Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Italian-French co-production of War and Peace, helmed by the capable American King
Vidor and shot by the dauntless English cameraman Jack Cardiff, has been something of a joke
in film history, and an eyesore on previous video and cable television versions. It's still
Tolstoy Lite, a Cliff's Notes adaptation of a huge and sprawling novel that even Russian Literature
majors don't always read all the way through. The international cast acting in English
has a severe handicap when compared to the monumental Soviet version from 1967. But Paramount's
new DVD release has succeeded in remastering the three hour, 25-minute film in all its widescreen,
VistaVision glory. In the home theater setting, the epic recovers a lot of its dignity.
There's this country called Russia, see ... In Napoleonic times, the destinies of
a number of noble Muscovites are shaped by tradition, romance, and the invading French
emperor (Herbert Lom). Disaffected intellectual Pierre Bezukhov (Henry Fonda) resents his father,
attaches himself to the Rostov family but considers himself unfit to get serious with either
of their daughters, Sonya (May Britt) and Natasha (Audrey Hepburn). Instead he marries the
insincere Helene (Anita Ekberg). She proceeds to dishonor his name, leading eventually to a duel of
honor between Pierre and the rakish Dolokhov (Helmut Dantine). Family friend and Pierre's confidante
Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (Mel Ferrer) loses his wife (Anna Maria Ferrero) in childbirth. When he comes out
of mourning, Andrei falls hopelessly in love with Natasha, but their romance is cut short by the invading French.
Natasha's brother Nicholas (Jeremy Brett) is once again pressed into service, but the family struggles
to keep young Petya (Sean Barrett) from joining up. Worse, in Andrei's absence, Natasha's head is
turned by Dolokhov's caddish associate Anatole (Vittorio Gassman). Although Pierre saves her
from a ruinous elopement, the scandalous fallout alienates Andrei. With Napoleon sweeping toward
Moscow, and the Rostovs evacuating to the East, Pierre decides to witness the fighting as a
civilian, only to be captured and made subject to execution, along with a peasant friend, Platon
Karatzev (John Mills). Will Pierre or Andrei survive to return to the repentant, wiser Natasha?
Will Napoleon conquer Russia?
People making jokes about bad casting don't bug Gregory Peck much anymore about his rather good
Captain Ahab, but any mention of Vidor's War and Peace invariably brings out some comment
about Henry Fonda, Young Mister Lincoln, being completely laughable as the very Russian
hero Pierre. There were few big movie stars in the 50s that could bury themselves in character roles -
those who tried to deviate from their norm usually found frustration. Fonda is
perfectly fine in this not-particularly-Russian
effort, at least as good as the film's concept itself. The problem is, Pierre Bezukhov is supposed
to be a nearsighted, clumsy quasi-bumbler, and Fonda's attempts to be clumsy are - clumsy. He's
Wyatt Earp to us; we just have a hard time buying the act.
In 1954, the full list of super spectacles was limited to just a few titles -
Gone With the Wind, some silent
predecessors, Quo Vadis?;
Hollywood was just beginning to realize that a Land of the Pharaohs could be made in Egypt using
real locations and a zillion extras and still not cost much more than maybe two studio-bound pictures.
Dino de Laurentiis marshalled his biggest production, and ultimately lost. The
Europeans rejected it as American simplification, and Americans, as David O. Selznick had thought,
couldn't care less about the problems of a bunch of soulful Russkies in the Moscow snow.
The script is oversimplified, but some of the dialogue is even thinner. Among more thoughtful speeches,
Fonda has to come out with a thudding, "Damn you Napoleon. Damn you to hell." He's trying hard not to be
Henry Fonda, to instead be the ineffectual Pierre, but it's wasted energy.
Yet, with the cinema snob antennae turned off, there's a perfectly good soap opera of a movie here. Audrey
Hepburn is charming and adorable as the young Natasha, even if her dalliance with Anatole seems
dictated by the script instead of an unavoidable accident. Natasha is supposed to be poised, delicate
and sensitive, yet as susceptible to romantic hysteria as any young girl ... if anything, Hepburn's persona
of instinctual, inbred decorum works against her. But she readily handles almost every other situation,
and singlehandedly carries clichés like the, 'empty the wagons of our valuables so we can
carry wounded soldiers' scene.
Of the rest of the able, overdressed and underused players, Mel Ferrer (Hepburn's real-life husband)
comes off exceptionally well. Usually ill-cast and uncomfortable-looking, this Ferrer had a habit
in many films of standing around with an inappropriate smile on his face. But as an imperious
Russian prince, he's great, just noble enough to be convincing in the stoic bedside scenes near
the end. Anita Ekberg made more of an ... impression in the later Fellini fountain scene in
La dolce vita, but she's plenty attractive here as the onerous predatory female
who snaps up poor Pierre.
As a production, this War and Peace is a model of economy, using less and making it look
like more. The battle scenes are large, but not overwhelming, which is definitely not the case in
the '68 Russian version. The Moscow balls are impressive yet not massive, and we see a bit too
much perhaps of the same two blocks around the Rostov's house. King Vidor is efficient & expressive
- the main battle scenes are accompanied by
some tension-inducing metronomic drums, as in The Big Parade. Art director Mario Chiari's
settings are lavish but sleek, not cluttered with a lot of detail. The impression given is of many big
empty rooms with shiny floors, with a frequent dash of Cardiff's expressive reds and oranges. Cardiff
makes many scenes come alive, as with Pierre's duel: the bleak snowscape is a soundstage set, and in the
wide shots, Cardiff did a quickly handpainted glass matte, with a light bulb for the weak sun, to fill
in the top half of the image.
Seen before on television, in flat prints with lousy color, War and Peace didn't have much of a
visual dimension, and in fact looked sort of cheesy. That's where Paramount's new DVD
shines - the anamorphic transfer finds compositions that weren't there before, and focuses the
emphasis in more than a few scenes. The battles look big once again, and the color is rich
instead of bleary, with Nino Rota's score warbling pleasantly in the background.
For extras, there's a teaser that has some good behind the scenes footage showing the filming of
the battles with the Italian crew and the sideways-running VistaVision camera. For one tracking
shot of charging cavalry, the camera is mounted on what looks like some kind of streamlined luxury
touring car. The ads naturally tout the film as the biggest picture ever. It's all very impressive
in an old-fashioned publicity flack kind of way.
According to the IMDB, Robert Stephens makes his screen debut as an officer chatting with
Natasha at the formal ball.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
War and Peace rates:
Movie: Very good
Supplements: Behind-the-scenes theatrical trailer
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: December 20, 2002
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson