In Love and War

It makes you realize how a war can seem endless and how love can endure; the film, unfortunately, outlasts both. If Agnes von Kurowsky, the 26-year-old American nurse who attended to 18-year-old Ernest Hemingway's injuries from the battlefield, had any idea what sort of film would be made to celebrate her secret notes, she might not only have hidden her diaries, but most likely destroyed them. If young Ernie, on the other hand, had been as decisive when he firsts holds a gun in his hands in the trenches as old Ernie was at the end of his life, we might have been saved this tiring and trivial tale. Instead we are treated to a love story revolving around the "war to end all wars" in a film that could easily end some careers.

Young Hemingway, the journalist, eagerly enters the war as an ambulance driver and, in no time at all, despite opposition, manages to get himself onto the battlefield by serving refreshments. Wounded and bloodied during an attack, he displays his heroism by carrying the only other remaining survivor across the battlefield to safety. Waking up in hospital, he meets nurse Agnes who carefully and caringly irrigates his knee. She manages to save the limb that the doctor wanted to amputate. Agnes is popular on the camp grounds. Both Dr. Caracciolo and Ernie's friend Harry are chasing her cape. It looks as if Ernie doesn't have a chance. After all, there is an age difference between them (Agnes is 8 years his senior -- give me a break!) When a patient hideously disfigured from phosphorous burns commits suicide, Ernie helps Agnes finish the letter he had been writing home as a farewell to his parents. She is profoundly moved by the composition and they embrace. Before long, they have their limbs flying all over each other in the only place available, a sordid little hotel room. Eventually, however, Agnes will have to decide between the rich, successful Italian doctor and the young innocent American boy she loves. Which will she choose?: the beautifully extravagant Venetian apartments overlooking romantic canals or the white picket fences of Illinois with all the apple pie you can eat?

I'm afraid that neither Sandra Bullock as Agnes nor Chris O' Donnell as Ernest have the presence, maturity or depth of character to make these figures the seeds of towering and yet sympathetic creatures they should be. Scriptwriters Clancy Sigal and Allan Scott, of course, haven't helped them much in this area. Even the assistance of a talent like Anna Hamilton Phelan (scenarist for Gorillas in the Mist and Mask) doesn't seem to have improved things much. It is astounding that a love affair which served as the basis for what is arguably Hemingway's most important novel, A Farewell to Arms, could also have been the center of this bland, boring, naive, and adolescent piece of work. The scene in the woods near the end, more astonishing than moving, almost looks as if it were stuck on as an afterthought. Then again, Hemingway re-wrote the end of A Farewell to Arms 39 times before he got it right. In this case, I don't think it makes much sense to wait around for the director's cut. Sir Richard Attenborough says, "This is a story which demonstrates human relationships, human fallibilities, passions and adrenaline aroused under the circumstances of imminent danger and death." Did I miss something or were we watching the same film? In the anals of Dickie's work, this should easily find its proper place on the shelf alongside A Chorus Line.

© 1994-2006 The Green Hartnett