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This epic has the reputation for being a limp, lifeless, mechanical thing;
vulgar simplification of Tolstoy. The latter accusation is partly
and thank goodness for it. War and Peace, the novel, has many great
but also many excrescences: it goes on way too long, padded out with
tediously detailed philosophies and theories of war; it also studiously
refuses loose ends.
There are flaws. The script, though a model of clarity (unlike most literary adaptations, which concentrate on all the big set-pieces, creating narrative confusion), but short on inspiration. There is a dispiriting, unimaginative reliance on voiceover, and unnecessary soliloquys. The whole thing also goes on way too long.
Mel Ferrer is, without doubt, the worst actor in the world; he plays the dashing, tragic Prince Andrei with all the vigour of a mouldy plank. His part is pivotal, narratively, thematically and symbolically, so he features in a lot of scenes where his monotonous lack of expression makes the film stop dead. Henry Fonda, in many ways ideal as the Tolstoy altar-ego Pierre, who must move morally from observer to actor, is frequently defeated by the terrible dialogue, making this wonderful actor seem clumsy and amateurish. (Herbert Lom, however, manages to suggest great humanity behind the hammy pomp of Napolean).
I only mention these faults to show that the film's critics have their point. I also suggest that WAR AND PEACE is nearly a masterpiece for two reasons. King Vidor, whose work I'm largely (and shamefully) unfamiliar with, directs this film with awesome, authoritive lightness of touch. He pays respectful lip service to the big Tolstoyan themes, focusing particularly on families, the relations between parents and children, old traditional reactionary Russia, and the tentative, youthful impulse towards freedom.
I say lip-service, because his main interest in the film lies elsewhere. It lies in the expression of the emotional life of his characters. For although the film is a massive historical epic, it works best as a domestic melodrama. Characters, who can't express themselves in this hierarchical society, are allowed a voice through the film's direction, which forsakes literal realism, to tell us what is going on in their heads (and hearts). Exaggerated colour and carefully contrived composition offer us a second, more subtle and personal story, to the main, surface narrative. This might make WAR AND PEACE a more right-wing work, ignoring the processes of history and the plight of the serfs, in favour of sympathising with a caste of slave-owners, but Hollywood was never very good at socio-economic analyses.
Vidor's other great theme seems to be nature, and man's relation to it. He has little interest in invoking a real nineteenth century Russia; his Moscow is as exquisitely artificial as Sternberg's THE SCARLET EMPRESS, and his use of architecture and space to both show the distances between people, and the the fathomless emptiness of the soul, is positively Antonionian. With the natural world, however, there is a real feeling, beyond mere backdrop scenery, that is unthinkable in any contemporary Hollywood film. Primarily a movie about people and history, it is eternal nature that watches on, the battles, deaths, retreats. Indeed, it is nature that saves the Russian people, in the face of massive military odds, and it is nature that frames the melancholy, yet hopeful, resolution. (It's also interesting to ask why, at the heighth of the Cold War, Hollywood should decide to make a great Russian epic? To tastelessly evoke a 'glorious' pre-Soviet past? Or to enjoy the razing of Moscow to the ground?)
The second reason to love this film is, of course, the incomparable, beautiful, Audrey Hepburn. She is so right as Natasha (when I read the book as a kid, I pictured Audrey all the way through, without even knowing she had played her on film), the saviour of the book, as well as the film. It is one of the great performances - its modernity and truth blows away the dusty period conventions (indeed, at her first ball, she is as moving as a 50s teenager at her prom). Her intelligence, insight, passion (and she is a lot more erotic in this film than her supporters ever give her credit for) and grace are perfectly in tune with Vidor's conception, and her scenes have an extraordinary emotional force. She is the life of the film, and its moral centre in the absence of a convincing Pierre. The film plods to a slow death without her. The film essays three moral developments - Natasha's, Pierre's and Andrei's, but hers is the most moving and tragic. The change to sadness and understanding of the once gay and vivacious Natasha seems a terrible loss.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Although often naive, even crude, the films of King Vidor were
frequently distinguished by their sheer energy and forceful visual
style... As his career progressed, his films became increasingly grand
in terms of narrative scope and visual bravura...
Tolstoy and Vidor tell the epic story through a handful of major characters...
