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.
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: