Producer Dimitri Villard is the son of Henry Villard, Ernest Hemingway's
wartime friend and the author, with scholar James Nagel, of Hemingway in
Love and War: The Lost Diary of Agnes von Kurowsky, which tells the true
story of the love affair that inspired Hemingway to write his masterpiece
A Farewell to Arms.
It was Villard who shaped his father's memoir for screen and developed the first-draft of the screenplay. "We didn't want to do a biography of Ernest Hemingway," says Villard. "I was convinced that if one looked at it from a different point of view, that of a woman torn between following her heart and following her head, it was a great, classic love story."
Credited with writing the screen story with Allan Scott, Villard developed the screenplay with New Line Cinema and eventually presented it to Richard Attenborough, who was in Los Angeles to confer about another picture. Attenborough was immediately drawn to the story. "Although I thought that the screenplay needed a lot of work to be really cinematic," he says, "the subject, the context and the personalities were just magical. "
Attenborough agrees with Villard that the story of Ernest Hemingway and Agnes von Kurowsky would be fascinating "whether these two characters were named Gertie and Bill, or Agnes and Ernie," but adds that he has always been interested in stories about "embryo figures," historical personalities at an early turning point in their lives. "I'm much more interested in fact than fiction. I love people who could stand up and be counted."
"Some, like Gandhi or Churchill, change our very destinies," he explains. "Others simply illuminate our lives, and the complexities and difficulties and confrontations that we inevitably have to face. Hemingway is one of those. This is a story which demonstrates human relationships, human fallibilities, passions and adrenaline aroused under the circumstances of imminent danger and death."
Chris O'Donnell, who had been aware of the project before Attenborough was attached to it, agreed to play young Ernest Hemingway. "When I heard that Richard might be interested, I started to aggressively pursue it," he recalls. "The story was wonderful, but getting to work with Richard Attenborough was the primary driving factor to become involved."
After a Thanksgiving lunch with the director in her hometown of Washington, D. C., Bullock was excited at the prospect of playing Agnes von Kurowsky. "This was an opportunity to play a character who was an incredibly modern for her time," she explains. "Until now, my roles have been contemporary women. Here was a chance to play a woman who was well ahead of her time in the early 1900s, when women weren't given the leeway to be that way. Agnes was in a class all her own. She did it her way, got a lot of heat for it and was pretty impressive."
Oddly enough, Agnes' background was very similar to Bullock's. One German parent, the other American. Born in Pennsylvania, raised in Washington, D. C., but well traveled.
"The only thing that showed her emotional life were her letters. If those letters didn't exist, we would have no idea what went on between her and Ernest Hemingway. As we started reading through the letters and diaries and interviews with Agnes, we started piecing together her personality. At first we weren't quite sure what the cadence of the letters was, whether she was trying to be funny, or making private jokes, but once we got done with the research, everything fell into place."
Attenborough worked closely with Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Anna Hamilton Phelan (Mask, Gorillas in the Mist) to develop the final version of the screenplay. Phelan says that her main inspiration, apart from Villard's memoir and other research on the actual events, was of two kinds: poems written during the Great War, expressing the participants' emotional reactions to the trauma of modern trench warfare and histories of the Red Cross in World War I.
"Hospitals, because of the life-and-death situations all around, create strong passions," said Phelan. "I told Richard that I wanted to take as my thread for the character of Agnes the idea that she was drawn sexually, almost obsessively, to this young man. He said, 'Go for it.'"
Adds Bullock: "Like many women during this time, Agnes was somewhat repressed. She never dealt with passion because she was there to heal and help, and not to delve into her own emotions. Then suddenly she was confronted with somebody who came across at first as a beautiful, sweet younger man. He just opened up everything that was raw about her. "
Bullock believes that it was Agnes' own resistance to the passion she was experiencing for the first time that made her resist the affair. Even though she was very brave and ahead of her time, she was afraid, because she knew that stability was not going to come from being paired up with Ernest.
