War and Peace (DVD)

“The most difficult thing — but an essential one — is to love Life, to love it even while one suffers, because Life is all, Life is God, and to love Life means to love God.” (Leo Tolstoy)

The very length of Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel “War and Peace” daunted filmmakers for years. Aside from a Russian silent version released in 1915, it was not until 1956 that the book became the basis for a major motion picture, under the direction of King Vidor and released by Paramount. In 1968, director Sergei Bondarchuk stage-managed a seven-hour Russian version that seems to evince extreme reactions. Viewers are either extremely impressed or gravely bored. Academy members were among the impressed, voting the film the award of Best Foreign Film of the year. Five years later, the BBC produced a 12-hour miniseries that may well be the most definitive filming of the tale to date.

King Vidor’s 1956 version came at a time when the studios were looking for stories that could be filmed to take advantage of the new widescreen processes that were being used to counter television’s inroads into theatre attendance. The film was shot in VistaVision, which was Paramount’s widescreen format of choice and was normally projected with an aspect ratio of about 1.85:1. The production was one of Dino De Laurentiis’s earliest efforts to gain widespread attention outside of Italy. The cast was international in flavour, although the principal players were all recognized Hollywood stars (Henry Fonda, Audrey Hepburn, and Mel Ferrer). After a year of pre-production, shooting began in mid-1955 with extensive location work done in Italy and Yugoslavia. Principal photography was actually completed in four months. Reportedly costing $6 million, the resulting 3 1/2-hour film opened to mixed reaction, with Jack Cardiff’s cinematography probably the most-praised aspect of the production.

Paramount has now released War and Peace on DVD in a fairly bare-bones version.

Version #1: The story takes place during the time of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and revolves around the intertwined fortunes of the young Natasha Rostov (daughter of the comfortably wealthy Count Rostov of Moscow), Pierre Bezukhov (an aristocratic liberal), and Prince Andrey Bolkonsky (Pierre’s closest friend).

Pierre is in love with Natasha, but will not propose marriage because he is illegitimate. When his father dies, acknowledging Pierre as his son, Pierre is heir to a large fortune. He comes under the influence of the beautiful Helene Kuragine and marries her. Meanwhile his friend Andrey returns from service in the Russian army under General Kutuzov only to have his wife die in childbirth. Andrey is introduced to Natasha by Pierre and the two soon fall in love. Before they can marry, Andrey goes into battle against the French under Napoleon at Borodino. Pierre, his own marriage to Helene at an end, goes along as an observer. Horrified at the carnage he sees, Pierre resolves to assassinate Napoleon. He returns to Moscow, which is being evacuated as the French advance.

The Rostovs find refuge in a monastery after leaving Moscow and Natasha is reunited with Andrey, but suffering from serious wounds, Andrey dies. Pierre makes an attempt on Napoleon’s life, but fails and is taken prisoner. With winter coming on, Napoleon finds his invasion stalled and he is forced to retreat from Russia. The bitter winter conditions cause extreme hardship for the retreating French who are short on food and proper cold-weather clothing. Thousands die and a final defeat is administered by the Russian army at Berezina. Pierre manages to escape from his captors and returns to Moscow where he and Natasha are finally able to be together.

Version #2: “It’s about Russia.” (as attributed to Woody Allen after speed-reading the novel in a day)

War and Peace is a film that is slow to gather momentum, but will reward patient viewers who persist with it beyond the first hour or so. Part of the problem with the first hour is the necessity to introduce a large number of characters with the result that the plot advances only in fits and starts and the broad canvas of the struggle between French and Russian forces is slow to be unfurled. The other difficulty is casting. Although Audrey Hepburn is a good choice as Natasha, Mel Ferrer is an uninspiring Andrey — more like a wooden soldier with a handsome face than a flesh-and-blood man who could inspire such affection and devotion from Natasha. The real problem is Henry Fonda who is distinctly miscast as Pierre. It’s not that Fonda doesn’t try hard; it’s just that his distinctly American intonation and his previous associations with such American characters as Abraham Lincoln, Tom Joad, or even Wyatt Earp make it impossible for us to accept him as Pierre. Even physically, he fails to measure up to the mental image of the burly Pierre that most readers of the book are likely to have.

If you are able to look beyond these opening deficiencies, however, you will find yourself really caught up in the epic sweep of the story. Director King Vidor had plenty of previous experience with sprawling tales, ranging from The Big Parade (1925) to Northwest Passage (1940) and Duel in the Sun (1946). He handles War and Peace with a sure hand and working with veteran British cinematographer Jack Cardiff, manages a number of impressive sequences. Most memorable are a stunning ballroom sequence, the image of marching soldiers parading through Moscow, the panoramas of the various battlefield scenes, and particularly the grueling retreat of Napoleon’s troops from Russia.

Vidor’s enthusiasm for the project was probably also a reflection of the fact that the central character Pierre was, in his own words, “the same character that I had been trying to put on screen through so many of my own films.” That character of the searcher-after-understanding along with themes such as reality discovered, the importance of family, and a country under threat that had all been addressed by Vidor before (in the likes of The Crowd and Street Scene, Duel in the Sun, and So Red the Rose respectively), were all intermingled to positive effect in War and Peace. Some will say that this version is a fatally watered-down version of the book. There’s no doubt that components of the story have been omitted or abbreviated, but the story’s main thrust and characters are all intact and given the massive scope of the book, I would say that’s quite an accomplishment even for a 3 1/2-hour film. Given that at least six writers were involved, the fact that the script turned out as coherently as it did is impressive in itself.

While there are some difficulties with the principal players as noted above, many of the supporting roles are impressively filled. Most notable are the actors playing the opposing generals. Herbert Lom is very effective as Napoleon and Oscar Homolka does a memorable scene-stealing job as the one-eyed General Kutuzov. Vittorio Gassman is a bit over-the-top as a gigolo who sways Natasha’s heart while Andrey’s away, but Anita Ekberg evokes Pierre’s first wife Helene to perfection. John Mills, May Britt, and Helmut Dantine all excel in smaller but important parts.

Nino Rota’s music contributes positively although it lacks the majesty of the most memorable epic scores that become indelibly linked with their titles.

Paramount’s DVD release is quite presentable, but it’s not in the same class as some of the company’s other classic releases this fall. The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is fairly bright and colourful, but looks a bit soft at times. Minor scratches and other debris are present from time to time and at a couple of points lasting a minute or two, the image exhibits a pale vertical line or a bright blotch in the middle of the screen. Overall, shadow detail is good and edge effects are inconsequential.

There is a Dolby Digital 2.0 mono sound track that delivers a workable presentation of the film. Dialogue is clear although there is some minor hiss in evidence. Music and special effects suffer from the lack of dynamic range. English sub-titles are provided.

The disc presents an extended trailer showing some brief behind-the-scenes vignettes of the film’s production and providing some remarks from Vidor himself. A more conventional re-release trailer is also provided.

War and Peace is a 1950s epic film that rewards patience. Having finally established the basis of the story, the film becomes an engrossing version of the Tolstoy novel. The film is well-directed and aside from some problems with the principal casting, many of the story’s characters are brought vividly to life. One could do much worse than this as an introduction to Tolstoy’s epic tale. Paramount’s DVD presentation is acceptable given the lack of restoration. Recommended.


War and Peace is free to return to the streets.

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