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USA 1956
Directed by
King Vidor
208 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars

War And Peace

This $6 million Dino De Laurentis-Carlo Ponti widescreen VistaVision production is a marvel to behold with the lavish production design being superbly photographed by Pressburger and Powell regular Jack Cardiff.

Unfortunately there is little else to recommend what is a paradigmatic example of mid-1950s shock-and-awe approach to film-making. Six credited screenwriters including Vidor and an Italian contingent adapted Tolstoy's mammoth 1600-page novel about two Russian aristocratic families at the time of Napoleon’s disastrous 1812 invasion.

Henry Fonda was ludicrously mis-cast as the central character Count Pierre Bezukhov. Not only does fail to even remotely convince as a Russian aristocrat but being fifty at the time he is an incongruous stand-in for Tolstoy’s idealistic character who was in his early twenties.  A wittering Audrey Hepburn is exceptionally irritating with her fluttering effusiveness as she attempts to portray a thirteen (!!) year-old Natasha Rostova and even if her character matures over the course of the film her beauty is so fetishized in a ‘50s way as to rob the story of dramatic credibility which is as also hampered by Vidor’s indulging of the era's penchant for sentimental stereotyping, something which makes the film laughable at times. In the final analysis there’s just too much of it. The longer the film goes on the less our interest is sustained and, even given the vast difference in modern day tastes it is somewhat surprising that it was a commercial success

Even if the film hasn’t aged well it is still one of the best examples of its kind. In a pre-CGI age its thousands of authentically costumed extras and elaborately choreographed battle scenes and marvellous purpose-built sets are awe-inspiring whilst Cardiff’s photography draws superbly on contemporary painting to bring the era to life (although he was nominated for Best Cinematography the Oscar went to Leon Shamroy for The King And I) .

Some of the smaller roles are effective, notably Herbert Lom’s Napoleon (a role he had already played in 1942’s The Young Mr Pitt) and Oscar Homolka’s commander of the Russian army. The less said about John Mills' cockneyfied Russian peasant the better.

FYI:  Hepburn was married at the time to Mel Ferrer who plays Prince Andrei Bolkonsky. About a third of the film was directed by an uncredited Mario Soladti. Anita Ekberg who plays the gold-digging princess who Pierre marries would four years later find pop cultural fame with Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.




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