As the destruction and danger of World War I continue to sweep across the continent, American officer Frederick Henry (Rock Hudson) finds himself serving in an ambulance unit alongside the Italian army.
After being wounded, Frederick is cared for by Red Cross nurse Catherine Barkley (Jennifer Jones). Catherine is no stranger to him. They met earlier, near the front, and only grow closer as he recovers under her care.
Acquaintance grows to friendship, and friendship to attraction. Before they know it, Frederick and Catherine are in love… and pretending his wound is worse than it actually is, in order to continue their romance at the hospital.
When head nurse Miss Van Campen (Mercedes McCambridge) finds them out, will it spell an end for the couple, or will their love survive the separation and fear of wartime?
A Farewell to Arms was directed by Charles Vidor. The screenplay was written by Ben Hecht, and is the second Hollywood adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s novel of the same name.
A Farewell to Arms has some good action scenes and some heart-tugging drama, but on the whole the film is quite mild. It isn’t quickly paced, and is at times a bit dull.
A major issue I had was with the chemistry between Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones. I didn’t love them as a pair here. Both are fine actors, and I enjoyed their performances individually, but they’re just not all too convincing as a couple. I came to care about them by the end of the film, but mostly out of sympathy for Jones’ character, [mild spoiler] an unwed and pregnant woman living in the ultra-judgmental midcentury. [end spoiler]
From what I remember, the 1932 film adaptation was quite a bit more successful (though, admittedly, I haven’t seen it in a few years). Still, there were things I liked about this 1957 film.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of the film was its location shooting. The credits note that much of the film was shot in Italy. This works in favor of the storytelling, giving the film the feeling of being much more authentic than stagey.
I also, despite not loving the actors together, did appreciate the film’s frank handling of the intimate nature of the relationship between Hudson and Jones’ characters. Being released in the late 1950s, this portrayal seems to be a logical baby step in the path toward the “new Hollywood” liberation that would take hold in the 1960s and ’70s. I appreciated that it wasn’t quite as sensationalized or melodramatic as some other romances of this transitionary era.
While the romance plays a major role in the plot, the central focus of the film is certainly Hudson, which is a bit of a double-edged sword. There is some nice commentary offered on the psychological hardships that come with war, and how the men deal with those hardships (which seems to be by excessively drinking, in many cases). [spoilers] Hudson’s portrayal of grief and confusion as Jones’ character experiences a stillbirth and finds her own life hanging in the balance is also very effectively emotional, though I was left questioning why Jones’ own trauma was glossed over in favor of a focus on Hudson’s pain. Well, not so much questioning — Hemingway wasn’t exactly known for writing thoroughly-developed female characters — but I did wish that we were able to see more of her perspective. [end spoilers]
With all of its strengths and weaknesses considered, A Farewell to Arms is an okay movie — not as bad as many reviewers have made it out to be, with some poignant moments and wonderful locations. Unless you’re a Rock Hudson completist, however, you’ll be better off watching the 1932 film or reading the source novel.