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A Real 'Farewell to Arms'

An ill-fated Hemingway love affair widely believed to be the basis for his book is being turned into a movie--with some dramatic license.

August 11, 1996|Scott Collins | Scott Collins is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Producer Dimitri Villard was sitting in his small Beverly Hills office, fishing in a briefcase crammed with script revisions and production notes. Finally, he pulled out a color snapshot. "Here," he said, handing it to a visitor.

The picture showed Villard beaming as he sat on a sofa beside an elderly man who was wearing a blue blazer and loosely knotted red tie.

"That was just last Christmas," he continued, which meant that the photo had been taken several weeks before the older man--Dimitri's father, Henry S. Villard--had died at 95. "He doesn't look too bad considering his age, does he?"

Villard has more than sentimental reasons to tote around this last Christmas photo. His father had inspired--and is even a character in--"In Love and War," the $40-million film that Villard is producing in Europe this summer starring Sandra Bullock and Chris O'Donnell as star-crossed lovers in war-torn Italy. New Line Cinema hopes to release the movie, billed as a "Dr. Zhivago"-type epic, around Christmas.

The project stemmed from the elder Villard's experiences during World War I, when he befriended a handsome, cocky 19-year-old ambulance driver named Ernest Hemingway. More than 70 years later, Henry Villard co-wrote a scholarly memoir about the romance between Hemingway and nurse Agnes von Kurowsky. The younger Villard, a former B-movie producer who once worked with Roger Corman, then embarked on a seven-year odyssey to bring the story to the screen.

"When the book came out, what struck me was that this tragic love story was one that had tremendous appeal," Dimitri Villard said on the eve of his departure for Europe. "What happened was so real, so human--it was something that almost everyone can identify with. When I pitched the story [to studios], I would always not reveal it was about Ernest Hemingway until the very end. I found that people responded to the story itself."

Of course, because the movie concerns a real-life incident generally believed to have formed the basis for Hemingway's classic novel "A Farewell to Arms," it is bound to get more attention than the typical movie romance. But Villard cautioned that moviegoers should not expect a totally faithful version of events. This is Hollywood, after all.

"We took some dramatic liberty" with the script, he acknowledged.

Yet Villard and his collaborators believe that the movie will nevertheless depict a crucial period in Hemingway's progress toward household-name status.

"We know that Hemingway's relationship with Agnes affected the way he felt about women," Villard said. "It probably had an important influence on his writing. Agnes was certainly the person on whom the character of Catherine Barkley was based in 'A Farewell to Arms.' I don't think [Hemingway] ever forgot her."

"It was the first time [Hemingway] had fallen in love," O'Donnell, who plays young Hemingway, said by phone during a break in shooting. "It made him grow up. He lost his innocence with that relationship."

"He unquestionably adored Agnes, she was the love of his life," said Sir Richard Attenborough, the director of "In Love and War," during a break from shooting in Italy. "Who's to say what he might have written had they not broken up? All one knows is that all that aggression apparent in everything he writes--the frustration, disappointment and sense of betrayal--was following Agnes' decision to write her 'Dear John' letter."

While purists may scorn the film's dramatic liberties, the filmmakers have relied on a treasure-trove of historical data uncovered by Henry Villard and Hemingway scholar James Nagel. Among the primary sources is the wartime diary of Von Kurowsky, played in the film by Bullock.

"Now, Ernest Hemingway has a case on me, or thinks he has," Von Kurowsky wrote in her diary on Aug. 25, 1918. She was a 26-year-old nurse at the American Red Cross Hospital in Milan, where Hemingway was shipped after being wounded on the northern Italian front. "He is a dear boy & so cute about it."

The object of young Hemingway's desire was bright, witty, attractive and, by her own admission, extremely flirtatious.

"It was easy to see why Hemingway should fall as he did for Agnes," Henry Villard would later remember. "She had a sparkle the [other nurses] didn't possess."

The pair began a seven-month courtship, much of it conducted long distance because of Von Kurowsky's nursing assignments elsewhere in Italy. In January 1919, Hemingway shipped back to the U.S., evidently assuming that he and Von Kurowsky would get married when she returned home.

But a couple of months later, she broke off the affair with this letter: "I was trying to convince myself it was a real love affair, because we always seemed to disagree, then arguments always wore me out so that I finally gave in to keep you from doing something desperate." After time apart, she wrote, "I know I am still very fond of you, but it is more as a mother than as a sweetheart."

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