Hemingway biography on the silver screen: The critical reception of Richard Attenborough’s film, In Love And War
Bittner, John R
ALTHOUGH ERNEST HEMINGWAY DISLIKED many Of the motion pictures produced from his novels and short stories, he could not deny that his characters were portrayed and directed by some of the biggest names in Hollywood. Few actresses played Hemingway heroines with more theatrical skill than Helen Hayes as nurse Catherine Barkley in Frank Borzage’s 1932 production of A Farewell to Arms, and while a relative newcomer to motion pictures, co-star Gary Cooper won both the approval of movie audiences and the praise of critics as Frederic Henry.
Cooper would later star as Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) with the popular Ingrid Bergman opposite him as Maria. The following.year, Howard Hawks directed Humphrey Bogart as Harry Morgan and introduced Lauren Bacall as Marie Browning in To Have and Have Not. Burt Lancaster, later to become one of Hollywood’s biggest draws, played Swede in The Killers (1946). In The Macomber Affair (1947), Robert Preston played Francis Macomber, alongside Gregory Peck as Robert Wilson. Peck appeared again as Harry in The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952), co-starring Susan Hayward as Helen and Ava Gardner as Cynthia. Darryl E Zanuck produced The Sun Also Rises (1957), with Tyrone Powers as Jake Barnes and Ava Gardner as Brett Ashley. That same year, Rock Hudson played as Frederic Henry in David O. Selznick’s re-make of A Farewell to Arms, with Jennifer Jones as Catherine. Although the re-make did not enjoy the acclaim of the earlier version, no one could dispute Selznick’s attempt to mix star power with scenic grandeur. In 1958, Spencer Tracy portrayed the Old Man in Leland Hayward’s production of The Old Man and the Sea. By 1977, when George C. Scott starred as Thomas Hudson in Islands in the Stream, Hemingway’s works were firmly associated with Hollywood star power.
Had Hemingway been alive to learn that Sir Richard Attenborough would direct box-office stars Sandra Bullock and Chris O’Donnell in New Line Cinema’s 1996 adaptation of Henry S. Villard and James Nagel’s biography, Hemingway in Love and War, he might have been apprehensive about the final product, but he could not have denied the celebrity status of the director and the stars. Not since the filming of such Hemingway works as The Old Man and the Sea, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and the two versions of A Farewell to Arms, had such a big budget, well-known director, and major stars been applied to a Hemingway epic.
New Line Cinema hoped In Love and War would increase its fortunes, help its bottom line,and add to its artistic prestige. The company’s most recent success had been the film Dumb and Dumber, starring comedian Jim Carrey. Yet, as Claudia Eller and James Bates reported in the Los Angeles Times, New Line’s market share had slipped from 6.6 of the industry’s box office receipts a year earlier, to only 3.4 percent. The remedy to regain market share was what Gioia Diliberto in the New York Times called a “$40 million soap opera,” the love story of Agnes von Kurowsky and Ernest Hemingway, provided by Dimitri Villard; son of Henry S. Villard, who had known both von Kurowsky and Hemingway in Italy. A Hollywood writer and producer, Dimitri Villard was a veteran of films such as the 1985 vampire comedy Once Bitten, starring the same Jim Carrey of Dumb and Dumber fame. For him, In Love and War was an opportunity not only to honor his father, but to work on a film of personal and professional importance-what Scott Collins of the Chicago Tribune called “the biggest coup” of Villard’s “checkered career.”
With Richard Attenborough as director and co-producer, a big budget, and big stars, expectations for the film’s artistic and financial success were high. That Attenborough signed onto the project was not surprising. Billed as “Richard Attenborough’s Film In Love and War,” the motion picture was developed as a romantic epic, with strong literary and biographical underpinnings. Some of Attenborough’s best work had been with epic biographies and war-era pictures. Shadowlands showcased writer C.S. Lewis. Gandhi captured an Oscar for Best Picture and Best Director. In Chaplin and Young Winston, Attenborough filmed the lives of Charlie Chaplin and Winston Churchill respectively. The first feature-length motion picture for theatrical release that dealt directly with Hemingway biography and not with semi-autobiographical material adapted from his literary works, In Love and War was especially significant. Equally important, Richard Attenborough’s direction would make Hemingway part of the larger cycle of Attenborough-directed biographies and capture the attention of future film scholars and historians.