O'Donnell, a Chicago native, identified with the script's depiction of Hemingway as an untried kid from the Midwest. "I went to his house in Oak Park, Illinois, and I read his newspaper articles and everything he had written up to that time, but I tried to stay away from thinking too much about what he became," he says. "The love story is so emotional, it really stands on its own."
"What you see at the beginning of the film," says Bullock, "is a completely innocent, beautiful, egocentric, cocky, fun-loving, witty, sharp young man. You don't see the wild animal until the end of the film. Watching Chris play him, you have to abandon what you know about Ernest Hemingway and accept that everybody starts out as a child. So you have a wonderful place to start and a great place to end."
"His talent and ambition were right there on the surface, but some of the darker aspects of the Papa Hemingway we all know hadn't shown themselves yet. Like most Americans at the time, Ernie was an idealist. He was eager for adventure, and couldn't wait to get into the war. The reality of it was horrible, but then he had this love affair to believe in. When that failed, it changed him forever."
The relationship between Sandra Bullock and Chris O'Donnell was a very easy-going one, which Attenborough encouraged. "For years mutual friends said that we should work together because we are exactly alike," says Bullock. "As soon as we met we felt very comfortable with each other." Both tended toward fun-loving behavior until the camera rolled -- then they became thorough professionals, absorbed in the rigid mores of 1918.
"There were times where Richard would separate us or I would just walk away," says Bullock, "because while we enjoy playing together, that's the contemporary -- that's easy. Then the minute I'd step into a scene, there was an intensity and a darkness that developed."
"It's tragic to think that something, which in the 1990s would have worked so easily, was defeated because Agnes was afraid of allowing love to open her up. But at that time, it made her grow for an instant and then completely close up. It's very sad. We so rarely find this kind of passion in our lives. It's really a gift. When you find it, you should be able to embrace it, not run from it."
Playing Agnes was a challenge for Bullock, who is known for playing comedic roles of a very different sort. "There were things I needed to explore in this character," she says, "and I needed someone to say, 'You've done this. Now let's go a little deeper and go away from what's easy for you, because that's a crutch.' I couldn't have played this part two years ago."
"Sandra is one of those magical figures that the lens adores," says Attenborough. "What was marvelous about working with her was that she said, 'I want to be challenged.' And I felt she was capable of much more depth, more refined acting than anything she has done before this. And that's what happened. She is exquisite. She has the ability in front of the camera to convey with absolute reality a sophistication, a complexity of thought and resultant action, which is bewildering."
Attenborough and Bullock had a private code -- he'd etch out a "B" for "Bullock" in the air if he thought she was taking the quick and easy route. Says Bullock: "Richard Attenborough made me think of choices I would never have developed on my own. He is a true teacher. I believe he pushed me to become a better performer, extensively a better actor, and a better interpreter of the word. He helped me see diversity, rather than going for the obvious choice."
"He's the first director I've worked with who was an actor," says Chris O'Donnell, "and that did make a huge difference. He knows how to communicate what he wants without throwing you off, so you feel safe enough to take risks. I found myself really growing as a result of working with him."
To support his key players, Attenborough assembled a fine supporting cast of actors unknown to film audiences: Ingrid Lacey, Emilio Bonucci, Tara Hugo and Ian Kelly, among others. The crew were all old collaborators of the filmmaker, many of whom are Academy Award-winners themselves. Once the production moved into high gear, locations were found and filming was accomplished quickly and efficiently, despite the intense heat of Italy in the summer.
In Love and War was filmed on location in Vittorio Veneto, at the base of the Dolomites, Venice and Montreal. Interiors were filmed at Shepperton Studios, London. Despite the key battle scenes and the feeling of a sweeping epic, In Love and War is an intimate film and shooting lasted only eleven weeks.
The authenticity of the hospital scenes was greatly abetted by Jean Waldman, a widow in her fifties who was working as a Volunteer Nurse Historian at the American Red Cross headquarters in Washington. Responding at first to research questions over the telephone, she eventually found herself spending the spring and early summer of 1996 with the filmmakers. She was always first on the set every day, reveling in the experience and always delighted by the results.
