A masterpiece like the Tolstoy novel it was adapted from— it Is not—but I do believe the reputation for King Vidor’s film would be better if it weren’t “War and Peace”
Shot in glorious VistaVision
The tableau work in the opening credits, the A-list cast, clearly this is a prestige super-produced film
Adapted/written by 6 people— never a good sign
Music by Nino Rota between his legendary work with Fellini in La Strada (1954) and La Dolce Vita (1960)
Henry Fonda admitted himself he was too old for the role (and to be paired with Audrey Hepburn she’s 27 here and he’s 51). He’s still good here but how about stealing from another prestige Russian literature adaptation (albeit a decade later) Doctor Zhivago– Tom Courtenay’s role and performance. Not sure who is that equivalent in 1956—maybe like Sal Mineo?
Vidor is an excellent director—particularly his work in the 20’s with The Big Parade and The Crowd (and even Stella Dallas in the 30’s) but there are weaknesses in this film because of his choices and direction. There are a few highlights (I’ll get to them in a second) aside but much of the film is shot in simple medium shots capturing the performances and dialogue. It doesn’t take full advantage of the canvas and VistaVision which was part of the point (long running time) with the prestige epics of the 50’s and 60’s tying to differentiate from TV.
Anita Ekberg- yamma
Big events and opportunities for Vidor to show off but were missed like the hunt and duels
The performances are good and there are fine actors here across the board- but we never get below the surface with any
Some structure/formal issues with us lazily going into Hepburn’s head via inner-monologue more than an hour into the film and then we go back to the normal narration (albeit with a fantastic shot of a peace treaty being signed in a courtyard)
Mel Ferrer looks and acts like a young Leslie Howard in Gone With the Wind– virtue
128 minutes in we get the big moment in the film artistically. A great use of the wide frame in a spectacle shot of Fonda rotating on a hill to see the battles all around him. It’s a wow moment. Epic- lots of extras. We see him dropping a flower behind him- really special filmmaking—it’s not on that level but part of it reminded me of Kurosawa’s Ran (with the soldiers looking like ants)