IN LOVE AND WAR (1996) **
When the U.S. entered World War I, Ernest Hemingway, then a cub reporter, wanted to join the fight in Europe but was rejected because of a bad eye. He succeeded however to be sent to Italy as an American Red Cross ambulance driver. Soon after his arrival at the front where Austrians and Italians were fighting, on July 18, 1918, just three days short of his 19th birthday, he was seriously wounded in the leg. At the hospital he fell in love with 26-year old nurse Agnes von Kurowsky. When he proposed to her, first he was accepted, then Agnes changed her mind. They met just once in Michigan and parted forever. Later Hemingway claimed that the two had made love, while Agnes denied it.
Those adventures were later transformed into the classic Hemingway novel "A Farewell to Arms." The book was touchingly filmed in 1932 with Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes. The 1957 remake with Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones is not a particularly good movie but it does get partly redeemed by the supporting cast, including talented Italian performers like including Vittorio De Sica and Alberto Sordi. In retrospect, it also gets redeemed by the comparison with "In Love and War" which is based on published research on the actual Ernest-Agnes relationship.
After war's end, in the film Agnes and her former patient Harry, meet in New York. Says he: "It feels like one hundred years, not the eight months since we left Italy." The film too feels longer than its running time, though the start is promising.
There are excellent war-scenes drawings behind the opening titles. The arrival of American nurses in a small town has some humor. A marching band delivers a raucous "Beer Barrel Polka," which most people think is a World War II British song, whereas it was a Czech composition. Apparently it already existed in the Great War. That's one of this film's contributions to knowledge.
Soon matters go flat. As young Hemingway eagerly walks to the front lines we hear the music of "The caissons keep rolling along." Yes,we get the message: gung ho Ernest is earnest. Some hospital scenes are rather good, even though certain points could have used greater stress --like the fact that in wartime it was simpler to amputate a leg rather than painstakingly try to avoid gangrene.
The Ernest-Agnes affair proceeds sluggishly. The the entire cast is low in the personality department. Sandra Bullock can be a charmer, but here her appeal is below that of her other roles, and her acting is minimalistic. Ditto, in spades, for Chris O'Donnell. He is painfully young, an end-of-century kid rather than a 1918 youth. He never hints at the writer-to-be, at the macho figure that will become the Lost Generation novelist, or at the older Papa Hemingway. During what Mrs. Bucket would call "a riparian entertainment," -- a picnic by a river -- Ernest's callowness causes Agnes to slap his face. You know that love-making cannot be far behind.
Some episodes have the beauty of Italy as a pleasant distraction, but this does not add anything to the story. Most scenes, too,are burdened by persistent, characterless background music. Often praised composer George Fenton must have been following misguided specifications.
First kiss--the music swells romantically. Ernest reads a letter--to plaintive, unseen strings. Ernest revisits the front --and more caissons roll along. The couple's one and only sexual encounter just before Ernest leaves for home, takes place in a bordello's rented room. It comes with a sentimental accordion melody ( a cliche usually reserved for shots of Paris), before reverting to more strings. Finally, the sounds, now from woodwinds and piano, become downright intrusive when Agnes visits Ernest in Michigan.
Among the bits that may have been true but feel false, we have Agnes, invited by an Italian surgeon and suitor to his house in Venice, predictably finding out that it is a luxurious palazzo. Back in the USA, Ernest reads Agnes's Dear John letter, has a fit, breaks everything in sight. It's unconvincing, especially after Orson Welles had done so smashingly better in his "Citizen Kane" bust-it-all scene.
Earlier, a letter from Ernest to Agnes described future bliss: "You'll be keeping the place spic and span while I write." The audience I saw it with must not have included feminists. No one giggled, gasped or howled.