As part of New Line’s big-budget philosophy, two of the industry’s major stars were cast in the leads, Sandra Bullock as nurse Agnes von Kurowsky and Chris O’Donnell as the young Ernest Hemingway. O’Donnell’s appeal was that he looked-like Ernest Hemingway at age eighteen and was a box office draw for teenage audiences. Although he had won a Golden Globe nomination for Scent of a Woman, O’Donnell had gained his biggest fame as Robin, Batman’s sidekick in Batman Forever.
Bullock, whose blockbuster success was playing the driver of a bombrigged bus in Speed, was reported to have received $10.5 million for In Love and War, an amount People magazine’s “Spotlight” feature called “astounding.” But Bullock also turned out to be a publicist’s dream. One week before Publisher’s Weekly announced that New Line had bought the rights to the Villard and Nagel book, Bullock was voted the National Association of Theater Owners’ Female Star of the Year. UPI’s report of the honor listed In Love and War as one of her upcoming films. Coinciding with the release of In Love and War in theaters, and later on video, the honor also helped put her on the front covers of US magazine and Rolling Stone. Both the People’s Choice Award and a survey by Quigley Publishing, publishers of International Motion Picture Almanac, named her the top female motion picture actress for 1996. Reporting the Quigley poll, Stephen Holders in the New York Times mentioned In Love and War, after saying Bullock, “with her nasal voice, goofy grin and lack of refinement, has the aura of an Everywoman, a plucky modern-day Cinderella, with whom millions of young women can identify.”
The marketing campaign for In Love and War was primarily tied to the print media, television, and the Internet. The first public relations rollout occurred with a PR Newswire announcement about Attenborough as director and Bullock and O’Donnell as stars. In Love and War was billed as a “high profile” picture on the “studio’s fast-track toward production.” The print and broadcast media press kits contained a 45-page press release, black-and-white glossy photos, color 35mm slides, and a video trailer of the field hospital scene. Photos pictured the stars kissing, casually embracing each other at the hospital, saying good-bye at the train station; and standing on the dock at Walloon Lake. Portrait shots included Ernest (O’Donnell) on the train and at Walloon Lake. Bullock was pictured alone on a Venice balcony overlooking the Grand Canal and in a New York restaurant scene. Both the Venice and New York photos were notable for their costuming. MacKenzie Astin, who was cast as young Henry Villard, was also pictured, as was Attenborough. Along with Internet sites linked to New Line Cinema’s Web site, independent Internet sites also publicized the film. The movie.com site carried a 9,000-word description of the production and its cast and grounded the historical elements of the film in the Villard and Nagel book and Michael Reynolds’ book, Hemingway’s First War.
Publicity also received a boost when, during shooting in London, the tabloids linked Bullock and O’Donnell in an off screen tryst that the Globe headlined, “Sandra Bullock Plays Kissy Face with Boy Wonder:’ The incident produced publicity for the German release of the film a year later when Bullock was quoted as denying the “affair” to Agence France Presse. Attenborough put his own hyperbole into pre-release publicity. Quoted in a wire service report in the Orlando Sentinel, he said, “This film is about a most passionate and unique love story and the poetic and unusual circumstances that resulted in one of the greatest novels ever written.” At the Cannes film festival, he told the London Guardian’s Richard Brooks that Hemingway, “may have been married four times after his engagement to Agnes was broken off, but they were mere shadows.” Tribune Media Services published Attenborough’s comments about Sandra Bullock: “I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but I don’t feel any other filmmaker has made the demands on her that her talents warrant.” The Toronto Sun’s Bruce Kirkland quoted Bullock as saying, “For purely selfish reasons, I wanted to find someone strong enough to take me out of what I had become very comfortable with. It’s going to be difficult, but my main objective was to work under the tutelage of Lord Attenborough.”
