down into helpless trembling at the prospect of Catherine’s death. “Don’t die, you can’t die. You’re too brave to die!” (Like so many in the war who died, regardless of how brave.) All the while, the passionate sounds of the Wagner Liebstodt from Tristan und Isolde, the “Love-Death.
She dies, he lifts her off the bed to the sound of Wagner and the tolling of bells all over Europe announcing the end of the WWI and the carnage. “Peace, peace!” he shouts.