Movie Review: War and Peace (1956)
“Conflicts, Loves, Passions, Drama, You Live Through a Supreme Experience as “War and Peace” Comes Alive On The Screen!”
War and Peace (1956)
Director: King Vidor
Cast: Audrey Hepburn, Henry Fonda, Mel Ferrer
Synopsis: The loves and conflicts of two Russian families at a time when Napoleon launches an invasion of their country
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The American movie industry must have felt as if it were built upon perpetually shifting tectonic plates back in the mid-1950s; not only was the madly ambitious Senator Joe McCarthy ripping the town apart like a vicious tornado with his hunt for Communists, but the growth in popularity of television that had been temporarily halted by WWII, was finally beginning to make inroads on the industry’s revenue. Powerless against Mad Joe, the industry could only wait for the storm to blow itself out, but it could at least try to fight back against the vexatious contraption that was starting to hypnotise the nation. So, movie screens grew wider and gained depth (if you were prepared to wear cardboard glasses with different coloured lenses), and Hollywood began to produce bloated historical epics featuring casts of thousands in the hope that no tiny box with a fuzzy black-and-white screen could hope to compete.
War and Peace, King Vidor’s dreary adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s heavyweight novel exemplified Hollywood’s knee-jerk tactic called ‘Make Everything BIGGER!!!!!’ Screens weren’t the only things to expand: running times did, too, and War and Peace clocked in at a bladder-bursting three-and-a-half hours. Worse than that, though, is the fact that every minute of it feels like an hour.
Although he’s the star of War and Peace, Henry Fonda (12 Angry Men, Once Upon a Time in the West) doesn’t lead the cast so much as hesitantly scurry in and out of it, as if unsure of exactly what he should be doing. At 50 years of age Fonda was approximately thirty years older than Pierre, and although his age-defying youthfulness and the skill of the make-up department goes some way to limiting the damage, there’s no getting way from the fact that he’s spectacularly miscast as Pierre Bezhukhov, a man who must rank amongst the upper echelons of those heroes of cinema unburdened by admirable qualities of any description. Pierre is one of those who likes to watch (in an inappropriate American accent). Mostly, he watches the dashing officer Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (Mel Ferrer – Paris – When it Sizzles, Wait Until Dark) woo the flighty young Natasha Rostova (Audrey Hepburn – The Unforgiven, Breakfast at Tiffany’s), or engage Napoleon’s army in the Battle of Borodino, and so timid is his own love for Natasha that even we are uncertain of it for most of the film’s running time.
The spirited Hepburn is invaluable, a breath of fresh air breathing some semblance of life into a film so ponderous that some will gain more pleasure from dissecting what it is they dislike about each character than following the turgid plot. That’s another of War and Peace’s problems: with the exception of Bolkonsky, none of the major characters are particularly likable. Pierre is too passive and pompous, and Natasha too flighty, swooning into the arms of any man who shows an interest in her. Pierre’s gorgeous wife (Anita Ekberg) is a money-grubbing slut, the military nobleman, Dolokhov (Helmut Dantine – Casablanca, Alexander the Great) – who would be a hero if portrayed by Errol Flynn fifteen years earlier – with whom she cheats on Pierre is an unrepentant womaniser and one of two arrogant, conceited military men, the other being Anatol Kuragin (Vittorio Gassman), who succeeds in wooing Natasha despite having a wife in Poland.
Vidor does at least deliver with the film’s big battle scene at Borodino, panning from a hilltop to illustrate the scale of the battle as the opposing armies take position, then expertly building the tension as Napoleon’s infantry march on the assembled Russian cannons. The battle is a brief respite, though, from a film that grows increasingly tedious with each passing minute.
(Reviewed 21st December 2016)