To qualify for Academy Award consideration, the film was previewed in Los Angeles in December 1996. That exposure resulted in one of the earliest negative reviews, Kenneth Turan’s for the Los Angeles Times “there is so little convincing passion in this tepid story set in northern Italy during the closing days of World War I that `In Love and Snore’ might be a more appropriate title.” Why Agnes has “eyes only for Ernie;’ Turan wrote, the screenwriters “have been unable to make clear or convincing,” and the brothel love of fair between the two “is treated so briefly and cursorily” that it is hard to take it seriously. “Not even Richard Attenborough… can make a moving love story out of such uncompromising material.” Turan’s comments were a harbinger of things to come. USA Today’s Mike Clark reported, “Richard Attenborough’s latest sleep aid already has flubbed its Los Angeles market test during a December pipe dream disguised as an Oscar-qualifying run.”
Additional publicity was generated from three fundraising premieres in early 1997. Lord and Lady Attenborough attended the first, benefiting the Rothesay’s Winter Garden Trust on the Isle of Bute off the coast of Scotland. Chris O’Donnell attended a benefit premiere for The Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park. And Princess Diana joined Attenborough and O’Donnell at a London premiere benefiting the efforts of the British Red Cross to ban land mines. That particular premiere became part of history as one of the last glamorous fundraising appearances Diana made in the United Kingdom before her death.
In Love and War was released to the general public in the United States on Super Bowl weekend; 24 January 1997. In the weeks following the American release, it became obvious that despite its multi-million dollar budget, its star power, and its Academy Award-winning director, something was terribly wrong with In Love and War. The Variety box office reports after the week of 3 February, showed a film in complete commercial meltdown. Receipts for the week of 3 February were a respectable $6.8 million, placing the film fourth behind Evita ($7.3 million), Metro ($7.2 million), and Jerry Maguire ($7.2 million). The following week, however, In Love and War receipts nosedived 37 percent ($4.2 million), the largest drop-off that week of any top-ten film, and an ominous forecast. The third week’s receipts plummeted farther to a dismal $2.3 million, a drop of 46 percent from the previous week. The fourth week saw a drop of 68 percent, the biggest drop that week of any film in the top 25. The next week’s plunge of 70 percent was surpassed by only one other film in the top 60, Sony’s The Pest (dropping 86 percent).
For New Line Cinema, already struggling with its bottom line and its reputation, the domestic box office receipts for the film were a financial disaster. By the first week of March, Variety reported that New Line was for sale, needed a $350 million cash infusion to cover production costs based on projected revenue, and was trying to find overseas buyers.
To discover what went wrong with the film, it is not necessary to look farther than its critical reception, both domestic and international. Although some positive comments appeared scattered in the press, reviews of the film were almost universally negative. In the San Francisco Chronicle, Edward Guthmann wrote: “Gooey and artificial, In Love and War might appeal to fans of TV miniseries like Winds of War, but it’s doubtful. Lacking the distractions of commercials, I’d wager, even the least discriminating viewer will lie hard-pressed to sit through this one.” Guthmann continued: “The result is probably (Attenborough’s) worst film to date. Despite its postcard locales, soft-focus photography and production design that re-creates the period with handsome if bland results, In Love and War is this year’s first bona fide stinker.” Mike Clark added, “There are scenes here where the movie doesn’t just crawl but stops dead for five or ten minutes. Ultimately, In Love and War is at its best photographing stationary objects, such as architecture, trees and bedridden soldiers-not exactly what one hopes for from a movie portraying such a vital force as Ernest Hemingway.” In Entertainment Weekly Online, Owen Gleiberman wrote, “It’s a love story in which the sparks don’t fly so much as trail limply to the ground…ln Love and War is so wispy and inept that instead of feeling Hemingway’s pain, I looked at him and thought, get over it kid.”
In theaters in the United Kingdom and Ireland, where In Love and War was released in late February 1997, Variety reported that by the second week, box office receipts had plummeted 39 percent. Again, reviews were scathing. Alexander Walker in the London Evening Standard wrote: “It is a film that provides the sensation of war but not the pain, the presence of literature but not the sweat, the romance of the flesh but not the sex…. The stars are far too modern for the manners of the age they ape, though Bullock has the preferable task of not having to act a legend in the bud-and-a legend whose macho bragging is out of tune with our contemporary sympathies.” Also in London, the ultimate put-down came from The Times’ Geoff Brown who wrote a review of the video release of Frank Borzage’s 1932 version of A Farewell to Arms, telling readers: “Forget about Richard Attenborough’s vacuous account of young Hemingway’s romance in In Love and War. Better to see this vintage treatment of the novel Hemingway wrote about the experience…”
In September 1997, Variety box-office receipts for Germany showed a drop of 25 percent the first week, despite an almost 90 percent increase in venues and a German translation of the Villard and Nagel book published the previous spring. Anke Westphal, writing in Berlin’s TAZ, die Tageszeitung, told readers: “War is nice, when it’s brief and accompanied by music…. A night-blue sky, a couple of glowing fireworks, many jokes in the trenches…. The rest of the movie is garnished…with a lot of Italian ivy and…columns and portals, Italian moustaches and Italian folk tunes.”
