During World War I, Lieutenant Frederic Henry (Gary Cooper) serves the Italian Army as an ambulance driver and in his free time, enjoys going out drinking with Major Rinaldi (Adolphe Menjou). When one of their nights on the town is interrupted by an air raid, Frederic takes shelter alongside nurse Catherine Barkley (Helen Hayes). However, their first meeting is less than ideal for other reasons — he mistakes her for a prostitute he had been talking to earlier.
But Frederic gets another chance to make an impression on Catherine when Rinaldi arranges a double date for them and Catherine and her friend Helen (Mary Philips). Rinaldi is in love with Catherine and had intended Helen to be Frederic’s date, but Frederic and Catherine fall madly in love with each other that night and start having an affair. Army regulations forbid their romance, but rules suddenly don’t seem to mean much to Frederic. Before he is sent off to the front lines, he insists on stopping to say goodbye to Catherine. Rinaldi, still bitter that Catherine prefers Frederic over him, sees to it that Catherine is transferred to Milan to keep her away from him.
As fate would have it, Frederic is injured and is taken to Catherine’s new hospital. Their feelings for each other are still as strong as ever and they are secretly married in Frederic’s hospital room. Frederic spends the next three months recuperating and he and Catherine couldn’t be happier together. But when he has to go back to the war, there’s one thing he doesn’t know — Catherine is pregnant. She leaves the hospital for Switzerland to wait for him and even though they write to each other regularly, Rinaldi sees to it that neither of them receive their letters.
When Frederic becomes concerned over Catherine’s lack of letters, he deserts the Army to find her. He eventually manages to find Helen, who tells him about the baby, but she’s so angry about what he’s done to Catherine that she refuses to tell him where she is. Now even more desperate to find her, he takes out an ad in the newspaper looking for her, which gets Rinaldi’s attention. Finally realizing just how much Frederic loves Catherine, he finally tells him where she is. But when he finally makes his way to her, she’s not in good health.
When people talk about pre-codes, A Farewell to Arms isn’t one that comes up very often and I have no idea why that is. In terms of shocking content, A Farewell to Arms has got plenty of stuff to make your jaw drop: rape, forbidden love, very frank discussions of relationships, and of course, the scene with the prostitute early in the movie.
But A Farewell to Arms has a lot more to offer than risqué scenes. Frank Borzage offers up some top-notch direction and Charles Lang completely deserved the Academy Award he won for his beautiful cinematography. I absolutely loved Gary Cooper’s performance as Fredric and Adolphe Menjou is an excellent supporting player. As for Helen Hayes, I haven’t seen very many of her movies, but her work here made me want to see more of her. I’ve never read A Farewell to Arms so I can’t critique it as an adaptation, but I do know Hemingway didn’t care for the movie. All I can do is take the movie for what it is and I very much enjoyed it, much more than I expected to.