Neither a, then, staggering $6 million dollar budget nor the combined formidable talents of Audrey Hepburn, Mel Ferrer and Henry Fonda can salvage King Vidor’s War and Peace (1956) from becoming an albatross; awkward, stagnant and ponderous. Here is an epic so in love with the idea of playing into the ‘bigger is better’ folly that afflicted mid-fifties cinema, it so completely misses the mark, neither slavishly devoted to Leo Tolstoy’s original nor satisfying even the most primary edicts of movie-land craftsmanship; namely – to entertain. Apart from Audrey Hepburn – still thoroughly miscast, though nevertheless filling the vast expanses of its VistaVision frame with her own inimitable luminosity, the rest of the assembled entourage perform as though too much starch has been applied to their vintage britches. Let us simply clear out the obvious elephant in the room: that to affectingly tackle a 1,440 page novel and contextualize both its magnitude and greatness in a feature film is a fool’s errand – even as Vidor’s elephantine spectacle does its best to cram in drama, betrayal, marital infidelity, war, death and passion into three and a half hours. Director, Sergey Bondarchuk had to make concessions for his seven hour 1966 epic. But at least, Bondarchuk’s efforts remain the definitive version of Tolstoy’s novel.
War and Peace is a colossus of literature. I recall studying the novel for a Russian history class many decades ago, completely absorbed by the author’s meticulous craftsmanship; his intricately balanced, and even more fastidiously interwoven, saga following five aristocratic families (the Bezukhovs, helmed by the wily Count Kirill Vladimirovich, who has sired dozens of illegitimate sons; the wealthy, Bolkonskys; the estate privileged, though cash poor Rostovs; the questionable Kuragins, and finally, the once proud, though now impoverished Drubetskoys) and their occasionally tragic entanglements with destiny, circa 1805 to 1813. Much of the novel is preoccupied with the 1812 Napoleonic invasion of Russia. The film is more interested in the three lives directly impacted by…well… Remarkably, the ‘war’ in War and Peace is sidelined by Vidor’s thirst for a passionate love story, or rather, one repeatedly thwarted at every possible turn by kismet. Natasha, a naïve and blindly optimistic green girl, is infatuated with Pierre Bezukhov (Henry Fonda); Count Kirill’s (Gualtiero Tumiati) illegitimate son. Pierre has a gentle heart he is desperately trying to bury behind a lifestyle of self-imposed decadence unbecoming either his stature or – more importantly – his nature. Poor Pierre: he wants so desperately to be the dashing devil-may-care about town. He just doesn’t have that world famous quality to carry it off; certainly, none to rival, booze-guzzling adventurist/debaucher and Captain of the Guard, Dolokhov (Helmut Dantine) whom he envies.
In the meantime, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (Mel Ferrer) has taken an interest in Natasha – one she reciprocates for a time, but then, is easily coaxed into discarding for a torrid liaison with Dolokhov’s best friend; guardsman, Anatol Kuragin (Vittorio Gassman). Unbeknownst to almost everyone except Dolokhov, Anatol already has a wife and child living in Poland. When Andrei discovers Natasha’s betrayal he departs for the war front, leaving their once blossoming relationship in tatters. In the midst of these unhappily ever-afters, King Vidor tries, rather desperately, to lend War and Peace all the spectacular presentation value $6 million dollars can buy; hordes of Russians – aristocracy and peasantry alike – decamping Moscow as the Napoleonic forces proudly march into the city, and, an even more vast assemblage of armies confronting each other on raging horseback on the battlefield. It all looks as it should, except that every inch of it is permeated with a faint whiff of embalming fluid that makes the enterprise play as though it were an audio-animatronic attraction at Disneyland rather than a lusty and spectacular big screen epic.
It is, perhaps, important to remember that Tolstoy never regarded War and Peace as a novel. Indeed, whole portions of his text, particularly in the latter half of its 3-volumed/15-parts, are explicitly devoted to analytical, theoretical and philosophical debates pertinent to the period in which the novel’s historical narrative evolves, but equally as relevant to the era, some sixteen years removed, in which Tolstoy was committing these thoughts to paper. Too bad King Vidor’s War and Peace remains a prime example of the old adage about ‘too many cooks spoiling the broth’. No less than seven writers took their crack at distilling Tolstoy in cinematic terms, including Bridget Boland, Robert Westerby, Mario Camerini, Ennio De Concini, Ivo Perilli and an uncredited Gian Gaspare Napolitano and Mario Soldati. Vidor had the final say. He also rewrote portions of the shooting script at his own discretion. The film is a lethal mixture – or rather, mishmash – of these various writing styles; the dialogue full of grand speeches, boastful zingers and theatrically inspired gestures. As stagecraft, this might have worked. But the biggest problem with War and Peace – the movie – is its lack of continuity, its clumsy excision of some of the novel’s most pertinent and best-loved vignettes, and Vidor’s foolhardy attempt to take such a multi-layered/multifaceted character study and distill it into standardized, oddly insignificant and wholly banal melodrama.
