War and Peace (1956)

WAR AND PEACE—legendary producer and mega-character Dino De Laurentiis tallied up an extraordinary output over seven decades, associated in one capacity or another with hundreds of films, classics to croakers. One of his better showpiece items was this king-sized 1956 attempt to put Leo Tolstoy’s titanic 1869 novel on screen in a shape and form that mass audiences could digest without feeling like they’d signed a lease. Though dwarfed in every way by the Soviet colossus that followed a decade later, in the main it’s worthwhile as a quick fix (well, 3 hours, 28 minutes worth) on the basics of the story of how Napoleon’s wars with Russia changed lives and history.

Though highbrow critics carped at the time about miscasting and what was left out, it did garner Oscar nominations for King Vidor’s direction, Jack Cardiff’s cinematography and the costume design overseen by Maria De Matteis. Shot in Italy, Sardinia and Finland, mounted for $6,000,000, part of which went to using thousands of Italian soldiers for the battle scenes. This was rewarded by a U.S. gross of $17,900,000, 8th for the year, battling scale-testing epics The Ten Commandments, Around The World In 80 Days and Giant. Well received in the Soviet Union (giving impetus to their eventual masterpiece), it also racked numbers in Italy, where an estimated 16,000,000 patrons handed over lira for a return to the grandeur and tragedy of the early 1800’s. *

The casting complaints mostly center on Henry Fonda as the fumbling, experience-seeking hero ‘Pierre Bezukov’. Though forthright and measured as ever, his Mid-West Americanism is hard to evade and he was thirty years older than the character in the novel (those who read it more riled by this than Joe Average): he wasn’t happy with his work. As ‘Prince Andrei Bolkonsky’, Mel Ferrer looks the part of the gallant soldier, but as usual his flat delivery is a handicap. One unfortunate process gaffe occurs during a hunt sequence, with most of the actors clearly riding mechanical horses: a strange jerk out of reality for such a prestige production and the time in which it was made.

On the more considerable positive end, the rest of the international cast do well, with colorful turns from Herbert Lom (petulant Napoleon), Oscar Homolka (grouchy Marshal Kutuzov) and John Mills (philosophical peasant ‘Platon Karatsev’). First-billed Audrey Hepburn makes a radiant ‘Natasha Rostova’, evolving from innocent sprite to resolute survivor. She and Ferrer were married at the time.

Striking countryside locations, elaborate sets and costumes, booming sound effects, fine cinematography all contribute to the tableaux. When they finally show up, the big battle action is suitably impressive, even if paling next to the astounding set-pieces from the later version.

Six screenwriters were given credit (for “adapting”), with at least as many more pitching in unsung. Music score by Nino Rota. Also in the cast are Anita Ekberg, Vittorio Gassman, Barry Jones, May Britt, Helmut Dantine, Wilfrid Lawson and Jeremy Brett. **

* Besides those mentioned above, the year’s epics included The Searchers, The Conqueror, Helen Of Troy, Alexander The Great, Moby Dick and The King And I.

** Though they were both voice dubbed in this picture, War and Peace boosted international recognition to Sweden’s Anita Ekberg and May Britt.  At 22, Britt was popular in Italy; this role got her to Hollywood for a brief flurry of parts (notably The Young Lions and a remake of The Blue Angel) and a then-controversial marriage to Sammy Davis Jr. The extravagant Ekberg, 24, also showed up that year in Zarak (goofy fun), Back From Eternity, Man In The Vault and Hollywood Or Bust (insert expected non-p.c. joke here).

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