5 September 2011 | Steffi_P
"You can't hate something you don't know"
If you want to bring such an vast, sweeping yet intensely human novel such as Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace to the screen with both its breadth and depth intact you can do either one of two of things. You can film it page-for-page, and make an eight-hour behemoth, as Sergei Bondarchuk did with the 1960s Russian production. Or, you can prune it down to something more manageable, excising whole characters and subplots, but recreating certain sections of Tolstoy's work more or less verbatim to preserve what is vital about his work. This latter is the approach taken for Dino de Laurentiis's 1956 Italian-American co-production.
The narrative here focuses mainly on just three of Tolstoy's characters – Pierre, Natasha and Alexei – portrayed by Henry Fonda, Audrey Hepburn and Mel Ferrer respectively. Fonda is really too old to play the youthful Pierre, but he is not as severely miscast as some have said, pulling off the early scenes of Pierre as the gangly, drunken student with a fair degree of believability. Hepburn brilliantly handles the aging of her character, transforming the naïve teenager into a mature and confident woman while still maintaining the same core persona. If only something as complementary could be said of Mel Ferrer, who takes to acting the same way anvils take to floating. His appallingness is matched only by the woman who plays his wife, Milly Vitale. There are some decent supporting players though. Herbert Lom gives a surprisingly heartfelt performance as Napoleon. Oskar Homolka brilliantly plays the archetypal scruffy old general who's too high-ranking and experienced to bother with all that decorum business, his gestures forceful but with a half-hearted brevity to them. And John Mills is bizarrely like someone out of a Monty Python film.
Director King Vidor was a veteran of old Hollywood and just the sort of director to handle the mix of big canvas and intimacy. He shows what must have been extraordinary patience in setting up hordes of extras, carts and cannons for authentic looking crowd scenes, but then makes them a briefly glimpsed backdrop, never really dwelling on the massive scope or showing it off for its own sake. This seemingly contradictory tack gives us a sense of the story happening in a real place, but never allows it to detract from the main players and their stories. Vidor is constantly implying things with the simplest of cinematic tricks, and this helps to make up for the gaps in plot that the adaptation necessitates. For example, when Hepburn and Vittorio Gassman kiss at the opera, the angle gradually changes to reveal the reflection of a door in a mirror. This subtle move plants the idea in our heads that someone may walk in on them, and it gives the moment a sense of unease and wrongness. Vidor's canny ability to suggest mood and temperament, particularly evident in his framing of the inner monologues during the dance scene, also helps to cover any deficit in the acting.
At three-and-a-half hours, this is still quite a long old movie. And yet, thanks to some compelling imagery and strong narrative it moves faster than many a 90-minuter. Shorn of much of Tolstoy's original material as it is, it is still long enough to give us that feeling of the passage of time and development of character, to make Fonda's transition from a foppish lad in Western European attire to a bearded man in Russian garb feel like more than just a change of clothes. This version of War and Peace certainly has a fair few things wrong with it, yet still manages to be a lucid and passionate – if not entirely faithful – adaptation of a great work of literature.