War and Peace (1956)

Genres - Epic, Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Historical Epic, Romantic Epic  |   Run Time - 208 min.  |   Countries - United Kingdom , Italy , United States   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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In spite of its three-hour length, this 1956 King Vidor film presents only a surface perusal of the panoramic, character-packed novel on which it is based, Russian writer Leo Tolstoy's two-inch-thick tome War and Peace. Nevertheless, the movie gives viewers just enough of the novel to allow them to browse Russian drawing rooms and battlefields and to eavesdrop on the lives and longings of people affected by the brutal war and social upheaval of 1805-1815. The acting is sometimes very good and sometimes very bad, while the cinematography and historical ambience are outstanding. The camera follows Pierre Bezuhov (Henry Fonda) as he wanders through a degenerate youth, a flawed marriage, and the turbulence of war, finally arriving at his true self: an idealist bent on helping others. Along the way, a dashing, sophisticated soldier, Prince Andrey Bolkonsky (Mel Ferrer) outcharms Bezuhoy for the hand of lovely Natasha Rostov (Audrey Hepburn). Fonda is good, Ferrer is mediocre, and Hepburn is excellent; however, modern audiences -- spoiled by the linguistic derring-do of such actors as Meryl Streep, Bob Hoskins, and Gwyneth Paltrow -- may balk at the hodgepodge of non-Russian accents. As the Russian characters go about their lives, the ominous advance of Napoleon and his army is ever on their minds. Herbert Lom (widely remembered as Peter Sellers' boss in the Pink Panther films) portrays the French despot with as much verve and panache as any actor who ever stepped into the role. On the other hand, buxom Swede Anita Ekberg is simply awful as Pierre Bezuhov's wife. Apparently, her presence in the film was a concession to prurience and box-office draw. All in all, though, Vidor's War and Peace is a decent production -- a keyhole that affords a glimpse into a gigantic novel and a world in turmoil.