As Napoleon Bonaparte prepares to invade Russia, Pierre Bezukhov (Henry Fonda), an aristocrat so liberal in his views, visits his friend Count Rostov (Barry Jones) and his radiant, young daughter Natasha (Audrey Hepburn). They all witness 'those handsome Russian men marching away to fight, to be killed.'
When his father dies, Pierre falls under the spell of the attractive Helene (Anita Ekberg) and finds himself unable to resist her passionate response... He marries her even though everybody knows that she's fooling around on him with Dolokhov (Helmut Dantine).
His closest friend, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (Mel Ferrer), achieves success as a soldier under General Kutuzov (Oscar Homolka) but returns wounded, a condition made the worse by the death of his wife in childbirth...
With his own marriage ended by the adultery of his woman, Pierre introduces the grieving Andrei to Natasha, and the pair fall in love... But before they can marry, Andrei goes to fight the invading French and the pacifistic Pierre goes along as an observer
The motion picture deals with war and its effect on people... It contains many marvelous pictorial moments as the colorfully uniformed regiments marching through the excellent streets of Moscow; snowy landscapes; a magnificent Ballroom sequence; and most of all, Napoleon's forces at the epic battle of Borodino; the march on Moscow and the tragic retreat of Napoleon's army through the Russian winter...
Most of the military side of the story takes place in the second half, and it seems slow to arrive, but the battle of Borodino is fairly well handled... It is focused (through Pierre's eyes) with long shots of the invading and retreating French troops...
Audrey Hepburn whose boyish figure provided a refreshing antidote to the film, is lovely as Natasha... Her flaming innocence and blossoming sensuality set her sweet heart ablaze... This charming spirit, with so much enthusiasm and romanticism, is full of life and true love... Hepburn matures from an impulsive, kind-hearted teen-ager, to an understanding woman who uses her courage and impetuousness to love, to care, and to serve...
Henry Fonda is pure, brave, and noble... He projects with sincerity the confusion of an honest man caught up in an angry twist of history... He witnesses the horrific events of war, experiencing days of misery as a prisoner of war... His remarkable adventures lead him to understand at least part of the mysteries of life, humanity, love and loyalty... Pierre is strikingly different from others, with a deep love and esteem for his country and his sweetheart...
Mel Ferrer is the sensitive prince who doesn't come around until he meets the sweet Natasha... Andrei is intelligent but arrogant... He ignores the feelings of his wife and fails to carry out his responsibility as a husband...
Vittorio Gassman is the legendary seducer, darkly handsome, sensuous, magnetic, who lives in a world of debauchery... Anatole is a man dangerous to love, impossible to resist...
Herbert Lom is the 'greatest man of Europe' who sees his men walking hardly under fatiguing conditions through the snowy fields of Russia... Napoleon had a tough decision to make...
Oskar Homolka is General Kutuzov who forms a reasoned judgment against an enemy who has a larger, more efficient force... It is unclear whether he did this out of weakness or whether it was part of a brilliant strategy with the purpose of drawing Napoleon's army way beyond their means of supply for the winter, which Bonaparte had not prepared for...
Anita Ekberg is Helene, the charming and reckless libertine who goes to a world of cheats and insults her husband's ego making his life depressed and miserable...
Helmut Dantine is Dolokhov, the officer, challenged for a duel, who puts on view the better side of his character much later...
Tulio Carminati is Prince Vasili Kuragine, a man of the world who familiarizes himself with people who are influential and tries to obtain favor from them...
Barry Jones is Count Rostov, a loving family man and an excellent friend... He is indulgent towards his family and provides them comforts and luxuries of life...
Wilfrid Lawson is Prince Bolkonsky, a despot aristocrat who imposes his authority on his son without caring for his feelings..
May Britt is Sonya, the tender young girl who is devoted to the Rostov family and loves Nicholas...
John Mills is Platon, the cheerful Russian peasant whose philosophies comfort Pierre...
Vidor's 'War and Peace' is massive in scale, faithful to the larger historical events... Its heart is really with the romantic side and so it's most successful as a period melodrama...
