19 September 2005 | luannjim
A Worthy (Though Flawed) and Much-Underrated Effort
Given that trimming Tolstoy's WAR AND PEACE down to the length of one feature film (even at three-and-a-half hours) is probably a fool's errand to begin with, this 1956 version deserves more respect than it's generally gotten -- though the comments here indicate that the film may actually be gaining the respect that critics and film historians have so long denied it.
The movie does suffer from two undeniable shortcomings. First is the atrocious sound recording that has blighted virtually every Italian movie ever made. As some of the comments have noted, movies shot at Rome's Cinecitta had their sound post-dubbed rather than recorded on the set. But actually, this practice was then (and remains) very common. The sound in Italian movies stands out simply because they were so bad at it. The brutal truth is, even the greatest masterpieces of Fellini, De Sica, Rosselini, etc. are less than they might have been because Italian sound technology was so slipshod. And so it is with WAR AND PEACE: it's hard to suspend disbelief when soldiers struggling across a river sound like someone dropping quarters into a toilet.
The other shortcoming is the appalling miscasting of Henry Fonda as Pierre Bezhukov. It's the worst performance of his career, and he looks and sounds about as Russian as a slice of pumpkin pie. One commenter here said Alec Guinness should have played Pierre. It's an intriguing suggestion, and of course Sir Alec was always good. Even better, I think, would have been Peter Ustinov. In 1956 he was Pierre to the very life.
But the rest of the casting is genuinely inspired. Oskar Homolka as Gen. Kutuzov, Barry Jones as Count Rostov, Jeremy Brett as Nikolai, Herbert Lom as Napoleon -- all could hardly be improved upon. And Audrey Hepburn was simply born to play Natasha. And Mel Ferrer as Prince Andrei ... well, he did have his faults as an actor (to say the least!), but at least he looked the part.
Beyond that, the movie has lavish production values, impressive battle scenes, and one truly great and powerful sequence, the French Army's disastrous retreat from Russia, that takes up much of the last hour.
There's no substitute, of course, for reading the novel (I've read it three times myself). But this 1956 movie makes a worthy introduction, and even helps to keep Tolstoy's complex plot straight when you do get around to reading it.