A great epic tale...must be patient because of the length. Great cast.
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Superb...for a Hollywood production
Charles Ryder | Tokyo | 11/19/2001
(4 out of 5 stars)
"With 10 years in the making, two years of filming and (as a previous reviewer noted) no less than six writers, Tolstoy's epic masterpiece à la Hollywood does get a bit muddled and lost at times, but who cares!?!? The film's cast is stellar. Audrey Hepburn, Mel Ferrer and Henry Fonda were each born to play their respective roles in this monumental film. Fonda plays the quixotic Pierre almost as good as Sergei Bondarchuk does in the more accurate (though also more brutal and heart-wrenching) 1967 Russian version. Hepburn, as the dazzling and ingenuous Natasha is a perfect foil to Mel Ferrer's Prince Andre, who loses his melancholy and determined seriousness only in the presence of Natasha (the same could almost be said of the film!).Where the Hollywood version is lacking in battle scenes, historic detail, commentary from ordinary Russians and several key character developments (Mary Oblonsky, Nicholas Rostov, the Tsar, Denisov et al), it more than makes up for it with personal performances (above mentioned actors), set and costume design and an overall mood and tone consistent with the book. This film should not be seen by people who demand faithful and tireless book-to-screen adaptations (the Sergei Bondarchuk version might be a better choice), but by people who want to get a sublime essence of one of the greatest novels ever written."
Very good, although ...
A reviewer | USA | 11/09/2004
(4 out of 5 stars)
"As a deeply-adoring Audrey Hepburn fan, I have mixed feelings about this movie, as do many Hepburn devotees. It's hard not to wonder what the then-new epic master, David Lean, might have done with it, had he been in charge instead of King Vidor, a giant of the silent era from decades before.
The story I gather from Hepburn biographies is that the producer of this movie shrewdly cast Hepburn's husband, Mel Ferrer, before offering a part to her. Immediately a rival pre-production group shut down their preparations for a "War and Peace" adaptation, knowing that the plum actress for the part would surely not sign with them. (To my knowledge, Lean never got anywhere near either production.)
Well, if that's the case, then "War and Peace" might have been flawed from the start. The domino effect of starting with Ferrer's casting, securing the directorial efforts of a somewhat-aging Vidor, and also having Hepburn to make love to her own husband onscreen, might have meant that something about this movie seems a bit too comfortable for all involved in making it. It's not as dramatic as it needs to be, as cruel in its cruel moments as it needs to be, and therefore not as inspiring and revelatory of what's great about the human spirit when it needs to be. It does -- to my mind -- feel a bit bloated, a bit slow, and never quite at that high-stakes level you might hope.
Indeed, another story about the movie and its "problematic-ness" was told by King Vidor himself in his autobiography. Apparently, at the time of the movie's production or maybe release, his wife had chid him for letting his own, rather fatherly affection for Audrey Hepburn prevent him from letting her play the fullness of Natasha's character -- which is not always a pleasant one in the book. Vidor copped to this accusation, accepting that he had not pushed her as he might have. Tellingly, in the autobiography he went so far (I believe) as to name young Hepburn as his favorite actress to have ever worked with. There is something touching but not quite fortunate in that, because "War and Peace" will never be remembered as a Vidor masterpiece or even a work of the man in his prime. Perhaps it illustrates that, again, this movie was only going to go so far with itself.
Who knows? But my favorite story about this movie shows the intelligence of Hepburn herself. She had asked that Peter Ustinov be cast as Pierre, which to my mind would have been completely perfect casting. Pierre in the book is a bit rotund, a bit clumsy, but also strongly intellectual and bursting with questions about life and society. Ustinov would have been perfect, given the mind and the comic talent he had. (Ustinov also wrote a lovely eulogy upon Audrey Hepburn's death, which is quoted in his book "Still at Large." He thanked her for thinking of him when Pierre needed casting, saying that her choice of him had continued to surprise him throughout his life. He too was a UNICEF representative in his lifetime, and when he passed away, my mourning for him was mixed with thoughts of Hepburn as well.)
But as to the movie ... I will say that there is nothing inept or embarrassing about this adaptation. There are world-class actors in this movie, and if you're waiting for mistakes from them, don't hold your breath. (Henry Fonda, whatever his speaking accent, definitely understood something about Pierre, as did Ferrer about Andrei and certainly Hepburn about Natasha.) You can watch this movie straight through or in sections on DVD, and probably come to like it quite a bit either way. It's gorgeous for Hepburn alone, but also in so many other ways. But once you know the background of the movie, you do risk getting a case of the what-ifs? If you can ignore them, more power to you."
