Farewell to Arms, A (1932): Hemingway Novel on Big Screen, Starring Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes

A Farewell to Arms is the first Ernest Hemingway book, published in 1930, to reach the big screen. The script ignores the war, and instead builds up the romance between Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes.

Cooper plays Lieutenant Frederic Henry, a soldier romantically involved with an English nurse, Catherine (Hayes). She tells him that she had engaged for eight years to a boy she grew up with, who’s now dead Henry goes back to the front, and Major Rinaldi (Adolph Menjou), jealous of his affair, transfers the nurse to Milan. Wounded in combat, Henry is sent to Milan, and the affair resumes.

Melodrama kicks in, when she later crosses into Switzerland to await the birth of their child. Catherine sends Henry letters that he never gets because of the major’s jealousy. In the end, their baby is born dead, but the couple is united.

Paramount filmed two different endings. One, like the book, had Catherine die, while giving birth to the Lieutenant’s dead child. In this version, the last image depicts Cooper carrying the dead Helen Hayes in his arms exclaiming cynically, “Peace, peace.”

The other version had Catherine live. In true Hollywood tradition, the latter was preferred and ultimately used. Hemingway was displeased with the changes, telling reporters, “I certainly did not intend a happy ending.”

“Farewell to Arms” is the only film in Cooper’s career, in which he says, “I don’t know” when asked for his reason for fighting. When he deserts service, it is less out of disbelief in what the war stands for than out of sheer passion for his beloved.

The overall visual style is impressive: Borzage invests the war scenes with a strange, brooding expressionist quality. However, the critic Mordant Hall complained in the New York Times that there was, “Too much sentiment and not enough strength,” whatever that means.

The film has dated badly, but it was an important statement in its time. Indeed, re-issued in 1938, the film enjoyed a second successful run.

There have been two remakes: “Force of Arms” (1950) with William Holden, Nancy Olsen, Frank Lovejoy, and “A Farewell to Arms” (1957) David O. Selznick’s overblown version, with Rock Hudson, Jennifer Jones, and Vittorio de Sica (as Major Rindle).

Oscar Alert

Oscar Nominations: 4

Best Picture
Art Direction
Cinematography (Charles Lange)
Sound Recording (Harold C. Lewis)

Oscar Awards: 2

Sound Recording