A while back, I had a conversation with a friend about movies. She talked excitedly about how some of her favorite films starred Gary Cooper, but unfortunately went to see The Back-Up Plan with Jennifer Lopez and shook her head saying, “They don’t make them as well as they used to.” I had to agree.
Which brings me to A Farewell to Arms, a romanticized adaptation of Hemingway’s novel. Don’t avoid films from the ’30’s, you’ll find less holes in their plots than you will with today’s. When it ended, I realized I was completely invested in the story and genuinly concerned about both lead characters. My usual stance is to find faults and groan at how trivial the plot is, but there was something more to this film. There’s an honest sincerity that comes out when these two people are separated by war, a plot that can be overused, but has never been as wonderful as this.
Gary Cooper plays Lt. Frederic Henry, a ambulance driver in WWI who falls in love with Catherine (Helen Hayes), a nurse. Catherine has already suffered heartbreak through the war when her old boyfriend was “blown to bits.” She decided to become a nurse hoping to take care of him with a minor picturesque wound, so she’s pretty disenchanted. There’s an odd sense of female duty Catherine feels about being with Henry, she says, “We must give ourselves for these men,” even though she doubts that she’ll see him again. When Henry returns to Milan after being injured in a blitz, Catherine is overjoyed and with a priests blessing, they consider themselves married. Henry’s recovery is full of celebration and Catherine ducking around her work to be with him. When bottles of booze are discovered in his room, the head nurse orders him back to the front lines. Catherine bears a brave face and doesn’t tell him that she is pregnant, another side of her duty. She decides to move to Switzerland to have the child. Soon, Henry realizes the war means nothing to him and all he wants is to run away with Catherine, so he deserts the war and runs back to Milan in search of Catherine.
The title obviously comes from Henry’s desertion, which is not a theme I expected in the era between wars. There are so many war films filled with patriotic duty, honor and love just postponed that sometimes we forget the other perspective. Not everyone was a proud willing soldier, sometimes it feels like they were told to keep quiet and only let the patriotic ones speak. Had this film been put off for a few years, we might have never known it.
This film is very good at talking so delicately about sex. It’s always kept romantic and when terms start to deviate or become invasive, the conversation is stopped. Catherine asks, “How many women have you, you know, loved?” and we understand that pause. What’s even better is that Henry says none, an obvious lie to Catherine, but she doesn’t care and even takes it as a compliment to protect her. This whole watered down, careful conversation might be so foreign or dull to us, but that’s how it was done back then. Your grandpa might have been a player, but he ain’t gonna tell your grandma that.
When you think about it, the anti war message, topics of sex and an unwed mother are all pretty daring subjects for the early thirties. I would recommend A Farewell to Arms to anyone, and in the twenty-first century these topics are still very relevant.