In Love and War (1996) 




Director:  Richard Attenborough.

Starring:  Mackenzie Astin (Henry Villard), Chris O'Donnell (Ernest 'Ernie' Hemingway), Sandra Bullock (Agnes 'Aggie/Ag' von Kurowsky), Margot Steinberg (Mabel 'Rosie' Rose), Alan Bennett (Porter), Ingrid Lacey (Elsie 'Mac' MacDonald), Terence Sach (Porter), Carlo Croccolo (Town Mayor), Tara Hugo (Katherine 'Gumshoe' De Long), Gigi Vivan (Italian Child), Giuseppe Bonato (Grandfather), Allegra Di Carpegna (Loretta Cavanaugh), Diane Witter (Adele Brown), Mindy Lee Raskin (Charlotte Anne Miller), Tracy Hostmyer (Ruth Harper).

true story behind "A Farewell to Arms" with Sandra Bullock and Chris O'Donnell


Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film. 

Northern Italy 1918.  Here, during the final year of World War One, Italy was defending itself alone against a massive Austrian invasion.  America was one of Italy's allies but the US Army was already fully committed in France.  So President Wilson sent in teams of Red Cross doctors and nurses to boost Italian morale and help care for the wounded.  Young men across America responded to the President's call for further volunteers to drive Red Cross ambulances and work in the front line canteens. 

The nurses arrive in Italy.  A good number of college boys also report.  The ambulances drive through a narrow city street accompanied by a marching band.  Harry Villard helps the nurses out of his vehicle.  Agnes von Kurowsky is one of the nurses he helps.  Mac is Aggie's friend.  The nurses will live in a former nunnery.  One of the most important rules is that there is no fraternizing with the patients.  The volunteers are relatively close to the battles between Austria and Italy.  The stretcher bearers are soon at work.  Ernie Hemingway comes riding in on a bike.  He immediately asks for a change of assignment without even reporting first.  The officer in charge tells him to put on an apron and start serving coffee to the soldiers.  But Ernie wants to be near the action and even to fight.  He disregards what his boss told him and heads out to the front lines. 

Ernie reaches the front line and hurriedly gets into one of the trenches.  He tells the one guy who can speak English that he is a reporter from Kansas City.  He gives the soldiers some goodies he brought with him from the Red Cross.  He asks the English speaker:  "What do you guys think about while you're waiting?"  The Italian tells him that he thinks about how many rosaries he will have to say so that God spares his life.  Ernie says he tried to get into the army but they would not take him.  His left eye is no good --  too much boxing, he says.  A shell lands in the trench killing all the guys near Ernie.  Ernie finds that the soldier named Roberto is still alive.  He pulls him out of the trench and starts carrying him to get medical help.  A machine gun opens up on Ernie and he gets wounded in the right leg.  The stretcher bearers arrive and pick up both Ernie and Roberto. 

The volunteer nurses hear that they are expecting casualties to be coming in from the Piave front.  Aggie nurses Ernie, who quickly tells her:  "I love you.  Will you marry me?"  Aggie ignores his remarks.  When Aggie looks a little worried when looking at his right leg, Ernie asks "What's wrong?"  The nurses are not supposed to say and Aggie doesn't.  Instead Aggie tells Mac that it may be gangrene.  But a doctor will not be available until tomorrow morning.  So Aggie says that she could irrigate the wound with Dakin's.  They can't afford to wait for a doctor's orders to permit the procedure.  She starts the process.

The next morning she meets Major Dr. Caracciolo.  He shows her that Ernie has a bullet behind the patella, as well as a good many pieces of shrapnel in him.  He adds that if gangrene has developed in the wounds he will have to amputate.  The operation will happen at 8:30 tomorrow morning. 

Aggie gives Ernie a drink of gin and castor oil and then apologizes for the castor oil.  She tells Ernie that she is 26 years old.  Ernie is only 18 (almost 19).  She irrigates his leg again.  Ernie tells Aggie that his old man is a medical doctor.  He also tells her that he would rather be dead than lose his leg. 

The next morning the doctor prepares for the operation.  But he notices that there is no odor of any gangrene in the leg.  The doctor asks Aggie about it, but she plays dumb.  Latter he mentions to her that maybe she needs his permission to irrigate the wound (knowing that Aggie has already done it).  The doctor then asks for a date with Aggie.  He wants to show her the Italian countryside. 

Mac notices that there is something going on between Ernie and Aggie.  She warns her:  "For God's sake, be careful!" 

Harry Villard lands in the hospital, but he has not been wounded.  Rather he has a bad case of jaundice.  Ernie welcomes him to the ward.  A guy named Jimmy comes in screaming with pain.  He was hit by a phosphorus bomb and is terribly burned. 

Ernie is now in a wheel chair and can more easily get around.  He goes to see Aggie who tells him:  "You shouldn't be in here, kid."  Ernie pays no attention to the remark.  Instead he asks her about the numerous letters from Dr. James Paxton at Bellevue Hospital.  He makes an observation that she is probably one of those trying to get away from something.  She agrees.  He continues teasing her saying:  "You're in love with me.  You just don't know it yet."  She tells him to get out. 

Doctor Caracciolo, accompanied by a driver/chaperone, picks up Aggie for the drive in the country.  She tells the doctor that her father is German and her mother American.  Meanwhile, Ernie works on the old cleaning woman and charms her in to agreeing to get him and the other guys on the ward some brandy.  Later Aggie helps Ernie help Jimmy win at cards. 

Ernie is now on crutches.  Aggie takes over from Mac so she can walk and talk with him.  Ernie asks her about the fellows in her life. 

The Italians present a silver medal to Ernie for his bravery and unselfish behavior while saving the soldier Roberto while under enemy fire.  The date is July 8, 1918.  Ernie has a number of photos taken of him. 

Doctor Caracciolo has to move closer to the front lines and he wants another driving date with Aggie.  But Aggie tells him that she has already promised two patients that she would take them on a picnic excursion.  The doctor asks her if one of the patients is Ernie.  She does not answer the question.  Later Ernie visits Aggie to tell her that he is worried about the other patient going on the picnic, Harry.  While talking to her he keeps touching the hem of her uniform, while she keeps telling him to stop.  Ernie explains that just she and he should go on the picnic, not Harry. 

When Ernie goes out to get into the car to go to the picnic, he is very disappointed to see Harry and Aggie already in the car.  Before they leave, the father of Roberto comes to Ernie to give him his son's cape.  Ernie asks how Roberto is doing and he is told that Roberto is dead.  Ernie is shocked and upset.

On the picnic Ernie talks with Aggie about the beauties of Walloon Lake in Michigan.  When she refuses to clean any fish he catches, he jumps into the water and pretends to be drowning until she promises to clean six fish.  Harry starts criticizing his rival Ernie.  Aggie gets mad at the squabbling between the two patients.  Then Ernie goes too far.  He says that she has already given him her favor  --  in bed.  Aggie walks over to him and slaps Ernie across the face.

A banner is put up at the hospital welcoming the US 332nd.  Aggie writes a letter that Jimmy dictates to her.  Aggie has to leave before finishing the letter because other patients are coming on the ward.  Ernie tries to talk to her and when he can't he says:  "It's over for you and me, isn't it?"  Aggie doesn't answer. 

Jimmy dies.  Ernie goes to speak with Aggie who is very sad over the death of Jimmy.  She is trying to finish the letter she was writing for Jimmy.  Ernie takes the letter and reads it.  Then he dictates to Aggie a better letter to Jimmy's parents.  After finishing, he grabs her shoulders and tells her that he loves her.  She grabs both his hands and they kiss.  Mac warns Aggie:  "Gumshoe's on her rounds!" 

Aggie and many of the volunteer nurses are being moved closer to the front.  Aggie can't find Ernie so she gives Harry a letter and asks him to give it to Ernie.   Harry takes the letter.  Inside the letter is a ring of Aggie's.  Harry gives Ernie the letter.  Ernie apologizes for their earlier dispute over Aggie.  The letter says that Aggie is afraid and that it is so very hard for her to say goodbye to him. 

At the front Aggie receives a letter from Ernie.  He says he is always thinking of her and that he wears her ring all the time.  Aggie is busy working long hours with Doctor Caracciolo.  One day Ernie shows up at the field hospital.  Aggie runs to him to tell him:  "You are such a child!  This was a stupid thing to do."  Ernie tells her that he loves her and he asks her to meet him at the local hotel (which is really a brothel) for a rendezvous.   Aggie says she will try to get there. 

