Frederic Henry (Gary Cooper) is an American serving as an ambulance driver in the Italian Army during the first World War. Off duty, he enjoys carousing with his best friend, Major Rinaldi (Adolphe Menjou), a doctor, and chasing English Red Cross nurses.
Frederic’s cocky masculinity does not, at first, play well with nurse Catherine (Helen Hayes), whose fiance has recently fallen in battle. But against a backdrop of uncertainty and loss, she allows herself to be seduced by the brash young American, who, in turn, is softened by her affections. A concerned colleague (Mary Philips) warns that no good can come from Frederic and Catherine’s relationship, which is prohibited by army regulations. So it proves.
Ernest Hemingway loathed this 1932 adaptation of author's loosely biographical novel. That's understandable: there was never any chance Cooper would say "cocksucker" on screen, and director Frank Borzage's romantic interpretation is decidedly at odds with Hemingway's depiction of frontline love as a doomed fantasy for desperate people. At times the film plays like an illustrated accompaniment for the novel: scenes are typically short and there are many truncations.
Still, arriving just ahead of the complete enforcement of the Hayes Code, A Farewell to Arms does retain much of Hemingway's manly swagger ("What are you thinking about, darling?" asks Catherine: "Whiskey" comes the unembellished reply) and plenty of anti-militaristic sentiment. When Rinaldi proclaims the injured Frederic a war hero, he promptly clarifies that "I was blown up eating cheese".
Borzage's small-budgeted studio picture is firmly anchored to the sound stage. Many of the sets wouldn't withstand a decent gush of wind. The make-up is often crude and the acting is "of its time". That hardly matters – Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes have plenty of old-school movie star charisma.
Borzage, meanwhile, works in post-Expressionist shadows and close-ups. There are neat cinematic innovations: a stretcher-bound camera echoes Frederic’s POV; dancing marionette intertitles mark the passage of time. Borzage’s vision may not entirely tally with the source novel, but the romance feels suitably star-crossed throughout.