Cinema in general, and American movies in particular, have never been able to faithfully interpret ‘human thought’ in visual terms, perhaps because ideas, in and of themselves, have no form or context without the impetus of action to propel them. An actor can only convey so much with the glance of an eye, wrinkle of a brow, or, casual flashing smile or grimace. True, the human imagination is a fertile commodity and truly gifted actors often convincingly express subtext with little or no dialogue. But War and Peace is a tough nut to crack for these stars. Henry Fonda, in particular, seems ill at ease. His Pierre never manages to grow beyond a very stiff, marginally foppish prig; scorned and spurned by polite society during his formative years as the Count’s unloved bastard child/exalted in his stature by an unlikely inheritance, then saddled by his own ridiculousness to marry a wily cousin, Helene Kuragina (Anita Ekberg), who brings ruin and shame to his name by taking up with Dolokhov. Audrey Hepburn’s Natasha proves dulcet and intoxicating, but only so far as ‘pretty young things’ go. Mel Ferrer probably gives the most intelligent reading of the three; at least making an attempt to go beyond mere character traits and clichés to flesh out his Andrei into a thinking man of quality.
Alas, there is also the episodic way King Vidor and his co-writing cohorts have managed to stage the drama; introducing, then casually jettisoning characters, offering the most remedial, if stylized of first impressions (Dolokhov – bad; Andrei – good), then expecting the audience to simply invest themselves and remember them later on as Vidor moves his cast like chess pieces; filtered in, then out, then back into these plug n’ play homogenized plot points. If all this narrative meandering seems to sacrifice character development for the three principles, the secondary cast members fare with far less success. Anita Ekberg is barely seen, except in brief languid, and modestly flirtatious repose in her bed the day after she has married Pierre. We catch a glimpse of her again at the theater, preparing to play matchmaker for her disreputable brother, Anatol, who has become fascinated with seducing the innocent, Natasha. Vitorrio Gassman isn’t much for the part. But Helmut Dantine is far too obvious in his unscrupulousness as Dolokhov, the satyr of the piece, matched only in witless sexual appetite by Gassman’s Anatol, an aspiring straggler to Dolokhov’s Casanova charms. The pair picks apart Natasha’s heart as though it were a fine Stradivarius to be plucked with the mad abandonment of a gypsy’s balalaika.
King Vidor’s awkward transitions between ‘war’ and ‘peace’ provide character actors, Oskar Homolka and Herbert Lom with all too fleeting opportunities to portray Field Marshal Kutuzov and Napoleon Bonaparte respectively. Homolka is given some weighty tomes to recite with his usual caustic abandonment, his strangely piercing albino eyes spookily soulless, if enterprising. Lom gets the thankless part of the French interloper, shouting commands and hurling insults at his generals; impatiently pacing back and forth with shifty eyes and a lot of handwringing. And then there is Barry Jones as Natasha’s doting pater, Prince Mikhail Andreevich Rostov; prone to bubbly outbursts like a spirited little Leprechaun, quite unable to shake his Mr. Lundie from 1954’s Brigadoon. No heather on this hill!
War and Peace opens with a lavishly appointed military parade through the streets of Moscow, meant to show off the enormity of the sets and costumes afforded the production, although – regrettably – looking very much like sets and costumes instead of a reasonable facsimile of the famed city and its citizenry. The pageantry is observed from the upper windowsills of the Rostov’s estate by Mikhail, Pierre and Natasha. While the Prince and his daughter are buoyed with a false sense of optimism built upon pride, Pierre is not entirely certain of Russia’s supremacy against the approaching armies of Napoleon. At present, we are introduced to other characters – once, integral to Tolstoy’s storytelling – but only of marginal interest or value to this movie: Natasha’s mother, the Countess (Lea Seidl), the youngest of the Rostov clan, Petya (Sean Barrett) and a cousin, Lisa Bolkonskaya (Milly Vitale), who is smitten with Natasha’s elder brother, Nicholas (Jeremy Brett). The whole family is rejoicing in Nicholas’ appointment to the army.
