Recently I heard someone opine that King Vidor’s 1956 film of Leo Tolstoy’s WAR AND PEACE was a failure because it didn’t really capture the essence of Tolstoy. This to me is like calling your Buick a failure because it can’t take off and land like an Osprey. It’s the good old Apples-and-Oranges dilemma.
Tolstoy was writing a novel–no, a super-novel–in which he wished to pour all that he understood of life. King Vidor was making a film which, it was hoped, the public would flock to see, thus earning the studio back its investment, and perhaps a nice little bonus besides. If it didn’t, Vidor would find himself in the doghouse and the next time he went to the studios with a proposal for a film of importance, doors might have been slammed in his face. So, let’s not fault Vidor for failing to deliver a philosophical epic, instead let’s judge him on the basis of the three-and-a-half-hour film that he directed.
If we pretend that we never heard of Tolstoy, and look at “War and Peace” as a popular entertainment, I think that we will have to admit that the results are rather impressive. Vidor assembled a cast with only a light sprinkling of stars–Henry Fonda and Audrey Hepburn certainly, perhaps Mel Ferrer as well–but thereafter he mostly cast with actors, rather than stars. Barry Jones may have been a bit familiar as the deranged scientist in “Seven Days to Noon,” and Herbert Lom, as the compassionate psychiatrist in “The Seventh Veil.” John Mills would be known to devotees of British film and perhaps moviegoers with long memories would recognize crusty old Oscar Homolka. Because this was an international co-production, there were recognized European stars, who would still seem to be “fresh faces” to the average moviegoer. Milly Vitale and Vittorio Gassman would fall into that category, as would Anita Ekberg.
Vidor filmed in Italy to get the requisite scope–19th Century Moscow, armies on the march, etc. So it’s fair to ask–what did he wind up with? Vidor’s “War and Peace” is a bit like “Gone with the Wind” in that it focuses on a woman who sees her world disintegrate before her eyes. While the experience leaves Scarlett O’Hara hardened, it causes Audrey Hepburn’s Natasha to learn compassion. If Scarlett viewing the ruins of Tara vows that she’ll never go hungry again, Natasha cries out with joy to find that half of the family’s once-glorious Moscow mansion is still standing, and later will equate the battered but standing Rostov home to family friend Pierre, whose former idealism has been beaten to a pulp, yet the man survives and she loves him for it. Over the course of the film Natasha progresses from a carefree flirtation with family friend Pierre to an idealized love for Prince Andrey Bolkonsky, to a carnal infatuation with the womanizing dragoon Anatole Kuragine, to a true love for Bolkonsky, having learned the limits of carnal love and experienced the shame of having betrayed her own idealized image of herself. When death takes Bolkonsky from her, she comes full circle to Pierre who has himself learned to love the mature, suffering woman that the once carefree Natasha has become.
But wrapped around the story of Natasha’s loves and her own coming-of-age is an historical epic of a country trying to co-exist with a power-hungry despot, that would be Lom’s Napoleon, who talks peace with the Tsar’s envoy even as he gives orders to invade Russia. Italian production values allowed Vidor to do full justice to Napoleon’s shock-and-awe battle tactics. A string of victories leaves Russia reeling and Moscow lying defenseless before the conqueror on his white horse. Homolka’s crafty General Kutuzov realizes that the only way to defeat Napoleon is to let him win himself to death. He keeps withdrawing his troops, leading the French deeper and deeper into Russia’s vastness. (There’s that sense of scope again.) I frankly would find “War and Peace” worth watching if only for Herbert Lom’s masterful turn as the increasingly baffled and harried would-be Master of Moscow.
The other principal in the film, Henry Fonda’s Pierre Bezukhov begins his journey as an admirer of Napoleon who he sees as a fresh breeze blowing through Europe–but that’s when Napoleon is making war on Austria. Before his journey ends he will try and fail to assassinate the man he once admired, will be taken prisoner by the French and made an unwilling participant in the Grand Army’s nightmarish retreat though the snowy Russian wilderness. John Mills’ peasant-philosopher Platon, a fellow-prisoner, teaches Pierre wisdom not found in his books, but is still shot down by a French guard when he can no longer, as he once charged Fonda, just put one foot before the other. One wonders, if the French are retreating anyway, why bother shooting prisoners who fall from the line of march? Orders, I suppose.
“War and Peace” falls under the category They Just Don’t Make Them Like That Anymore. It would be financially prohibitive to do so. And then, although it’s not Tolstoy, it’s still a talk-fest, with those impressive battle sequences spaced a bit too widely apart to satisfy audiences bred on rapid-fire editing and wall-to-wall CGI-enhanced action films. It doesn’t even have any jokes in it.