War and Peace (1956)

Director: King Vidor

By Roderick Heath

King Vidor’s second-last film is one of the most frustrating movies ever made. A colossal attempt to make a workable epic film out of Leo Tolstoy’s venerable doorstop, War and Peace was one of the first true instances of a large-scale international coproduction. After MGM’s Quo Vadis? (1951) and 20th Century Fox’s The Robe (1953) had successfully made use of Cinecitta Studios as a production base for sagas that would humiliate audience-thieving television, War and Peace went a step further. Paramount joined forces with adventurous Italian magnates Carlo Ponti and Dino de Laurentiis to make the most expensive and expansive widescreen production up until that point, matching fresh European stars like Anita Ekberg, May Britt, and Vittorio Gassman with established Hollywood icon Henry Fonda and newlywed stars Audrey Hepburn and Mel Ferrer.

The problems in making a film out of War and Peace were more intrinsic and defiant than those of mere production, however. Although offering a cornucopia of all the materials an epic work of cinema could handle—duels, love affairs, bad marriage, scoundrels, tyrants, and armies clashing upon big muddy fields—Tolstoy had attempted first and foremost to erect a work of historical philosophy and the capacity of the human soul to act both sacred and profane. Vidor himself stated that Pierre Bezukhov was the final, perfect model of his career obsession with probing, ethical, conflicted heroes. Vidor, however, had to face down a common artistic problem of meshing the big-scale frou frou with the intimate and thoughtful, and a new, if soon to be equally familiar, problem of the coproduction—meshing disparate acting styles and technical approaches split along national, cultural, and industrial lines. Such was a process well-portrayed in Vincent Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town (1962), illustrating the difficulties in making such movies without resulting in a tone-deaf shambles. Unfortunately, War and Peace is often just such a shambles.

The sheer scale of the novel’s narrative and gallery of characters was always going to be hard to compress into a workable shape, but Vidor’s efforts sometimes evoke the majestic physical and emotional sweep of Tolstoy’s book. The main story elements are present, portraying the amiably eccentric family of middle-rank aristocrat Count Rostov (Barry Jones), in particular his animated adolescent daughter Natasha (Hepburn), and her relationships with the philosophical but dissolute, illegitimate heir Pierre Bezukhov (Fonda) and moody, passé prisoner of honour Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (Ferrer). Sibling aristocrats Helene and Anatole Kuragin (Ekberg and Gassman) are the embodiments of sensual rapacity and cunning, and both with varying degrees of success ensnare and ruin Pierre and Natasha, with their helpmate in mischief, the brutish cavalier Dolokhov (Helmut Dantine). These individual dramas are dwarfed by, and yet somehow define the age, as Napoleon Bonaparte (Herbert Lom) seals his conquest of Europe at Austerlitz and then invades Russia, facing off against the eccentric Marshal Kutuzov (Oscar Homolka) and reaching the limits of his ambition in the burning wreckage of Moscow.

War and Peace is sometimes cited as Exhibit A in how many a once-great director’s career could find its nadir in huge-budget productions rather than final consummation. And yet Vidor’s direction is hardly lacking in invention. Some of Vidor’s experiments in source lighting for interior scenes point the way forward to the kind of hyper-accurate historical setting Stanley Kubrick pulled off in Barry Lyndon (1975), and his interest in creative camerawork is still evident in moments, for example, when he straps his camera to Bonaparte’s sled, which moves through the ranks of his desolate army, perfectly evoking his queasy horror at his utter defeat and final separation from his men. The chief cinematographer was the great Jack Cardiff, and particularly the outdoor sequences possess his lustrous, suprisingly modern-looking freshness. War and Peace is always beautiful to look at, with its gilt-and-glass palaces and nights of saturated reds and blues and pale snow, possessing much of the innate physicality that Vidor was excellent at evoking. But perhaps too beautiful, for Ponti’s costumer Maria de Matteis and art director Mario Chiari go overboard with boldly coloured uniforms and plush settings that often suggest comic opera.

Fonda reported that Vidor was often rewriting scenes the night before shooting, and six writers are credited with the adaptation including the director, perhaps indicative of the film’s wild swings in tone and quality. Good lines are scattered throughout, like Andrei’s father (Wilfred Lawson) berating his desire to get married: “You’re over 30! By the time a man’s over 30, life should be sad, meaningless, and hopeless!” Or Napoleon pointing at Andrei, left for dead clutching a standard upon the field of Austerlitz, proudly declaring: “That! That is the way for a man to die!” And yet large chunks of the story are dismissed in frail expository lines. Some scenes, like Pierre and Andrei’s early conversation in which they bluntly confess what weighs upon their minds, capture something of the necessary depth of thought and humanity. Casting Fonda was an odd touch, given that he was too old and too American for the role, and yet also an inspired one: his spindly yet robust physique and glowing, spiritually hungry eyes evoke a rare sense of aching humanistic feeling. Fonda had a gift for suggesting genuine metaphysical pain and ardour, and he embodies the idea of Pierre, at least, with some grace. Much less persuasive is acting lightweight Ferrer, but his pallid, limpid presence evokes the fading aristocratic ideal quite well, and he brings off some good moments, like when he painfully, gently admonishes his fierce patrician father for insisting on reminding him to act his part on the battlefield and not shame the Bolkonsky name.

Hepburn as Natasha, on the other hand, is a near-perfect avatar for a hard character to play, rushing through the film’s first half with a giddy, irrepressible energy of the capricious, clever jeune fille. Her Natasha swings from whim to whim with casual enthusiasm, trying to look disdainful at a ball to embody her idea of a great lady, or brushing off a disappointment by saying she’ll become a ballerina and never marry, before being crushed by facing moral consequences of being seduced by Anatole while engaged to Andrei. Her elfin charm and capacity to portray childlike vigour are in full flower, but the effort of growing up both as a character and an actress is often visible on screen, and she doesn’t always escape the infectious brittleness of many of the other performances. And yet she’s still an utter joy to watch, and she and Ferrer certainly made an attractive couple on the dance floor.