Aggie does go to the brothel and to Ernie's room.  Ernie is embarrassed by the poor quality of the ambience in the brothel, but Aggie just closes the door and tells him to never mind that.  They kiss and end up on the bed.  The next morning Ernie leaves on the train.  Returning to the field hospital, Aggie sees mass graves being filled with corpses.  Later Harry talks with Aggie.  He tells her that Ernie needs someone to take care of him.  Aggie says that she can't and won't be his mother.  She also ays there is only seven years difference between their ages.  She then asks Harry if she is making a mistake.  Harry answers:  "You love him.  That's what counts." 

Mac comes to Aggie to tell her that both of them are going to spend the weekend at Dr. Caracciolo's place.  When they arrive at his place, it is obvious that he is very wealthy.  The place is a mansion.  Later the doctor and the two women go to Venice to see the sights.  The doctor asks Aggie to come back alone on her next break without Mac. 

Back in Michigan reporters asks a lot of questions of Ernie as the first American wounded in battle in Italy.  Ernie writes a letter to Aggie telling her he is living in a cabin on Walloon Lake.  He has not heard from her in over a week.  In Italy we see Agnes all dressed up in a fancy gown attending a banquet.  News arrives that the Armistice has been signed.  Everyone is extremely happing to hear this.  The doctor asks Aggie if she is going back to the United States.  The next day he takes her on a tour of the place where he is going to build a new hospital.  At this time he asks her to marry him. 

The American volunteer nurses are going home.  Mac asks Aggie if she is staying and Aggie says she doesn't know what to do.  She can't stop think about the "kid".  Mac tells her that it was only a flirtation --  a fling.  But Aggie tells her that she told Ernie that she would marry him.  Mac responds that he's a child.  She adds:  "My God Aggie.  He is not a husband."  Aggie finally says:  "You're right.  I must start thinking with my head."  She writes a letter to Ernie in which she says that their relationship must come to an end.  When Ernie reads the letter he goes ballistic and starts smashing things in his room. 

At another banquet Dr. Caracciolo's sister tells Aggie that she hopes she will say yes to her brother's marriage proposal.  The continuing problem, however, is that she still thinks about Ernie a great deal. 

Eight months later.  New York City.  Aggie is back in the United States.  She eats lunch with Harry.  They toast for old time's sake.  She tells Harry that she did not marry the Italian doctor.  Aggie asks him if he ever sees Ernie.  Harry says no, but he does get raging, rambling letters from him about her.  He is very angry.  And he now lives in a small cabin on Walloon Lake.  Harry then asks her if she loves Ernie and did she ever tell him she loved him.  Yes, says Aggie, "But I don't think he heard."  Harry tells her to tell him now. 

Aggie goes to Walloon Lake to see Ernie.  He asks her what is she doing here.  Aggie says that some things had to be said.  She adds that she hopes it's not too late. But Ernie is in no mood to give in to her.  He asks her why didn't she marry the doctor.  She replies:  "It was a mistake.  There was always somebody else."  Ernie pretends their relationship was nothing serious:  "It was the war.  We had a fling . . . kid stuff. . . . I've changed.  It wouldn't work.  Not now.  Not this time."  Aggie sighs and says:  "Oh, kid."  Her last words are:  "I love you.  I'll love you as long as I live."  She walks away.  Ernie goes into the cabin.  This has obviously been hard on him. 

Aggie as narrator says she never say Ernie again after the Walloon Lake visit.  His pride meant that he never could forgive her.  He became the angry man.

Aggie finally married at 36 years of age.  She lived to be 92.  She continued with the Red Cross until the end of World War II.   


Good movie.  Interesting relationship between an older nurse and Hemingway that gradually develops into love.  The problem, however, is that Aggie just can't make up her mind as to what to do:  marry the "kid" or marry a rich Italian doctor.  It's not always easy to make such a decision, especially given that Hemingway was almost 8 years younger than she and he was just a kid still.  Everyone can make a mistake, but not every mistake is forgiven.  Hemingway was always known as a man's man, a macho man and perhaps the relationship with Aggie helped harden and darken Hemingway's heart.  At least that's the implication in the movie.  Too much macho-ness makes for a poor husband and he certainly was not the greatest having been married four times. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.



Historical Background:

See A Farewell to Arms (1932).



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