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Andy Hardy at War

In Love and War
The Importance of Being Ernie: Chris O'Donnell bids Sandra Bullock farewell with his arms in Richard Attenborough's "In Love and War."

Photo by David James

'In Love and War' dumbs down a great writer's life

By Michael S. Gant

RICHARD Attenborough's old-fashioned romance with a grandiose title, In Love and War, is, so the credits inform us, based on a true story. Sadly, unlike Fargo's tongue-in-cheek caveat, In Love and War's warning can't be taken with a dollop of irony to make the historical pill go down more easily.

Apparently, a young (age 18) Ernest Hemingway, while volunteering as a Red Cross ambulance driver on the Italian front in WWI, fell in love with an older nurse (all of 26, but it was 1918, when propriety still meant something) named Agnes Von Kurowsky. After his knee got pumped full of Austrian shrapnel, Hemingway was restored to health and lust by Agnes, who then had second thoughts and reluctantly dumped him, leaving the future Nobel laureate a bitter man incapable of forming a lasting relationship ... but, hey, he also got the idea for A Farewell to Arms.

And so the complex skein of experience that produced one of the most influential prose voices of our century has been reduced to the dynamics of a Harlequin novel. In one especially grating scene, Hemingway wins Agnes' heart by dictating the final words home from a dead soldier in a letter that turns out to be as full of platitudes as a Clinton inaugural address. At least Attenborough and his tag-team triumvirate of scriptwriters could have given us some of that ersatz hard-boiled Hemingway that even amateur parodists find so easy to lampoon.

Chris O'Donnell, doing little to dispel his typecasting as Robin in the Batman movies, plays Hemingway as a golly-gee all-American kid with a yen for battle and a boyish twinkle in his eyes--Andy Hardy goes to war. "You'll make the place spic and span, while I write great works," he informs Agnes about his plans for their domestic bliss. Once you get over the ludicrous notion that anybody ever called Ernest Hemingway "Ernie," Sandra Bullock gives an honorably moist-eyed performance as the conflicted Agnes.

The real culprit is Attenborough, who can turn even an intimate drama into Gandhi. Hence In Love and War places its lovers against a rolling diorama of handsomely staged, meticulously costumed tableaux--great scenes from the Great War. On the battlefield at night, we get the bombs bursting in air, flash-illuminating the trenches and barb-wire barricades (at last, All Quiet on the Western Front in color); for a little R&R, soft-focus postcards of Venice.

Whatever genuine romantic spark lingers after Attenborough is through with his embalming fluid is utterly doused by George Fenton's bombastic score. At each hint of tenderness between Ernie and Agnes, the music starts to flow like molten treacle, smothering every emotion in its path as it heads across the river and into the trees.

In Love and War (PG-13; 115 min.), directed by Richard Attenborough, written by Allan Scott, Clancy Sigal and Anna Hamilton Phelan, based on the book by Henry S. Villard and James Nagel, photographed by Roger Pratt and starring Sandra Bullock and Chris O'Donnell.

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From the January 23-29, 1997 issue of Metro

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