Reportedly, Ernest Hemingway hated the 1932 film adaptation of his great novel, A Farewell To Arms. The novel, of course, tells the story of ambulance driver Frederic Henry (played in the film by Gary Cooper), his service in World War I, and his doomed love affair with an English nurse named Catherine (played by the very American Helen Hayes). The novel was acclaimed for being tough and unsentimental. The film is the exact opposite, revealing itself to be more typical of the work of director Frank Borzage than Ernest Hemingway.
How romantic was Borzage’s adaptation of A Farewell to Arms? It was so romantic that it even changed the novel’s famous ending. The novel ended with Catherine dying and Frederic Henry walking away, alone and in the rain. The film, however, ended with Catherine miraculously recovering. Never mind, of course, that having Catherine survive pretty much defeated the entire purpose of the story. What was important was to give American audiences a happy ending!
However, European audiences got a more downbeat ending. In the European version, Catherine does die. After she dies, Frederic picks up her body and looks up into heaven, which is certainly far more dramatic (and, in its way, sentimentally spiritual) than anything to be found in Hemingway’s novel. If, like me, you see A Farewell To Arms on TCM, you’ll see the European ending.
So, yes, I can understand why Hemingway would have hated this film. But I have to admit that I rather enjoyed it. The film adaptation makes for terrible Hemingway but it’s great Borzage. Borzage specialized in making grand, lyrical, and sweeping romantic melodramas and that’s what his version of A Farewell To Arms truly is. Helen Hayes may not be convincingly English and Gary Cooper may be a bit overly earnest for a Hemingway hero but they both look good together and they have great chemistry. (Plus, Adolphe Menjou gives a good supporting performance as Frederic’s best friend.) As a director, Borzage keeps the story moving at a steady pace and plays up the romance in every single scene. There’s a great sequence that’s filmed entirely from the wounded Frederic’s point-of-view as he’s brought into a hospital and looked over by a series of officious nurses. We see everything through Frederic’s eyes until Catherine finally enters the room and kisses him. Only then do we see Frederic and Catherine together, leaving us with no doubt that these two belong together. A Farewell To Arms may not be a great literary adaptation but it is a great cinematic romance.
A Farewell To Arms was nominated for best picture but it won to a largely forgotten film called Cavalcade.