More specific negative criticism was directed at the film’s screenplay Work on the script started as a screen story developed by Dimitri Villard and Scottish screenwriter Allan Shiach-who uses the name Allan Scott for his ties to the film industry. Shortly before the film’s release, Scott was interviewed by Paul Nathanson of the London Daily Telegraph, who reported that until 1996, Scott had been chairman of his family’s Macallan-Glenlivet whiskey company. Nathanson’s readers learned that at the time of his work on In Love and War, Scott was chairman of the Scottish Screen Agency and a governor of the British Film Institute. Because of other commitments, however, he did not see the script to its conclusion. Brian Pendreigh, who interviewed Scott for The Scotsman, reported Scott wrote the original screenplay titled “Hemingway in Love.” Eventually, the title was changed and at least six writers besides Scott worked on the screenplay. It took the Writers Guild of America to negotiate who would get on-screen credit. Allan Scott, Clancy Sigal, and Anna Hamilton Phelan prevailed.
Critics did not admire the results. In London, The Observer’s Philip French wrote that “largely due to the inadequacies of a contrived, overly romantic script that plays fast and loose with the known facts…the screenwriters have created their own fiction…. Whereas A Farewell to Arms is altogether more remarkable than the biographical facts, ln Love and War is much less remarkable than the true story of Ernest and Agnes.” Richard Schickel of Time told readers: “Richard Attenborough and a squad of writers attempt to penetrate to the truth of the tale in In Love and War. They get lost in that no-man’s-land where so many biopics come to grief: trying to stay in touch with historical fact, yet eager to convert an intimate romance into something more sweeping and epic.”
Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times noted the movie failed to deal with “two realities that might have made it more interesting: Hemingway at eighteen was probably sexually inexperienced, and sex before marriage in 1918 was not treated as casually as it is today The screenplay…chooses not to reflect those conditions, and so when Ernest and Agnes make love for the first time in the little pensione down by the railroad station, it is a conventional movie scene, not one specific to these characters.” Terry Lawson, movie critic for the Detroit Free Press wrote, “The screenplay reduces Hemingway’s story of innocence lost and illusions shattered into something more akin to your great-uncle’s oft-told story of how he fell in love `over there.”
Russell Fortmeyer, writing in the Kansas State University Collegian; focused on the script’s portrayal of Hemingway-style prose: “As O’Donnell intensely speaks the bittersweet letter to a crying Bullock, overcome with the penetrating, real words he tells her, she is swept into the letter’s raw emotion. The moment between the two is as close as the film gets to understanding the complexities of Hemingway and the emotional vulnerability of the nurse-and it lasts all of three minutes.” Critics Michael Dwyer, Helen Meany, and Hugh Lineman generalized in The Irish Times of Dublin, “The producers are careful to state, presumably for copyright reasons, that none of the dialogue is based on Hemingway’s own writings, but that is already obvious-the characterization and storytelling in In Love and War have all the depth and texture of the blandest kind of American TV mini series.” A rare exception to the arrows appeared in The Scotsman, where Angus Wolfe Murray told readers the script was “beautifully understated and the recreation of another age, when innocence and idealism had genuine value,” adding the script was “etched with a sensitive hand.”
The director traditionally assumes much of the credit or most of the blame for motion pictures good and bad, and Richard Attenborough was no exception. In Zurich, Christoph Egger, writing in Neue Zuercher Zeitung, suggested that the best title for the movie would have been “Oh! What a Lovely War,” Attenborough’s 1969 directorial debut of Joan Littlewood’s anti-war musical. Dwyer, Meany, and Lineman asked: “Will nothing ever stop Richard Attenborough? From Young Winston to Chaplin, the grand old man of middlebrow movies has plodded his way through three decades of dull and worthy biopics…. Attenborough’s last film, Shadowlands, showed he was at his best when working to a smaller scale, but In Love and War sees him back at his worst. . .. It’s quite an achievement to be this bloodless on the subjects of youth, passion and death, but this ponderous bore of a movie manages the feat.”
