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BORE AND PEACE

War and Peace is the kind of masterpiece you slog through for weeks, probably months, and never finish. Concerned with audience attention and time constraints, about the best a moviemaker can do is get to the most salient points and use the cast and the money spent for the supporting grandeur to gloss over all that’s missing. Surely what King Vidor hoped for when he and seven other adapters wrote the 1956 version filmed in Italy, with Carlo Ponti and Dino De Laurentiis producing. There is sympathy: a director and any writer need the length of a miniseries* to do justice to the episodic sprawl, the endless subplots. Vidor’s luggy epic has more the feel of an internationally spiked Gone with the Wind than Tolstoy, thanks to actors providing chuckles: Italian Vittorio Gassman’s sister is Swedish Anita Ekberg, the only performer who—though dubbed, reportedly by Nikki Van der Zyl, others believe the voice might be Eleanor Parker or Maria Schell—is amusingly alive, conniving and bitchy and very sorely missed when not on. (Okay, the boys over at the Harvard Lampoon got it right: “Ekberg has breasted the tide of criticism in regard to her triumphant inability to act by spreading herself over the CinemaScope screen like a great fleshy smörgåsbord.” All you can say is, thank the Gods of buffet.) No one would mistake Henry Fonda’s Pierre as Russian, and in ridiculous coif, the miscasting is grossly accentuated, but, tho impossible to believe he could ever have married Ekberg, it’s a lot of fun watching him get berated by and then attempting to throw a table at her after his embarrassing early morning “satisfaction” duel on a remarkably good set with the sun rising. Audrey Hepburn is initially a right Hollywood choice for Natasha, who applies her overworked waifish innocence to Tolstoy’s device to put his fille through the emotional mill. Lovely in flight on the ballroom dance floor, she has plenty of free-spiritedness as naïve sucker; soon after she becomes tiresomely inadequate in transition to reality, excessively trapped behind doors or on balconies or ordering around presumably sex-starved soldiers on saltpeter prescription. Noël Coward might have given her cover, saying of the novel, “Although all the characters are brilliantly drawn they are, most of them, bloody bores, particularly the hero and heroine, Pierre and Natasha, whom I personally find absolutely idiotic.” (He likely had a deep laugh at the movie’s cockamamie ending.) There’s one very decent “cinematic” sequence—Napoleon’s retreat from Russia, during which Fonda has his second winning moment by saving John Mills’s dog. Which reminds us: shouldn’t the dog be advancing or trailing Pierre and Natasha as they survey the remains of the Rostova osobnyak? With Mel Ferrer, Jeremy Brett, May Britt, Helmut Dantine, Oscar Homolka doing his usual audience-killer stuff and Herbert Lom proving, as others have, Napoleon is the easiest historic physical presence to reproduce. Some battle scenes directed by Mario Soldati; second unit camera work by Aldo Tonti. Filmed in VistaVision.

Oscar nominations: best director, color cinematography (Jack Cardiff), color costume design.

At a purported cost of $100,000,000 and with a cast said to have exceeded 120,000—respectively amended to $8,250,000 in 1967 dollars and 12,000 people—Sergei Bondarchuk’s 5-years-in-the-making War and Peace is considered to be the definitive movie version. Opening in America in 1968, the Russian spectacle was cut to 373 minutes from an original length of roughly 700 minutes, poorly dubbed, shown only in major cities as a roadshow, and, because of détente, won the Oscar, National Board of Review and N.Y. Film Critics Circle honors as Best Foreign Film. (Its art direction/set decoration, covering more than 100 hundred sets, was also Oscar-nominated.) Presently there are several renderings available: a 403 minute version, a 431 minute job and one at 507 minutes. Janus Films refurbished the virtual seven-hour version issued by Criterion. More here. For those who haven’t yet seen it—and know they’ll have to in order to qualify as epic aficionados—YouTube is running in multiple parts a very satisfactory near-700 minute print not affiliated with Janus/Criterion. Provide yourselves with brunch and open bar, the labor can be endured in a single day. With an irritating aureola around the eyes, Lyudmila Saveleva’s Natasha is a long-necked combo of Pamela Franklin and Marion Cotillard; Bondarchuk true to the impossibly simpy Pierre; cinematographers, including Iolanda Chen and Anatoliy Petritskiy and Aleksandr Shelenkov, do some clever stuff, especially with remote-controlled cameras rigged on long wire to capture the chaotic Battle of Borodino. Anita Ekberg is missed as Hélène. Filmed in Sovscope 70. 

*The BBC’s 1972-73 War and Peace,  the equivalent of video Valerian running for twenty episodes (and on DVD 754 minutes), starring Anthony Hopkins as Pierre, directed by John Davies and adapted by Jack I, Claudius Pullman, is regarded as the most complete version to date and also available on youtube.

The BBC’s 2016 War and Peace, with Lily James as Natasha, is reviewed here.

Chicago opted out of roadshow for the Vidor version, opening at the State Lake with the popular prices/continuous performances strategy and then moving to the Esquire. Bondarchuk’s War and Peace opened in New York as a roadshow with a knotty viewing schedule. See Ad2. Only for a while did audiences return for the 2nd part. In Chicago, at the Esquire, in June, 1969, in 35mm. See Ad3.

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ralphbenner@nowreviewing.com  

Text COPYRIGHT © 2001 RALPH BENNER  (Revised 2/2019) All Rights Reserved.