King Vidor's version of Leo Tolstoy's WAR AND PEACE has finally been released in the U.S. by Paramount and is a welcome addition to my DVD collection. I have been tempted many times to purchase a Hong Kong pressing of this title -- but I'm glad that I refrained. While this DVD does not contain much in the way of "Extras", it does contain a nice wide screen transfer that captures to look of its original release. Paramount, rather then following in the footsteps of the other major studios, did not use the CinemaScope wide-screen process developed by 20th Century-Fox and introduced in 1953 with their Lloyd C. Douglas adaptation of THE ROBE. Rather, Paramount developed their own wide- screen process and called it VistaVision. The VistaVision system moved 35mm film through the camera side-ways, resulting in a picture negative that was close to 70mm in size. The film was then reduced to a wide-screen image (usally around 1.85:1 instead of CinemaScope's 2.65:1 ratio). Coupled with genuine Technicolor (before it became teamed with Eastman Color) photography, VistaVision was capable of stunning images. WAR AND PEACE was photographed by JACK CARDIFF, one of finest cinematographers ever to grace film (THE RED SHOES is one of his works), resulting in one of the most beautifully photographed films of all-time! Alas, stereophonic sound was not generally employed by Paramount and so WAR AND PEACE has only a mono track -- nice, but not as nice a stereophonic track would have been. As to the film itself, I can only express that I have loved it from the first seeing in 1956 -- and continue to find it a great and involving film experience. The film is truly spectactular (even when compared to the 6-hour Russian version of 1968), but it works for me because of the human story. AUDREY HEPBURN as Natasha is perfection itself. She grows from the delightful innocence of childhood to the wisdom (and beauty) of adulthood. HENRY FONDA, often criticized as being wrong for the role of Pierre, is very effective as a man searching for and finding the true meaning of life and events. The film ends with this marvelous quotation from Tolstoy: "The most difficult thing -- but an essential one -- is to love Life, to love it even while one suffers, because Life is all, Life is God, and to love Life means to love God". And that is what this film captures -- and this is what sets it apart from other great epics. Nino Rota's score is also a great asset to this films effectiveness. As to the DVD itself -- Paramount, while not restoring it in the manner done for their recent releases of ROMAN HOLIDAY and SUNSET BOULEVARD, have still provided us with a fine DVD! There is no commentary track (most of the principals have passed away) -- but it would have been nice to have heard from Jack Cardiff. Both the B&W Behind-the-Scenes Trailer (showing location shooting of a key charge scene and a few words from director, King Vidor) and the re-release theatrical trailer, are interesting. How does the film compare to the book? I'm currently reading the book -- and can honestly say that I'm glad that I've seen the movie first. It helps greatly in keeping track of the numerous characters and plot developments. The book is one of the enduring masterpieces of literature -- but this film stands on its own as a great motion picture! Thanks Paramount for the DVD release!!
Given that trimming Tolstoy's WAR AND PEACE down to the length of one
feature film (even at three-and-a-half hours) is probably a fool's
errand to begin with, this 1956 version deserves more respect than it's
generally gotten -- though the comments here indicate that the film may
actually be gaining the respect that critics and film historians have
so long denied it.
The movie does suffer from two undeniable shortcomings. First is the atrocious sound recording that has blighted virtually every Italian movie ever made. As some of the comments have noted, movies shot at Rome's Cinecitta had their sound post-dubbed rather than recorded on the set. But actually, this practice was then (and remains) very common. The sound in Italian movies stands out simply because they were so bad at it. The brutal truth is, even the greatest masterpieces of Fellini, De Sica, Rosselini, etc. are less than they might have been because Italian sound technology was so slipshod. And so it is with WAR AND PEACE: it's hard to suspend disbelief when soldiers struggling across a river sound like someone dropping quarters into a toilet.
The other shortcoming is the appalling miscasting of Henry Fonda as Pierre Bezhukov. It's the worst performance of his career, and he looks and sounds about as Russian as a slice of pumpkin pie. One commenter here said Alec Guinness should have played Pierre. It's an intriguing suggestion, and of course Sir Alec was always good. Even better, I think, would have been Peter Ustinov. In 1956 he was Pierre to the very life.
But the rest of the casting is genuinely inspired. Oskar Homolka as Gen. Kutuzov, Barry Jones as Count Rostov, Jeremy Brett as Nikolai, Herbert Lom as Napoleon -- all could hardly be improved upon. And Audrey Hepburn was simply born to play Natasha. And Mel Ferrer as Prince Andrei ... well, he did have his faults as an actor (to say the least!), but at least he looked the part.
Beyond that, the movie has lavish production values, impressive battle scenes, and one truly great and powerful sequence, the French Army's disastrous retreat from Russia, that takes up much of the last hour.