In Canada the filmmakers were joined by James Nagel, who co-wrote the book on which the film is based, and he, too, announced himself delighted with what he saw. Previously, at Shepperton Studios, the company had been visited by Agnes von Kurowsky's step-daughter.
ERNIE & AGNES: A FAREWELL TO IN LOVE AND WAR
In May of 1918, during the darkest period of Italy's battle to fight off the invading Austrian army, 18-year-old Ernest Hemingway set sail for Europe, one of a small army of Red Cross volunteers sent by Woodrow Wilson to shore up Italian morale while American troops that had been committed to World War I were stalled in France. For a month Hemingway drove an ambulance ferrying wounded Italian soldiers back from the Italian-Austrian front. Then, eager to get closer to the conflict, he volunteered to carry refreshments to the men fighting on the front line and became the first American casualty in the war on July 8, two weeks before his nineteenth birthday.
He later embellished the experience, claiming to have been wounded while fighting with the crack Arditi regiment, but the truth of the incident which removed him from the war was heroic enough. Despite wounds sustained when a Minenwerfer shell demolished a forward listening post on the west bank of the Piave, the young non-combatant carried a wounded Italian soldier to safety, catching a spray of machine-gun bullets in his right leg -- an act for which he later received the Italian War Cross of Merit and the Silver Medal for Military Valor.
While convalescing in the Red Cross hospital, Hemingway fell in love with a 26-year-old American nurse, also a Red Cross volunteer, Agnes von Kurowsky. A romance blossomed during his five-month convalescence, and she accepted his marriage proposal. When the war separated the lovers, Hemingway returned stateside in January of 1919 to a hero's welcome, determined to earn money as a writer in order to marry Agnes.
Despite a passionate correspondence, however, Agnes suffered from doubts about marrying someone still in his teens, which were only aggravated by the attentions of a more mature and much more appropriate suitor, an Italian nobleman. Finally, she wrote Hemingway a letter in which she broke off their engagement and announced plans to marry Count Domenico Carraciolo. The rejection hurt him so deeply, writes James Nagel, co-author of Hemingway in Love and War, "that he wrote about it all his life" -- most notably in his second novel.
Ten years after the end of World War I, Hemingway, already an established author, published A Farewell to Arms, based on his experiences during the Italian campaign and his romance with Agnes von Kurowsky. Banned in Boston for licentiousness and by Mussolini for its "demoralizing" portrayal of the Italian army in defeat, the book became a best-seller, and Hemingway was recognized as the literary spokesman for the generation shaped by the First World War.
During the intervening years he had married, divorced and married again; had suffered the shock of his father's suicide and had outgrown the youthful idealism that sent him to Europe. In 1942 he would describe World War I as "the most colossal, murderous, mismanaged butchery that had ever taken place on earth," and that is how the war is portrayed in the novel, which charts the gradual awakening of the narrator -- an older version of Ernie the ambulance driver -- to the senseless horror of what is going on around him, culminating in the catastrophic retreat of the Italian Army from Caporetto, during which hundreds of Italian soldiers were killed by their fellow countrymen.
Unlike The Sun Also Rises, which preceded it, Hemingway's second novel was the fruit of ten years of reflection, culminating in fifteen months of intensive work. He re-wrote the ending for A Farewell to Arms 39 times before getting it right. Shorter pieces published in the twenties show him struggling to make artistic sense of his war experiences, particularly in "A Very Short Story," a cynical two-page account of his brief love affair with Agnes.
Once purged of his bitterness by time, experience, and that single act of literary vengeance, Hemingway did not portray his youthful love with the disillusion that marks his descriptions of the Italian campaign. Instead, the doomed attempt of Frederic Henry and Catherine Barkley in A Farewell to Arms to find a "separate peace" in the midst of war is one of the most powerful love stories in modern literature.
Some readers have had trouble believing in Catherine, the passionate woman who woos Frederic away from the War, then dies giving birth to his stillborn child. The first to object was Hemingway's friend and editorial advisor F. Scott Fitzgerald, who found her too good to be true and wrote Hemingway that her heroic character, which could only be an infatuated adolescent's idealized image of a woman, was the book's major flaw.
