Gary Cooper is the young ambulance in WWI and Helen Hayes a British nurse in the 1932 A Farewell to Arms (Kino), the first film based on Ernest Hemingway’s novel and still the most sophisticated. Made in the era before enforcement of the production code, the film, directed by Frank Borzage, offers a far more adult portrait of the love affair on the battlefield than the 1957 version.
Coop is almost impossibly young and beautiful as the stalwart soldier resigned to the grind of war and Helen Hayes practically glows as Catherine, an angel of a nurse who is nonetheless down to earth when it comes to sex. Frank Borzage’s romanticism would seem a poor match for Hemingway’s stoicism but he elevates their love to a holy purity even as it takes place outside the official bounds of the church and social acceptance. A priest performs a benediction over their union, which in this film passes for marriage; the Catholic League wasn’t fooled and condemned the film. Hemingway didn’t much like it much, either, but Borzage’s vision just looks better with time. It’s gorgeous (it won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography), even as the choppiness suggests a rather violent treatment by the studio. But my, it glows.