There's no substitute, of course, for reading the novel (I've read it three times myself). But this 1956 movie makes a worthy introduction, and even helps to keep Tolstoy's complex plot straight when you do get around to reading it.
Quite a disappointing story about some people that get involved with
each other. This makes the movie some swooning story about love (one
might say it becomes some sort of Jane Austen story, which is not
altogether bad, but has nothing to do with Tolstoy) It fails to capture
the book's most beautiful moments: -Rostow's 'tremendous courage' when
he flee-ed from advancing enemy forces after being wounded by his own
horse. (Which showed the stupidity of war) -Pierre's duel (which is
included, but not in very satisfying way (for instance, it misses
Pierre's certainty that he would die in the duel and his flirt with
death)) and the following conversion to freemasonry
What is worse, the film goes against the spirit of the book, when it emphasis's the prophesying moments. (While the book shows the exact counter case: the complete unpredictability where things would go next) Although I wouldn't name this a good effort to make a film out of 'War and Peace', I don't think it can be done in any satisfying way.
I've read the book and seen this version several times. The main drawback is
of course time.
Thus, it must inevitably slight: a) many of the characters who bring joy to reading the novel - the princely father of the Kuragins, Sonja's story, Nicholas falling in love with Marya, the forgiveness by Bolkonsky (Ferrer) of Anatole Kuragin when his leg is amputated on a table beside which he is lain out, etc. and b) much of the philosophy contained in the book - whether about the masons or the purpose of life.
However, as a sort of highlights version of the novel, I thought it dealt well with the main lines of the plot.
It also is clearly 1950s film-making. There is little sense indoors of the lighting of the time, the sets look generally clean or deliberately destroyed (rather than mysterious and gloomy). In fact, the entire film appears all too clearly delineated - there is little of the kind of murkiness one would find in such a movie being made today - say, the way Schindler's List looks - or The Last Emperor looks.
The movie is also benefitted by having Audrey Hepburn, Anita Ekberg and John Mills - physically they are EXACTLY what I imagined of these characters - and I thought Mills and Hepburn were excellent. (And what Ekberg lacked in ability to convey emotion, she gained from her jaw-dropping embodiment of the buxom blonde!). The Henry Fonda choice for Bezuhov is an odd one - he's not the first person I think of when I think of a huge heavy awkward bear of a man. He did the best he could but was clearly miscast. Prince Bolkonsky (the father) and the Count and Countess Rostov were first rate - so were the choices for Napoleon, Homolka as Kutuzov, Kuragin, Dolokhov and the Rostov family. Mel Ferrer was ok - but imagine, say, the Terence Stamp of Far From the Madding Crowd and how he could have done.
All in all, this is clearly a movie of its time in cinematography, sets, the clearly drawn lines of the script - but it is entertaining and does about as well as possible in dramatizing in 3 1/2 hours a book of over 1000 pages.
As another IMDb'er has mentioned, this film is one spectacular visual moment
after another, but unfortunately with really terrible sound. The reason for
the bad sound is that the film was produced at Cinecitta studios in Rome and
at that time, all films there were shot without live sound. Everything was
dubbed later: dialogue, music and all ambient sounds. In addition, recording
facilities in Italy were primitive (this was only 11 years after the
catastrophe of WWII), resulting in the canned quality of most of the
dialogue. (One of the reasons Antonioni's films were such a breakthrough in
the following decade was his use of live sound recording and location
Anyway, War and Peace is a most worthwhile film experience for Vidor and Cardiff's Technicolor Vistavision visuals, for the screenplay which is often quite beautifully written, and for many fine performances from some exceedingly charismatic film actors, especially the astonishing Audrey Hepburn. There are close-ups of her that will make your heart stop.
This film version of Tolstoy's novel nicely captures the essence of his story. The VistaVision, Technicolor photography by Jack Cardiff give the the set pieces the look of a classic painting. Nino Rota's lavish score perfectly compliments the visuals. The casting is superb; and even though Fonda is physically wrong in the critical role of Pierre, his dignified persona makes up for it. Hepburn, as ever, is radiant as Natasha, and hits her marks perfectly. Anita Ekberg's superstructure alone brings Helene to life; Ferrer, Homolka and Mills are all, likewise, wonderful in this. The largely underappreciated Herbert Lom is absolutely brilliant as Napoleon. Practically speaking, this is a notable film adaptation of an enormous literary work, inspite of any comparisons one would care to make between the book and the movie.