Later critics accused Hemingway of having created a male wish-fulfillment fantasy, calling Catherine a "dishrag" and an "inflated rubber-doll woman," while another school -- all-male -- saw her as a witch who lures the hero away from his social responsibilities. It took a new generation of readers and critics who had grown up in the shadow of another insane war to see in the war-traumatized Catherine what one contemporary reviewer recognized at first glance: "the apotheosis of bravery in a woman."
The identity of Catherine's real-life model remained a secret until Leicester Hemingway revealed it in a memoir published in 1961, just after his brother's suicide. Ten years later scholar Michael Reynolds interviewed Agnes von Kurowsky in Florida for his book Hemingway's First War, the first comprehensive study of A Farewell to Arms debunking the idea that the novel is autobiographical.
Insofar as the war passages are concerned, Reynolds' book performs a valuable service. He shows that the nightmarish portrayal of the retreat from Caporetto, for example, was only partly inspired by the author's first-hand experience of trench warfare -- he was still in high school when it happened. Like Stephen Crane in The Red Badge of Courage, Hemingway based his account of the war largely on conversations with veterans, newspaper articles and tomes of military history, and later was at some pains to discredit the idea that his masterpiece was a thinly-veiled piece of journalism. That is why, Reynolds says, he praised Crane's novel in his 1942 introduction to a collection of war writings as "truer to what war is than any war the boy who wrote it would ever live to see."
But Reynolds, armed with his thesis, was perhaps too ready to believe everything Agnes von Kurowsky told him about her youthful romance with Hemingway. Understandably vexed that tour guides in the Hemingway Museum at Key West, Florida, where she was living happily with her second husband, were describing her to tourists as "Hemingway's girl," she denied being really in love with young Ernie and emphatically denied that there had ever been anything improper about their relationship.
Reynolds concluded that "Agnes von Kurowsky contributed little to Catherine Barkley other than her presence and her physical beauty....Whatever their relationship, it cannot have been that of Catherine and Frederic."
It wasn't until the publication of Hemingway in Love and War by Henry Serrano Villard and James Nagel that a fuller picture of Hemingway's wartime love affair emerged. Later an ambassador and diplomat, young Harvard graduate Henry Villard had also been a volunteer ambulance driver for the Red Cross in Italy in 1918. Villard came down with malaria and jaundice at the same time Hemingway was wounded and the two became close friends in the Red Cross hospital in Milan. Equally important, Villard had known Agnes von Kurowsky well, and like all the men in the ward, had been smitten with her, although he realized that his friend Ernie had beaten him out "when I caught him holding her hand one afternoon in a manner that did not suggest she was taking his pulse."
Villard renewed his friendship with Agnes shortly after Hemingway's death, and 20 years later was able to render her a last service. She wished to be buried in Soldiers Home National Cemetery with her parents and grandparents (her mother's father had been Quartermaster General of the Union Army during the Civil War), but National Cemetery regulations made no provision for Red Cross nurses. Because of his years in government, Villard was able to have the ruling reversed, and after a peaceful death in a convalescent home, Agnes von Kurowsky was buried in 1984 in Washington, D.C. with an honorary six-man marine guard, in accordance with "her gallant and honorable services" with the Red Cross.
In gratitude, her husband sent Villard his late wife's war-time diary, a document whose existence no one had ever suspected. It was published in 1989 together with her letters to Hemingway, Hemingway's letters to his family from Italy, a memoir by Villard and a sober examination of the facts by Hemingway scholar James Nagel.
For a private journal, Agnes' jottings in her clothbound "Agenda 1918" are surprisingly guarded. Although Hemingway figures prominently, first as "Mr. Hemingway," then as "Ernie" or "the Kid," Agnes never says she is in love with him, although she makes no secret of the fact that their romance is progressing in spite of the watchfulness of nursing supervisor Katherine De Long and the disapproval of Agnes' best friend, Elsie MacDonald.
