In the summer of 1918, a callow, bumptious youth called Ernest
Hemingway arrived in Italy looking for adventure. He was one year
older than the century. By the time he went home he, like the
century, was much, much older, permanently scarred by the
experience of the war and of a tragic love affair.
He immortalised it in one of the century's great novels, A
Farewell to Arms, in which the hero, Frederic, falls in love with
a nurse called Catherine Barkley, who dies giving birth to their
stillborn child. For Hemingway himself, the woman whose love
changed his life - and changed the course of modern literature -
was called Agnes von Kurowsky.
She, too, was a nurse (with the Red Cross) and, despite her
name, was American, raised in Pennsylvania, with a German father
and an American mother. But, unlike Catherine, Agnes was some
eight years older than Hemingway, whom she called 'Kid'. And,
although she was supposed to follow him back to America after the
war, she never did.
"He told all his wives
that they were sort of shadows or stand-ins for Agnes," Richard Attenborough on Hemingway
And Hemingway never forgot. "He told all his wives that
they were sort of shadows or stand-ins for Agnes," noted
Richard Attenborough, shortly after putting the finishing touches
to the opening titles of In Love and War, the sweeping romantic
drama he shot in Northern Italy - at Vittorio Veneto, at the base
of the Dolomites, and in Venice itself - and at Shepperton
Studios in London. "He actually told his first wife that on
the night of their wedding - having insisted that Agnes be
invited to the ceremony!" Not that Attenborough is
committing himself to the idea that, for Catherine Barkley in A
Farewell to Arms, read the real-life Agnes von Kurowsky.
"I found it
"The novel is not based on the events," he says.
"That's untrue. But it does emanate from the extraordinary
love-affair that Hemingway had over a four-month period. And I
found it irresistible." Based on the 1989 book, Ernest
Hemingway: In Love and War, by Henry Villard, a wartime friend of
the writer who had kept up contact with Agnes, the film tells the story of that love affair, which began when Ernie Hemingway
(played in the movie by Chris O'Donnell), eager to see a little
action, volunteers to drive an ambulance to the front.
When a mortar shell lands nearby, Hemingway heroically carries
the only other survivor to safety, but is hit in the leg by
machine-gun fire in the process. It is in hospital that he meets
Agnes von Kurowsky (Sandra Bullock), who is instrumental in
persuading the surgeon not to amputate the wounded leg, but to
try instead a revolutionary form of irrigation treatment. It
saves the 'Kid's' leg, and launches a relationship into which
Ernie charges headlong, while Agnes - partly put off by the young
American's arrogance, partly aware of the (in 1918 terms) huge
age difference between them - holds back.
"Would he have had the
same bile and the same turmoil and passion if he'd married
Agnes and had had seven children?"
"What is fascinating," says Attenborough, "is:
What would have happened if his guts hadn't been torn out at the
age of 19? Would he have been the same writer? Would he have had
the same bile and the same turmoil and passion if he'd married
Agnes and had had seven children?"
The focus of In Love and War, however, is not that particular
version of 'what if?' The film is not so much about the future
writer as about a passionate, troubled affair between two very
real, three-dimensional young Americans in a conflict situation.
"The film confirms our
perception of him"
All the same, it is hard to lose sight of the future genius,
reckons Attenborough. "The film confirms our perception of
him," he says. "It confirms his arrogance, it confirms
his courage, it confirms his egotism, it confirms his sense of
humour and his total inability to forgive anybody or to condone
anything that does not go totally his way." It also confirms
the hitherto unrecognised depth of Sandra Bullock's acting
"She was a personality movie star"
Attenborough on Sandra
"I'd seen her in several movies and I believed that
nobody had, in fact, challenged her to present a
three-dimensional character. She was hardly ever asked to perform
- to play, to act. She was a personality movie star." So the
director flew to Bullock's home town of Washington, DC, and
persuaded her over dinner at Thanksgiving, 1995. "
At the end of dinner, she said: 'Look, I would love to do
this. I don't need to see the screenplay. If it's as you want it
to be, that's fine by me. But you have to make me one promise.
You have to swear that you will remove the Sandra Bullock that
everybody expects to see from the movie!' So that was the