Perhaps the best you can say for Vidor's long, (200 minutes), but surprisingly compact version of Tolstoy's novel is that it is no disgrace despite being 'internationalized' for mass consumption. (It's got an Italian producer, was filmed in Italy, an American director and a large cast from all over the place, leading in some cases to some very unconvincing dubbing). But it's also largely intelligent, well enough acted, particularly by Audrey Hepburn who is an enchanting Natasha, and visually splendid. No less than eight writers worked on the script which fails conspicuously to translate Tolstoy's 'grand ideas' into anything other than Readers-Digest form but then even Bondarchuk's even longer Russian version didn't quite manage the leap from page to screen. You may be forgiven, then, for thinking you are watching nothing more than a grandiose soap-opera even if it's a cut above run-of-the-mill historical 'soap-operas'. But in an age when three-hour-plus epics were ten-a-penny it didn't catch on and come Oscar time it was largely over-looked. (The even bigger but vastly inferior "Around the World in 80 Days" took Best Picture while "War and Peace" failed to snag a nomination in that category). But it is worth seeing if only for Hepburn's under-rated performance and for Henry Fonda, too old and miscast as Pierre, but bringing his liberal gravitas to the part, all the same.
This film came out on DVD yesterday and I rushed to buy it. This
version is the first to render all the detail and perfection of Jack
Cardiff's amazing compositions and brilliant, varied photography. As a
collection of memorable images, this film is better than any comparable
historical epic of the period and even gives GWTW a run for its money.
King Vidor's direction is a series of 'tableaux vivants' where the
characters are not posing but acting in a very natural, period-specific
way. I have never had a problem with this adaptation of Tolstoy's
novel. I think it is a wonderful introduction to the period and the
novel and that it is a very poetic, very original work in its own
right. Henry Fonda's characterization is especially moving, including
great memorable interactions with/reations to Mel Ferrer, Audrey
Hepburn, Helmut Dantine and John Mills, but all members of the cast are
actually perfect. The harrowing last 45 minutes of the film manage to
convey a sense of history, a sense of grandeur as well as to
communicate very clearly Tolstoy's ideas about the meaning of life, by
relying mostly on the power of memorable images. The most conspicuous
handicap of this movie, in my opinion, is its soundtrack (in glorious
The barely hi-fi recording of dialogues and music sounds pinched, hollow and tinny and it always has in very version I have ever seen: in the theatres, on TV and on video. Even the soundtrack album is an atrocity. In some scenes, before the necessary adjustments of bass and treble, Audrey Hepburn's and Mel Ferrer's voices actually hurt your ear. Nino Rota's very Russian-sounding score is serviceable and melodic, although rather sparse in its orchestration and in the number of players. One can only wonder what 'War and Peace' could have sounded like with a cohort of Hollywood arrangers, decent recording facilities and lavish, varied orchestrations in true high fidelity and stereophonic sound. According to Lukas Kendall of 'Film Score Monthly', the original recording elements of the soundtrack have long ago disappeared, which is the common lot of international, independent co-productions of the era. Someone somewhere is certainly guilty of skimping on quality or embezzlement for this 1956 movie to sound so much worse than a 1939, pre-hi-fi epic like GWTW. Like all VistaVision films, this one was meant to be shown in Perspecta Stereophonic Sound where the mono dialog track was meant to be channelled to three different directions, making it directional, while the separate mono music + sound effects track was generally directed to all three speakers at the same time. The results fooled the viewers into thinking everything was in true stereo and the reproduction of the music was usually in very high fidelity. Maybe the soundtrack used on the DVD is a mono reduction of those two separate tracks that has squandered that fidelity and maybe the DVD can be issued again with better results in some kind of 4.0 presentation. When they do, very little electronic restoration work will be needed to make the image absolutely perfect.
But let's concentrate on the positive: This film is a summit of visual splendour and its sets, costumes, colour photography, composition and lighting achieve, in every single scene, wonders of artistry, creativity and delicacy that will probably never be equalled. Suffice it to say that it has, among many other treasures, a sunrise duel scene in the snow that still has viewers wondering whether it was shot outdoors or in a studio and that will have them wondering forever.
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