War and Peace (1956) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

War and Peace (1956)

Danny no longer writes for Can't Stop the Movies, and can be reached at his fantastic site Pre-Code.com

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Danny DISLIKEIt was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the blandest of times. Leo Tolstoy's seminal novel War and Peace may not draw from these words in any manner, but the film adaptation sure seems to take them at their word.

Taking its story piece by piece from the novel and rearranging it on the screen, director King Vidor takes one of the most complicated and demanding narratives in literature and focuses on the biggest battle scenes and the paltry love triangle.

Well, he did only have three hours.

I can't say I fully blame Vidor for all of the film's problems which, I should note, can mostly be boiled down to a series of bad ideas and mistakes that sink the film handily.

Take, for example, the casting of the leading man. As Pierre, the troubled young Russian who questions his morality and duties in this world, the producer and director chose all-American star Henry Fonda. Not just any Henry Fonda, but Henry Fonda who's just passed his 50th birthday, whose ingrained "Golly Gee Whiz" acting methodology were almost inseparable from the actual man at this point. Great actor as he is, this is the cinematic equivalent of watching modern day William Shatner take on the Merchant of Venice.

Other problems intercede. Another corner of the love triangle, the dashing Andre, is played by Mel Ferrer with a face so puckered that it looks like his mouth could collapse in on itself. He's fairly charmless and exists to get us some overblown battle scenes before Pierre can come in with his "youthful exuberance" to comment upon them and how it makes him feel.

And the third component is Hepburn. Challenged to act beyond her range of darling ingenue for the first time in her Hollywood career, and  her role as Natasha watches as the bubbling young countess switches between men and temperaments with a nonexistent delicacy. There's no verve that explains who or what Natasha longs for, and a few completely random sequences of first person narration do little to convince us other than show that the director was unconvinced at his ability to tell the story.

But Hepburn escapes with the least amount of my scorn, as her character's head scratching decisions seem reasonable compared to the others'.  As the three wind their way through Napoleon's invasion and occupation of Moscow, through affairs, wealth, and disgrace, the picture trods along with the tension of a soaked paper towel.

Further compromising the film are its insistence on dull flat colors, created to invoke contemporary Russian paintings but instead giving every performing a five o'clock shadow and making Fonda look even older. The movie sets look like movie sets, and the centerpiece battle scenes are unfocused and uninteresting. For every moment of grandure there is hopeless preponderance.

War and Peace is another film that's merely a hollow echo of Gone with the Wind. It does no favors to anyone, not Tolstoy, not the cast, not the crew. It is a block of three hours you will never get back, and, even worse, it feels much, much longer than that.

Audrey Hepburn Sundays

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Posted by Danny

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