Nursing Book Club

In Love and War Movie Review

A WWI biopic about American nurse Agnes Von Kurowsky and a young Ernest Hemingway

In Love and War is a 1996 film based on the real-life romance between a young Ernest Hemingway and Agnes Von Kurowsky, the nurse who treated him after he was wounded during the First World War.

The film was produced and directed by actor-director Richard Attenborough, known for grand stories (he directed A Bridge Too Far and Gandhi), and filmed on location in the beautiful Italian mountain town of Vittorio Veneto.

The story begins in July 1918, in the final months of World War I. At the time, Italy feared an overwhelming invasion from Austria and requested aid from the United States. Since U.S. troops had already been committed to France, President Wilson promised to send Red Cross workers to Italy to “boost morale and care for the wounded.”

In Search of Adventure

One of those workers is an 18-year-old from Chicago: Ernest Hemingway, played by Chris O’Donnell. After being severely wounded in action, he is sent to a convent-turned-hospital, where he meets Agnes Von Kurowsky, a nurse from New York seven years his senior, played by a very lovely Sandra Bullock.

Hiring Now

Hemingway has decided not to attend college and instead joined a Kansas City newspaper in hopes of making his name as a frontline war correspondent. He’s determined to prove himself the uber-male, the man who cannot be ignored among the other injured men. But he’s also very young, and as a writer, we’re always wondering how much of what he does and says is just invention.

Von Kurowsky has left a career as a librarian to become a nurse, and then volunteered for war service. She finds herself in a strange country, in a hazardous role that puts her nursing skills to the test and faces her with an emotional strain most of us can only imagine. She admits that she went to war in search of adventure, and part of that seems to be juggling affairs of the heart. She has left a boyfriend back home and has a handsome Italian surgeon in love with her, but the brash, younger Hemingway has an effect on her that she can’t ignore.

From Another Era

During the time this story takes place, people wounded in action were not shipped home for treatment as they are today, so wartime nurses sometimes spent a lot of time with patients, witnessing their gradual improvement or worse, their slow death. In those conditions, it was probably difficult to prevent staff and patients from forming close emotional attachments.

Nursing Education

At the same time, it wasn’t a situation with a lot of permanency. Once patients were discharged, the nurses might never hear from them again. It’s easy to see how all of this shapes Von Kurowsky’s thoughts about the future of her relationship with Hemingway.

It is said that this love affair, possibly one of his earliest serious relationships, is what led Hemingway to write A Farewell to Arms, basing the book’s main characters, Frederic Henry and Catherine Barkley, on himself and Von Kurowsky.

This movie seems to have been largely overlooked when it came out in 1996, but it has an enormous cast, large and graphic battlefield scenes, atmospheric music and beautiful settings. Some scenes look like old world paintings, as the camera lingers on the picturesque vistas of Vittorio Veneto.

In Love and War isn’t always realistic: The nurses on duty always wear bright white, crisply pressed uniforms, seldom look dirty or tired, and on their days off, the characters dress like something from a Victorian picture book. However, I was happy to let myself get lost for two hours in the passion of a powerful love story.

In Love and War (New Line Cinema, 1996)

Christine Contillo, RN, BSN, PHN, is a public health nurse with more than 40 years of experience, ranging from infants to geriatrics. She writes the Nursing Book Club column.


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