Sheepish and awkward around more than a select few of his closest friends, Pierre excuses himself to attend a nearby pub/brothel, popular with the guardsmen. There, he can drown his insecurities in vodka and quietly fade into the background, observing the drunken revelry with a dispassionate, if marginally envious, eye. Pierre admires Dolokhov; a boastful risk-taker, desired by all the women. Prodded by Anatol, Dolokhov swallows an entire bottle of vodka while precariously perched on a third story windowsill; never teetering in his resolve to be the most disreputable scamp in the room. Accepting a fool’s challenge, Pierre vows to replicate Dolokov’s stunt; his ignorance thwarted by Andrei’s arrival with news Count Kirill is on his deathbed. Sobering up on the way to his estranged father’s country estate, Pierre explains his personal regrets to Andrei. He wallows in self-pity. The film makes no comment about Kirill’s many extramarital affairs or his other illegitimate children, thus avoiding the implication Pierre is not alone, but also depriving the audience of their sympathies for Pierre.
Pierre arrives at his father’s estate and is shown into his bedchamber; given a moment’s recognition by the old bugger before he kicks off. This tearful farewell leads to a shocking turn of events. It seems Kirill has decided to make a mends for his errant ways by making Pierre his sole heir; a move that quietly upsets Helene and her mother, until the pair realizes the quickest way to remain ensconced in their former privileges is to marry money. The buxom Helene is not without her obvious charms. We jump ahead to Pierre’s announcement to Natasha; that he plans to marry Helene. She, in turn, wastes no time burning through her newfound wealth. Pierre, who has been stricken by a sudden urge and agricultural ‘green thumb’, has plans to improve the country estate and living conditions for all the serfs who work the land of his late father. Helene encourages Pierre go on ahead, promising to join him later; just as soon as she has had the opportunity to procure a few more dresses and trinkets for the journey. Actually, she is more intent on taking up with Dolokhov. Eventually, news of this affair reaches Pierre. At a dinner party, Dolokhov proposes an arrogant toast to ‘beautiful women’ and their lovers, prompting Pierre to rise to the occasion, dashing a flute full of champagne in Dolokhov’s face.
This, of course, means war. And so, Dolokhov and Pierre – a pacifist, who has never fired a pistol – prepare for a duel. As luck would have it, Pierre stumbles in the knee deep snow, his gun going off prematurely and wounding Dolokhov on the field of honor. Mercifully, Dolokhov is not mortally stricken and eventually recovers. Pierre stays married to Helene but begins to question his own values about war. It seems like as good a time as any, in fact; what, with Napoleon and Czar Alexander I (Savo Raskovitch) reaching something of a momentary truce. In Moscow, the Rostovs attend a gala ball. Natasha, having already become smitten with Andrei from a previous brief encounter in the country, after the untimely death of his first wife, now impatiently prays for his reappearance at the ball. In his absence her mood grows sour. But then, Andrei appears in full military regalia, a handsome figure to sweep a silly young girl off her feet and onto the dance floor. King Vidor’s handling of this pivotal moment is rudimentary at best; a missed opportunity without even a hint of amorous dialogue, much less a kiss to suggest the couple is well on their way to becoming…well…a couple!
A short while later, the war between Russia and France begins to heat up again. Pierre is exhilarated after witnessing a confrontation between the opposing forces. In the meantime, Andrei’s stern father, Prince Bolkonsky (Wilfred Lawson) dies. The Prince had emphatically opposed his son’s engagement to Natasha on the bourgeois principle the Rostovs were socially beneath his own clan. Now, Andrei goes off to partake in military exercises. In his absence, Natasha attends the theater with her family. There, she unexpectedly catches Anatol’s eye. He and Helene conspire to get Natasha alone in the adjacent box, Anatol’s bravado instantly captivating Natasha’s inexperienced ideas about rugged masculinity. News of Natasha’s clandestine rendezvous with Anatol eventually reaches Andrei. He is heart sore. But his panged dismay quickly translates to cold-hearted disappointment. He ends his engagement to Natasha at precisely the moment Lisa and Pierre conspire to prove to her that Anatol already has a wife and child living in Poland. Pierre thwarts the couple’s planned elopement, threatening to expose Anatol’s infidelity to the whole of Moscow. Such an indiscretion would ruin his ambitions for a prominent military career. Heart-sick and betrayed, Natasha retreats into self-imposed isolationism, becoming sickly and withdrawn.
The 1812 battle erupts, plunging the nation into war and forcing the city’s inhabitants to flee for their lives. In their evacuation of their family home, the Rostovs elect to forgo taking their creature comforts with them. Instead, they load up their wagons with the military’s wounded. In the meantime, the youngest Rostov, Petya, enlists in the fight and is taken under Dolokhov’s wing. The young man has spunk. Alas, he does not heed his mentor’s advice. Charging ahead of the battle line, Petya is cut down, mourned a short while later, both by Dolokhov and Pierre in the snowy abyss of fallen comrades. Forced by the army to retreat from Napoleon’s armies, Pierre also witnesses the execution of Platon Karataev (John Mills); a character in Tolstoy’s story meant to expound and espouse to theoretically platitudes about the state’s purpose in the life of an individual, but herein seems even more the cockeyed nitwit than our fair Natasha.