Clark asked: “Has there ever been an Attenborough film with a moment of spontaneity or sizzle? A beloved actor, consummate gentleman and comatose filmmaker, he couldn’t even give uswa halfway mirthful Chaplin.” Barbara Shulgasser of the San Francisco Examiner wrote, `Attenborough’s style is both turgid and hokey.” In this script, “both of those unfortunate traits are given full venting.” Shulgasser added: “Director Richard Attenborough did Gandhi. He did Chaplin. Now he’s doing Hemingway. Judging by the above mentioned, I must say that one thing I would avoid at all costs is to be done by Attenborough.” Gleiberman suggested, “You can see what Attenborough was going for: a portrait of the artist as a young preppy.”
The scenery and sets were also targets of the critics’ barbs. Shooting for In Love and War started in early summer in the small town of Vittorio Veneto near the Dolomites in Northern Italy, Later production moved to Venice, to London at Shepperton Studios, to Quebec at Montibello and Sherbrooke, and to Montreal. Roger Moore wrote in the Winston-Salem Journal. “Attenborough is the sort of overly neat, old-fashioned director who, when he puts Italian soldiers in the background, playing poker, makes certain they’re all dolled up in their plumed parade gear. Even the tents seem bleached and starched.” Nigel Andrews of the Financial Times of London assessed the scenery: “Outside the hospital where our war correspondent hero rests his wounded leg, Attenborough’s Italy is a thing of tourist brochure cliches: the photogenic peasant scything a field in a bucolic long shot, the apartment of the Italian doctor who is Hemingway’s love rival which overlooks, yes, the Venice Grand Canal. And when one long scene on a balcony of the hospital is played against a…painted townscape we know where we are: not Italy in the 19-teens but Hollywood in the i95os, circa Three Coins in the Fountain.” In Paris, Le Monde reported the hospital resembled a vacation resort where the nurses devoted themselves to their jobs as social directors. The Jerusalem Post displayed a large photograph of O’Donnell and Bullock, with Adina Hoffman’s review stating, “swarms of eras dressed as Italian soldiers in outrageous feathered fats parade in stagey formation up and down cobblestoned streets…”
About George Fenton’s musical score, critics were scarcely less kind: “the gushing symphonic soundtrack pours forth during the portentous opening credits and barely lets up for the duration…” In the Detroit News, Tom Long told readers that about every fifteen minutes a “Big Moment happens and there the soundtrack brings forth a wave of sawing violins, confirming that this is indeed a Big Moment:’ In London, The Independent called the score “oppressive.” Allan Hunter in Edinburgh’s Scotland on Sunday labeled it “bombastic.”
Some of the most negative comments were made in response to the casting that paired Sandra Bullock and Chris O’Donnell. Shulgasser wrote “the real trouble is that there is no reason to believe anything interesting will happen if Chris O’Donnell and Sandra Bullock actually do come into physical contact…. Rub the two together and you’re promised all combustion in the average bowl of overcooked fettuccini.” Wendy Wilson on TNT’s Internet site, roughcut.com, wrote that the portrayal of Hemingway “stalls a love of fair that eventually flares and finally fades, a victim of the late author’s considerable pride.”
Bart Van der Put in Amsterdam’s Het Parool wrote that sparks didn’t fly, and “the bottom falls out of the entire undertaking.” Translated, the headline of the review by Antoinette Polak in Rotterdam’s NRC Handelsblad read, “Nurse in Love with Undaunted Snot Nose.” Polak wrote of the two stars, “This is the mismatch of the century,” and suggested the movie would have been better coming from David Lean,-considered the British master of historical epics, and of whom Attenborough is seen as the legitimate heir. Labeling O’Donnell the “the safe-sex symbol,” someone “all mums would love to have as their sod-in-law,” Alasdair Marshall in the Glasgow Sunday Mail, went on to call Bullock and O’Donnell together “the worst case of miscasting since Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr were Samson and Delilah.”