The film as a whole needed a felicitous, subtle hand to capture the fin-de-siecle atmosphere, something not so far from what Visconti achieved with The Leopard (1963). Instead, quite often, the scripting and acting are broad, even inane. Shrill, cardboard performances from the likes of Ekberg and Jones, and a downright bizarre one from Homolka, are matched by an incapacity to find anything like the right tone for portraying the exalted spheres of aristocratic Russian society, and moments of cornball Slavic flavour injected by kazatchok dancers and Rasputin-like monks. Sequences of the Rostovs’ home life often radiate a quality that could be dubbed “Andy Hardy’s Moscow Nights.” John Mills appears late in the film as Karataev, a peasant whose simple, good-hearted faith inspires Pierre. Unfortunately, it’s such a clunky reduction of Tolstoy’s theme that it suggests all it takes to be born again is to meet a guy with a Cockney accent. One scene so stupefyingly silly it could give you nightmares occurs when the Rostovs and son Nikolai’s (Jeremy Brett) friend Denisov (Patrick Crean) travel to their country dacha, Denisov singing a song whilst running from troika to troika as if we’ve stumbled into a Nelson Eddy-Jeanette Macdonald movie. Although the narrative stretches across seven years, the Rostov’s younger son Petya (Sean Barrett) never ages out of pubescence. Later, when Natasha convinces her family to abandon their belongings and give their carts over to wounded soldiers fleeing Moscow, the tone is excruciatingly playful and acted with a tone more fit for an asinine comedy than a scene meant to depict a humane response to grotesque tragedy.

And yet, good, even great moments abound, too, like the near-surreal duel that Pierre and Dolokhov have upon a snowy field lit by blinding morning sun; Pierre’s explosive rage at Helene when he realises he’s married a nasty piece of work, and later when he catches his first glimpse of the thrill of battle when the Russian army engages Bonaparte’s at the Battle of Borodino, dropping the flower he holds in a neatly throwaway symbolic encapsulation of his pacifism fading before the spectacle of apocalypse.

Vidor’s default setting, one of a silent filmmaker, was best expressed in his vivid and inventive staging. He achieved some truly compelling visual evocations in the harum-scarum chaos of the flight from Moscow, the grim ruin left behind that Pierre haunts famished and bedraggled, waiting for a chance to gun down the Emperor, and most especially in the brilliantly handled depiction of the Grande Armee’s destructive retreat. Here Vidor recaptures some of the force of technique he displayed 30 years before with The Big Parade, detailing the soldiers first wading through thickening mud and then tramping through snowy wastes, and finally massing to flee across a narrow bridge under bombardment. In such scenes, War and Peace nearly becomes the dynamic saga it so desperately wanted to be. l

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    6th/03/2010 to 11:36 am

    Admittedly, this is a timely posting, what with the Academy Award pre-eminence of Chistopher Plummer as Count Leo Tolstoy in the currently playing THE LAST STATION, in which Tolstoy is actually penning his marathon novel. King Vidor of course, is a titan of cinema, and his multi-decade career is one of the most prolific in the history of the cinema. One does immediately think of THE BIG PARADE – which you mention here in your final paragraph as a pinnacle in his career, but THE CROWD at least equals it. Still, this late-career offering is pretty much a failure, though as you rightly note here there are some splendid moments. And then there’s Nino Rota’s magnificent score, who recalls some of Tchaikovsky’s most beautiful compositions.

    The best cinematic WAR AND PEACE is Sergei Bondarchuk’s 1966 version, which has a sharper focus and scope, but Prokofiev’s opera, (staged at the Met) which I saw and reviewed recently, is the ultimate transcription of the literary masterpiece.

    As always, a fabulously framed and written essay, that’s also in my perception, dead-on in its assessment.

  • tdraicer spoke:
    6th/03/2010 to 4:58 pm

    >War and Peace is sometimes cited as Exhibit A in how many a once-great director’s career could find its nadir in huge-budget productions rather than final consummation.

    Since I’ve already mentioned my love for the film, it will come as no surprise I’m certainly not one would cite War and Peace as exhibit Z, much less A. I actually agree with you on the film’s strong points-it is its weak points where we disagree. The portrait of Kutuzov, for example, far from being eccentric, strikes me as completely on target for a general who was, by all acounts, a rather eccentric fellow. But then such different reactions are what blogs are made of.

  • Rod spoke:
    6th/03/2010 to 6:53 pm

    Sam: I didn’t call The Big Parade the pinnacle of his career and dismiss The Crowd, I just said he had force of technique then. I’ve not yet seen Bondarchuk’s version , although I want to very much. At hope at some point in the near future to study his Waterloo which is a very under-rated film.

    TD: I wouldn’t mind if Homolka didn’t just seem drunk all the way through the film.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    7th/03/2010 to 11:20 am

    Rod: I said “a” pinnacle, NOT “the” pinnacle, and I never implied that you were ignoring THE CROWD at all. I was simply trying to in a most congenial way to embellish what you were saying here.

    I came here to celebrate your review as I think my tone intimated.

  • Rod spoke:
    7th/03/2010 to 6:55 pm

    ‘S’cool, man. Either way, The Crowd will be my next Vidor subject for close scrutiny, when the time comes.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    8th/03/2010 to 2:31 pm

    Rod, excellent. I am looking forward to that review!

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