As the tide turns against Napoleon’s seemingly impregnable army, Andrei is mortally wounded, dying a short while later in a monastery with Natasha at his side; her past indiscretions forgiven, the love once shared between them renewed. As Napoleon retreats in defeat, the deflated city dwellers return to Moscow; the Rostov’s shocked by the state of their once elegant manor house. Its east wing is a burnt out shell. But the family, particularly Natasha, delights in discovering the west wing has survived virtually unscathed. Left to her own accord, Natasha now slinks into quiet despair, remembering all that has been lost, particularly in the wake of her own foolish fancies. Her eyes meet with a shadowy figure in the hallway; Pierre stepping into the light to reaffirm his undying love for her. The two embrace and are seen a short time later strolling hand in glove through a garden.
War and Peace is uneven entertainment at best. King Vidor struggles to unearth the strengths of the novel while unceremoniously burying some of its strongest suits under a litany of parables, hyperbole and rankly sentimental clichés about love and life. These betray Tolstoy’s more finite critiques of both and his philosophical treatise on the state and its encroaching importance on individual lives. Vidor indiscriminately uses a jarring voiceover narration to provide causal links between certain passages, while leaving others to a mysterious fade to black, occasionally right in the middle of the action taking place. The initial peace treaty between the Czar and Napoleon, as example, is given a bloated moment of impressive scale in which none of the principles is featured in anything more than extreme long shot; a pointless moment in the movie. It all comes across as a terrible mess, painfully out of touch with vintage 1950’s film-making and Vidor’s own illustrious canon of movie-making accomplishments. Possibly, the director’s age had caught up to him. He was nearing 60 when he undertook to make this film. Also, Vidor was not primarily known for such extravaganzas, his métier of romanticism and screen intimacy well established during the late silent era and early talkies.
Alas, War and Peace is even more of an artistic tragedy when one considers the monumental talents involved in its undertaking: producers, Dino De Laurentiis and Carlo Ponti for starters – two of the most prolific and ambitious international financiers in the film-making business; éminence grise and visual stylist extraordinaire, Jack Cardiff to lens the spectacle in lush Technicolor; Nino Rota to pen its celebrated underscore; Mario Chiari, Piero Gherardi and Maria De Matteis to sheath the production in a mind-boggling array of sets and costumes that epitomize the ball-roomed grandeur of old world Russia. There’s no getting around it. War and Peace ought to have been one of the movie behemoths of the 1950’s; a cornerstone, beloved and enduring classic for the ages. Regrettably, it is none of these things, rather a tedious, stagnant and colorless example of excess run amuck; the girth of the visuals woefully undernourished by an impossibly dull screenplay and some truly terrible performances given besides.
Warner Home Video’s present custodianship of the Paramount Home Video library has not yielded the anticipated results on this catalog title. War and Peace was photographed in Paramount’s patented VistaVision widescreen process, affording it true motion picture high fidelity. This Blu-ray transfer is nothing more than a painful reminder of earlier home video incarnations. In fact, I detect very little improvement – if any – from the old DVD. Yes, the image tightens up – marginally – thanks to Blu-ray’s superior compression. But this is NOT a new 1080p scan. From the moment the VistaVision logo appears this becomes quite obvious, the peripheries afflicted with severe fading and a strobe in color density. Curses! We’ve been had in hi-def once again! Most of the image quality that follows (or lack thereof) is shockingly poor. Flesh tones are frequently orange or piggy pink. The image exhibits a very softly focused quality. This has absolutely nothing to do with Jack Cardiff’s diffused glow cinematography.
Contrast levels are weak, resulting in the whole image falling into an undistinguished mid-register of color implosion. There are some inexplicable ‘blow ups’ during the scene at the theater where Anatol convinces his sister, Helene to aid in his introduction to Natasha. Shots of Anatol miming his intentions to Helene are relatively smooth. But the reverse shots capturing her and Natasha’s reactions are severely blurry and riddled with digitized grain – odd! There is also a burnished darkness that creeps in from the edges of the screen throughout most of this presentation. We have speckling too, not to demonstrative levels, but more prominently exposed during darkly lit scenes. Film grain has been digitally scrubbed throughout, occasionally resulting in waxen images with a decided loss of fine detail. What ought to have at least looked razor-sharp, crisp and resplendent, instead registers as soft and hazy, grain-free and poorly contrasted. What a shame and a sham! The audio remains in mono and is adequate for this presentation. Bottom line: don’t waste your time. Pass.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)