Individually, the two co-stars fared even worse, with O’Donnell the target of an almost enthusiastic outpouring of condemning prose. Ben Kingsley as Gandhi did not have to compete with the aura of the religious pacifist because before Gandhi the movie, few people had heard of Ben Kingsley. Batman’s Robin, however, could never quite shed his cape and successfully play in youth the iconic Hemingway the critics knew best as an elder, Nobel Prize-winning author. Anthony Lane in The New Yorker called the film a comedy and wrote that “The joke is that Ernest Hemingway is played by Chris O’Donnell.” Guthmann wrote that O’Donnell looked “like a loaf of unbaked bread…more Richie Cunningham than he is Ernest Hemingway.” Clark weighed in, saying: “Brain-numbingly cast as Hemingway is Chris O’Donnell, who hardly conforms to any popular perception of the literary giant associated with beards, bulls and wildebeests…a man in the making who wasn’t yet putting tequila on his Wheaties.”
William Russell in the Glasgow Herald told readers, “Chris O’Donnell…could be replaced by a block of wood and it would be an improvement…. O’Donnell suggests he will at best make a rather handsome, if diminutive, tree.” Baz Bamigboye in the London Daily Mail echoed the biting statement: “Watching Mr. O’Donnell-trying to portray young Ernest Hemingway…you get the impression the actor left his brains in the cod piece he wears as Robin in the Batman movies. What a great casting coup it would be to get Val Kilmer, Jason Patric and O’Donnell-I can’t think of any other screen actors who can equal their boredom quotient-in a movie of the popular old children’s favourite The Wooden tops. No rehearsals or make-up required:’ The Independent, called O’Donnell a “square-jawed, walking anaesthetic…. How passionate can any film be when your first reaction upon seeing the male lead swigging alcohol is to wonder if he shouldn’t temper it with a jot of lemonade?”
Criticism of Bullock was milder, but not by much. Guthmann wrote: “Bullock, whose stock in trade is the lovably daffy girl next door, is equally miscast as Aggie. Playing a devoted nurse who has to weigh professional duties against her attraction to a younger man, Bullock struggles to smother her natural tendencies to act cute and flirt with the camera-and ends up looking colorless and sedated:’ Nigel Andrews added, “We never believe that this Po valley Florence Nightingale has a real history or identity” Gleiberman saw Bullock as “joyless and recessive;’ a figure who simply glazed “the character over with dignity.” Russell was kinder and wrote, “Sandra Bullock, in her first dramatic role, manages to subdue, although not eradicate, the mannerisms which have made her a star, and creates a tough little woman bewildered at falling for a younger man.” Simon Rose in the London Mirror felt Bullock was in her most serious role so far and was,”Brave, beautiful and utterly beguiling.” Quentin Falk-in the London Sunday Mirror called Bullock “a vision of loveliness who would be enough to take any man’s breath away in or out of the heat of battle.” George Perry, writing in the London Sunday Times, liked O’Donnell and felt Bullock was “a thoughtful member of a contingent of healthy, emancipated New World beauties.”
Overall, anyone who saw the film and had read the Villard and Nagel book, or had a basic understanding of Hemingway biography during the World War I era, could relate to the critics’ wrath. The producers went to excruciating pains to portray- reality in the sets and scenery. NurseWeek pointed to the efforts of Red Cross nurse historian Jean Waldman. Press releases touted a fly fishing consultant for the Walloon Lake scene. A funeral scene cut from the movie was accurate to the point of recreating the county prefixes on 1961 Idaho license plates and the same flower arrangements as the original funeral. Yet despite this micro-attention to detail, major themes were pure fiction. A beautiful, compassionate, and battle-seasoned 26-year old Red Cross nurse rejects the affections of both the Harvard-educated, mannerly, and intelligent young Henry Villard and, later in the film, the handsome, suave, and wealthy humanitarian Venetian doctor played by Emilio Bonucci. Instead, she chooses to love and make clumsy brothel-love with an imbibing, arrogant writer-wannabe, whom she later goes groveling after at Walloon Lake in remote Michigan, where he, in turn, rejects her.
