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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Before Christiane Amanpour, before Ann Garrels, before Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, there was Martha Gellhorn, one of the first great female war correspondents. From the Spanish Civil War through Vietnam, she covered every major conflict of the day. But Gellhorn's reputation as a journalist was overshadowed by her marriage to one of the great American writers: Ernest Hemingway.

HBO is getting ready to premiere a film about Hemingway and Gellhorn, starring Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman.

NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg has the story.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: The real Martha Gellhorn was leggy, smart and impassioned. In 1983, a British TV interviewer posed this loaded question to the still-gorgeous 75-year-old Gellhorn.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I.F. Stone once described governments as comprised entirely of liars and nothing they say should ever be believed.

MARTHA GELLHORN: Quite right.

STAMBERG: Just a typical no-holds-barred Gellhorn opinion.

GELLHORN: And Tolstoy once said governments are a collection of men who do violence to the rest of us. Between Izzy Stone and Tolstoy, you've got it about right.

STAMBERG: Martha Gellhorn felt her duty as a journalist was to bear witness. She told stories, not of generals and politicians, but of powerless people - the victims of war. Gellhorn's biographer Caroline Moorehead says it was a calling.

CAROLINE MOOREHEAD: I think she felt all she really could do was write. It was all she knew how to do. And she was still feeling that in her '80s. And since nobody else seemed to be writing to her about the children and napalm in Vietnam - and even though she was getting on and she wasn't accredited to a newspaper - well, then she'd go and write about it.

STAMBERG: She paid her own way to Vietnam so that she could go and tell the rest of us what it was like there.

HBO's film "Hemingway and Gellhorn" shows that Gellhorn did not begin that way. In 1937 trying to cover the bloody Spanish Civil War with her lover Hemingway, she runs to his hotel room.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "HEMINGWAY AND GELLHORN")

NICOLE KIDMAN: (as Martha Gellhorn) I can't write. I can't - I'm trying and I can't get anything.

And he's typing away, and furiously, sort of, pages falling to the floor. Standing there and she's like, help, I've got nothing. I don't know how to write about this. I'm seeing all of these things but I don't know how to write about it, because really I just want to write about people. And he goes...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "HEMINGWAY AND GELLHORN")

CLIVE OWEN: (as Ernest Hemingway) What you did in Appalachia, write about ordinary people in war, and Madrid. Get in the ring, Gellhorn. Start throwing some punches for what you believe in.

KIDMAN: Basically he pushed her into her style of writing, that then became so famous.

STAMBERG: Is that true?

PHILIP KAUFFMAN: Yeah, that is true. She was learning her craft.

STAMBERG: Philip Kauffman directed the HBO film. Gellhorn learned quickly. A sample from her Madrid coverage...

(Reading) You could pass a high pile of rubbish and smell, suddenly, the sharp rotting smell of the dead. Further on would be a half-decayed carcass of a mule, with flies thick on it, and then a sewing machine by itself, blown out into the street. It was sunny and quiet, and the whole place was infinitely dead.

Gellhorn has her own style, although Hemingway's influence is clear. Clive Owen read all the Hemingway he could find, preparing for that role. Owen describes the master's touch.

OWEN: It's so economical, it's so concise. He can, in just a few sentences, create whole worlds and whole relationships. And it was just such a lesson in, sort of, discipline and economy.

STAMBERG: There was little about Hemingway himself that was restrained. Nicole Kidman says the writer was larger than life.

KIDMAN: Charismatic, compelling, magnetic, destructive - you need more words?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KIDMAN: Extraordinarily talented; selfish, yet a great teacher. Thank God he was around.

STAMBERG: Hemingway was 37 and famous when he met Gellhorn. She was 28, building a reputation as a writer.

OWEN: I think he met his match really in all sorts of ways. You know, it was hugely passionate. It was an epic romance.

STAMBERG: They married in 1940. Four years later, she expected to cover D-Day for Collier's magazine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "HEMINGWAY AND GELLHORN")

OWEN: (as Ernest Hemingway) I have secured a position.

KIDMAN: (as Martha Gellhorn) Well, that's fantastic. So we're going together. What is it?

OWEN: (as Ernest Hemingway) Congratulate me, darling. I'm going to be the correspondent for Colliers.

KIDMAN: (as Martha Gellhorn) For Colliers? You know they can only take one correspondent.

STAMBERG: Her marriage fraying, the indomitable Gellhorn stowed away on a hospital ship, and beat Hemingway to Normandy. The day World War II ended, she went to a German concentration camp. On British television, Martha Gellhorn described her reaction to the atrocities she saw.

GELLHORN: Then I got out of Dachau in a state bordering on uncontrolled hysteria, and went and sat in a field, waiting to be removed with American prisoners of war.

STAMBERG: Compassionate and driven, was Gellhorn's motive really to be a witness? Or did she simple get off on danger?

Nicole Kidman.

KIDMAN: Well, I think there was that amazing line they came up with where, we were great in war and when there wasn't a war, we created one of our own. When they could be in the midst of the chaos and the war and they could be writing, I think there was adrenaline that propelled her with that. But you're not going to do that unless you really do want to bear witness. You know, it's not like she did it for a decade. I mean she did it for a lifetime.

STAMBERG: Gellhorn's impulse to witness, to travel, affected her marriage. They divorced in 1945.

OWEN: She refused to, kind of, live her life through him. And he would have preferred her to just hang with him, while he wrote novels, and she wanted more than that.

STAMBERG: And Gellhorn got more, for the rest of her long life. She was 89 when she died in 1998. Hemingway committed suicide in 1961 at age 62. Film director Philip Kauffman says in her grace under pressure, her courage and terse prose, she carried on the Hemingway legacy.

KAUFFMAN: Martha Gellhorn, for 30 years after Hemingway's death, in a way, was the bearer of the Hemingway code. She went to all the battlefields of all the major wars of her time. Whether he made her or not, she certainly carried that spirit. And she outdid the master.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STAMBERG: "Hemingway and Gellhorn" premieres on Monday, May 28th on HBO. It's an epic film about two major 20th century scribes.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GELLHORN: We were good in war. And when there was no war, we made our own.

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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