What she does express is her conflicting feelings about the double impropriety of an older nurse becoming involved with a patient still in his teens: "Ernest Hemingway is getting earnest," she writes on August 26. "He was talking last night of what might be if he was 26-28. In some ways -- at some times -- I wish very much that he was. He is adorable & we are very congenial in every way. I'm getting so confused in my heart & mind I don't know how I'll end up. Still, I came over here for work and until the war is over I won't be able to do anything foolish, which is lucky for me."
The letters are considerably more revealing. The day after Hemingway leaves for Stresa on holiday, she writes to him, "I've just been in your room, & talk about chairs that whisper! The whole room haunted me so that I could not stay in it." (In her journal for the same day: "It was the most dismal night I ever spent on night duty. I missed him so much...") When she is transferred to Florence, she writes every day and sometimes even twice a day, despite Red Cross restrictions on letter-writing during the wartime paper shortage. And when she learns that he is returning to the States, she sounds rather like Catherine Barkley: "Kid, I miss you more & more, & it makes me shiver to think of your going home without me. What if our hearts should change? Both, I mean, & we should lose this beautiful world of us?"
The letters are filled with private jokes and pet names. She calls Ernie "Kid" or "My dearest Kid," twice addressing him, playfully, as "My Old Master" or "Dear Old Man." Usually she signs herself "Aggie," "Mrs. Kid" or "Your very own Kid," although she occasionally uses more overt expressions: "From the love-letters of a Rookie" and "I love you still -- ever." She writes in the sprightly style expected of young women of the day, often chiding herself for being too sentimental, and chiding him once for thinking she is "ashamed" of him.
One passage throws light on the disparity between the journal and the letters: "I never pined for anyone before in my life," she writes on October 29. "In every book I read I seem to find a parallel between you & me. Does it sound foolish to you when I write like this? I really never thought I could write what I feel so plainly & openly. Writing has always made me draw into a shell -- it seemed so irrevocable. Once written you can't take back what you have said....I'd hate to be opening my heart like this on paper, if I thought you were not responding in yours. But then, I'm almost sure I could tell by the way you wrote if you began to change."
In the end it was Agnes who changed. In her letter of 1919, breaking off the relationship, she is already trying to talk herself out of her earlier professions of love, and it is clear that Ernie's fears that she was ashamed of being involved with a younger man were justified: "It's all right to say I'm a Kid, but, I'm not, & I'm getting less & less so every day," she writes. "I am now and will always be too old." Brave enough and tender-hearted enough to have a passionate romance with a wounded soldier eight years her junior at a time when women who did were stigmatized, Agnes was finally too conventional to marry him, although in the letters she speaks of their plans to marry after the war, signing two of them "Yours (some day)" and "Your missis."
Given the period, her decision seems tragically inevitable, and it is certainly understandable that she would have wanted to erase her memory of their romance. But it is hard not to agree with Henry Villard's conclusion: "Spontaneous, unaffected, caring, these are letters such as any young woman of that particular period in history might write to her sweetheart," he says in his introduction to the letters. "They should be taken for neither more nor less."
Was Agnes the model for Catherine Barkley, as most scholars have supposed? Villard writes, "I had no doubt, that the major contribution was that made by Agnes herself....In no other work did Hemingway describe his heroine in terms of such passionate tenderness....Surely, the tale had its wellspring in something wholly unfeigned by the writer. And the fact that Ernie had in his possession three of her letters until the day of his death showed that he had not forgotten."
Despite critics who see in A Farewell to Arms an act of vengeance like "A Very Short Story," what Hemingway did in that book was to reinvent his romance with Agnes by imagining, as she had put it, "what might [have been] if he was 26-28," with a senseless but somehow inevitable death at the end to explain the man he had become as he prepared to turn thirty:
In writing A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway immortalized his lost love in the character of Catherine Barkley, one of the great heroines of English literature. But it was his old friend and rival Henry Villard who revealed to the world, after both parties to the love affair were gone, the real Agnes von Kurowsky, who is in her own way every bit as moving as her fictional counterpart.
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