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Escape to Romance


NEW YORK — Tonight, "Hallmark Hall of Fame" presents its 210th production: "In Love and War," based on the true story of Eric Newby, a British soldier taken prisoner in Italy during World War II.

But this is no dark drama about the war, like so many TV films of late. Even as the movie changes key details and softens many difficult episodes of Newby's experience as a prisoner and later escapee, it captures one thing beautifully: the oh-so-British "what a grand adventure" spirit with which Newby approaches his ordeal in his memoir of the time, the 1971 "Love and War in the Apennines."

It was August 1942 (not spring 1943, as in the movie) when Newby and four comrades were taken prisoner after a failed commando raid, plucked from the sea off the Sicilian coast (not on land, as the movie depicts) when they missed a rendezvous with their submarine. Eventually, they ended up as prisoners--gently treated ones--in the town of Fontanellato, near Parma. They were freed in September 1943 during the Italian Armistice, only to find themselves on the run from the much more serious Germans.

Newby, who had broken his foot, hid in a hospital, escaped through a bathroom window by feigning digestive troubles, and found shelter in a series of poor Italian peasant homes, to which he pays homage in beautiful detail in his book. Eventually, in his three months on the run, he ended up in a remote farmhouse where he cleared rocks from a field in exchange for meager food and board, and found humor where he could. Later, he moved to his own hut, but the Germans soon caught up to him and he turned himself in, ending up in prison camps in Germany and Czechoslovakia before being freed at the end of the war.

But it's the "love" not the "war" in the title that scriptwriter John Mortimer ("Brideshead Revisited") and director John Kent Harrison ("What the Deaf Man Heard") chose to emphasize. During his time on the run from the Germans, Newby was aided considerably by a young woman named Wanda Skof, the daughter of a Slovenian anti-fascist, who taught him Italian while he was in the hospital.

With the help of her father and a doctor, Wanda orchestrated Newby's escape and flight to the mountains; along the way, they fell in love and, after the war, he returned and they were married, some 55 years ago. Newcomers Callum Blue, a Brit, and Barbora Bobulova, who is Slovakian and appearing in her first English-language professional assignment, star as the eventually happy couple.

Newby is now 82 and Wanda is 79. Dining at a New York Italian restaurant in August as part of the publicity for the movie, they remain seemingly full of adventure, down to wanting to try the special of soft-shell crabs, which they have never tasted.

After returning to London, Newby went into the family fashion business, but eventually left the profession to take up another career as a celebrated travel editor and writer. There was a mountain climbing adventure to Afghanistan, chronicled in his book "A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush," and a 1,200-mile boat trip through India ("Slowly Down the Ganges"), financed, Wanda explains, when an Egyptian friend decided to enter a convent and left her money to the couple. There are stories about meeting famous people in the pool at the legendary Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and trips to their house in Italy.

It's an approach to the world and foreign lands that seems particularly long ago and far away in light of the dark side of clashing cultures that would be highlighted by the recent terror attacks.

The same can be said for the movie, which Newby declares himself quite pleased with. Shot entirely on location in and around the town of Oriolo Romano, Italy, the camera often lingers on sun-dappled vistas over the mountains; parts of the dialogue are in untranslated Italian; and the score by Nicola Piovani ("Life Is Beautiful") emphasizes the movie's romantic side. Given the way their real life turned out, it's hard not to be caught up in that side of their story.

"In Love and War" can be seen tonight at 9 on CBS. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for younger children).

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