About the fictional Walloon Lake scene, Hugo Gurdon, writing in the London Daily Telegraph, quoted Dimitri Villard as saying: “We felt we needed some kind of closure….and their parting at the train station was not a satisfactory and dramatic ending. We know how he felt. He was bitter, bitter, bitter. We don’t think he would have taken her back. So we took the step of portraying how we felt things would have gone had this last meeting taken place.” Such liberties contributed to the film’s condemnation by Hemingway scholars, and lessened its value as a supplement to the study of either A Farewell to Arms or Hemingway biography. Robert W. Lewis summarized a scholar’s view of the film with the succinct statement, “the whole movie is ugly” (1997, 86). In Russia, where the film opened in October 1997, Chris Floyd’s review in the, English-language Moscow Times reminded readers, “Pasternak observed in real life the seat of a `great writer’ is often left empty-and it’s usually good to keep it that way.”
In Love and War also suffered from a coincidence of the marketplace. Just as Hemingway’s own A Farewell to Arms was published concurrently with Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front in 1929, inviting comparisons, In Love and War followed The English Patient into the movie theaters. Lewis relates that Hemingway was concerned about how the two war novels would be compared (1989, 91). Max Perkins wrote Hemingway and informed him Scribner’s had designed the dust jacket to separate his novel from Remarque’s. A month later Perkins assured him that “except in one list for one week,” A Farewell to Arms headed all the lists. As it turned out, Hemingway had nothing to worry about. Attenborough wasn’t as fortunate.
The English Patient, a World War II epic romance starring Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Juliette Binoche, and William DaFoe, was based on Michael Ondaatje’s novel and released a month before In Love and War. Advertisements for the two films ran simultaneously, with ads for The English Patient often showing Fiennes as the dominant figure, bending down to kiss Thomas, while ads for In Love and War often showed Bullock as the dominant figure, bending down to kiss O’Donnell. If audiences who saw The English Patient had a sense of deji vu when watching portions of In Love and War, it’s not surprising. Start Craig was production designer for both films, winning an Academy Award for The English Patient. Although the two films were not compared in every review, critics were certainly aware of both works. Gleiberman’s review of In Love and War was titled “The American Patient.” Tom Gliatto in People added, “The English Patient covers similar terrain with considerably more daring.” Joan Lau in Kuala Lumpur’s New Straits Times told readers: “I think if you want to know more about Hemingway, it is best to read his books. And if you want to know more about love, may I suggest The English Patient?”
For those who did see The English Patient, and sought out In Love and War because they wanted a similar movie-going experience, Attenborough’s film was an irritating disappointment. And disappointments can kill wordof mouth advertising. Critics condemning In Love and War by comparing it with The English Patient could easily make their points. Moreover, word-of mouth advertising is especially critical for films released in the United States on Super Bowl weekend, as was the case with In Love and War. Sundays are big movie attendance days, contributing slightly less than one third of weekly box office receipts. Super Bowl Sundays cut that figure to slightly less than one-fifth. To generate the lost income and fend off the competition in succeeding weeks, positive word-of mouth advertising is a necessity.
Also contributing to the lack of word-of-mouth advertising for In Love and War was the film’s ending. Just as Borzage printed two versions of A Farewell to Arms, each with different endings, two versions of In Love and War left the editing room. Originally, Attenborough had planned to open In Love and War with press coverage of Hemingway’s funeral, just as he had opened Gandhi with press coverage of the Indian leader’s funeral. One version of In Love and War contained the Hemingway funeral scene. One did not. In test markets the two versions were shown to sample audiences. A production executive estimated that the difference between test audience preferences was one percent, in favor of the version without the funeral scene. With millions of dollars invested in its stars, especially Bullock, the version without the Hemingway funeral scene was released to theaters nationwide. Cutting the funeral scene moved Bullock’s appearance up to the beginning scene of the film. The biographical and literary elements of the film deleted with the cut funeral scene were inserted, instead, as an ending that consisted of black-and-white portrait dissolves of Ernest Hemingway growing older and a final on-screen graphic that read: “Ernest Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. One of his greatest novels, A Farewell to Arms, was inspired by his experiences in World War One. He married four times and took his own life in 1961.” An already bad motion picture concluded on a note of depression and confusion, sending theater goers home without any incentive to recommend the film to anyone.
Another marketing misstep for In Love and War was its early December 1996 release in Los Angeles, and its February 1997 entry in the Berlin Film Festival, where The English Patient Was also entered. For high-quality motion pictures, early release for Oscar and festival consideration can be a wise marketing strategy, as awards and nominations can be used in advertising. Winning at Berlin influences European reviews and box office receipts. But early release can also expose a bad film to the critics’ wrath, generating negative reviews that can set the tone for subsequent reviews. Some reviewers even quote their colleagues on other papers. Clark’s assessment that the film was a “pipe dream disguised as an Oscar-qualifying run,” rang true. With the public and the press already exposed to the artistic power of The English Patient, both the Los Angeles and Berlin exposures earned In Love and War negative reviews early in the commercial life of the film.
In retrospect, what happened to In Love and War was not atypical of what happens to many films in the modern era of big budgets and big stars. Beginning in the late ig4os when the movie barons began to lose control over their theater distribution system, a new era of risk entered the industry. Big bank financing became more common, and the industry diversified and became more competitive. Theater owners, the media, and the public became ever more important to a film’s success. To gain the attention of all three, one dominant thread remained in place from the early days of the industrythe stars. When stars are combined with a big-name director and budgets in the tens of millions of dollars, the historical and literary components of a creative work are often subordinate to accountants, marketing directors, publicists, and distributors. In Love and War was as much a casualty of the Hollywood star system as of its creative shortcomings. Historians will record that Frank Borzage’s A Farewell to Arms was one of the best featurelength motion pictures to which Ernest Hemingway’s name was attached, and that Richard Attenborough’s In Love and War was not.
Barbara Semonche, Sophia Rothberger, and Judith Schlieper, all of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Judy Henn of the University of Haifa, are-thanked for their assistance in locating and translating some of the reviews of In Love and War. Andrews, Nigel. “Variety Night at Elsinore Palais: Cinema.” Financial Times 13 February 1997, London Edition, Arts sec.: 21 (NeXis)._
Bamigboye, Baz. “Holy Hemingway, Mr. O’Donnell!” Daily Mail [London] 7 February 1997: 42 (Nexis).
Blumenfeld, Samuel. “Le temps d’aimer.” Le Monde [Paris]. 14 August 1997 (Nexis). “Box Office.” Variety io-16 March 1997,17-23 March 1997, 1-7 September 1997. Brown; Geoff. “Noisy, Brutish… and Kurt.” The Times [London] lo April 1997 (Nexis). Clark, Mike. “Love and War Needs A Shot of Hemingway Gusto.” USA Today 28
February 1997. .
Collins, Scott. “The Young Man and the Nurse; A New Movie About Ernest Hemingway’s First Romance Claims to be the ‘True Story’ of A Fare-well to Arms.” Chicago Tribune ig August 1996, Tempo sec.: 1 (Nexis).
“Cosby, Winfrey, McEntire Picked by the People.” News and Observer [Raleigh, NC] 13 January 1997.
Diliberto, Gioia. “A Hemingway Story, and just as Fictional.” New York Times 26 January 1997: H 24.
Dwyer, Michael, Helen Meany, and Hugh Lineman. “In Love and War.” The Irish Times [Dublin] 14 February 1997: 11 (Nexis).
Ebert, Roger. “In Love and War,” Chicago Sun-Times 24 January 1997 .
Egger, Christoph. “International Filmfestspiele Berlin…” Neue Zuercher Zeitung [Zurich]
18 February 1997, Feuillerton: 43 (Nexis).
Eller, Claudia and James Bates. “Company Town: Firm Takes a New Line in Making Movies.’ Los Angeles Times 27 August 1996, Home Edition: 6 (Nexis).
Falk, Quentin. “Sensational Sandra Raises the Pulse Rate! Sunday Mirror [London] 16 February 1997: 31 (Nexis).
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Lawson, Terry. “In Love and War Fails to Reach Tragic Heights.” Detroit Free Press 24 January 1997 .
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Production executive for In Love and War. Interview with the author. 27 July 1997. Reynolds, Michael S. Hemingway’s First War. Princeton: Princeton UP,1976. Rolling Stone 26 June 1997: front cover.
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JOHN R. BITTNER
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Copyright The Hemingway Review Spring 2000
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