The Hollywood version
Alejandra Vernon | Long Beach, California | 08/23/2001
(4 out of 5 stars)
"This film is a bit of a mess, but nevertheless very entertaining, mostly because of Audrey Hepburn...her charisma and enthusiasm make up for a lot of the muddled and mixed performances that surround her in this star-studded production of Tolstoy's masterpiece.Hepburn's then real life husband, Mel Ferrer, does a pretty good job as Prince Andrei and Henry Fonda is Pierre, who despite sounding like "Young Mr. Lincoln", gives a convincing performance, and has several fine scenes. Nino Rota's score is a curious one, as the beautiful Italian-flavored melodies we're accustomed to hear from him are replaced by Russian folk tunes and battlefield music.Perhaps too many big names and too many writers (6 of them !) made the heart of the book get lost, but this is Audrey's movie, and she's a delight to watch."
A Flawed Though Underrated Gem
Barry C. Chow | Calgary, Alberta Canada | 09/12/2004
(4 out of 5 stars)
"This is a tough one. In this film adaptation of one of the greatest of the literary classics, one is left wondering whether the magic that one feels comes from the film or is carried over from the novel. For those of us who have read the novel, the artistic license that King Vidal takes is difficult to swallow. Even if we understand that something must inevitably be sacrificed in the distillation of such a massive tome, the abridgement of so much literary genius is troubling. Whole characters, episodes and entire subplots are missing, to say nothing of the larger drama of an ancient and honourable culture teetering on the brink of ruin. As hard as the film tries, it misses this sense of awful grandeur and fails to invoke the overwhelming sweep of history conveyed so well in the novel.
Where it succeeds is in the smaller stories: the lives of the key protagonists, their loves, passions, accomplishments and deaths. We see some admirable performances, especially by Audrey Hepburn as Natasha. She is stunning as a precocious innocent who journeys into womanhood through the brutality of war. Henry Fonda at first seems miscast as a gangly nebbish Peter, until you see him decisively defending Natasha's honour and then confessing his love to her, or clinging to life and hope as a grimly determined prisoner of war. And Mel Ferrer invests his Andrew with what I think is just the right mixture of aloofness, sensitivity, passion and angst. When he first asks Natasha to dance, standing there in his uniform of white and serge, you can understand how Audrey Hepburn fell in love with him in real life. Their scenes together show the tension and tenderness of a real couple, and bring a believable romantic chemistry to the screen. Then there is the splendid cast of supporting actors from Natasha's endearing parents to Andrew's martinet of a father to Herbert Lom's surprisingly complex and sympathetic Napoleon. They don't make character actors like these anymore.
It goes without saying that the plot is magnificent. But this is once again more of a tribute to the novel than the film. Only an idiot could have hashed such a wonderful story.
However, this film is no more about plot than it is about politics. I always felt that Tolstoy's choice of title does his novel an injustice, giving it the air of a political treatise that belies its humanity. War and Peace is only peripherally about either war or peace. While his book does polemicize about war, politics and history, it really only finds its stride when focusing on its ageless themes of hope, love, loss and redemption. And because his characters are constructed so skilfully, we care for them and feel their emotions as if they were our own. To this extent, the film largely succeeds. It is true enough to the heart of the characters that it effectively conveys the novel's essence, even if it doesn't adhere strictly to the novel itself.
It's not perfect. For one thing, it contains irritating affectations that are simply unnecessary. For example, Napoleon is shown directing his army in the midst of the battlefield while reclining and with his legs propped up on a footstool. In fact, Napoleon never showed such contempt for his soldiers and often placed himself dangerously near the front lines astride a white charger as an example of courage and trust in his men. And this movie, like Gone with the Wind, to which it is often compared, commits the sin of glossing over the treatment of its underclass. The front line Russian soldier was a starved, ill-equipped peasant pressed into service and kept from deserting with whippings and the threat of death. The movie focuses on the lives and loves of the nobility to the exclusion of practically all else, and this is one area where the film could have gained by departing from the novel.
This is more than a "period" film and even those who are allergic to such fare might wish to give it a chance. In all, it is a fine film to be admired more for its characterizations than its accuracy. It comes off especially well when compared to its contemporary "epics" like Cleopatra, or Ben Hur, because the characters were created not by Hollywood screenwriters, but by a literary genius, and are thus imbued with an almost Shakespearean presence. However, it will not appeal to people with unbending views about either their literature or their history. Tolstoy's novel subsumed his characters to the larger story of a Russia under siege. This is why he populated the world of his novel with so many people. In this film, Hollywood justifies the presence of its big stars by ignoring the larger canvass to concentrate on the lives of a select few. The result is a film much reduced in scope from the spirit of the novel, but still effective in its diminished way."
Solid film... but wait until you see the Russian version!
widescreenguy | Nashville, TN | 12/03/2002
(3 out of 5 stars)
"I was 16 went I saw the original theatrical release of Paramount's 1956 version of War & Peace. I was enthralled... but then in those days I was enthralled with every wide-screen, stereo sound movie I saw. I even enjoyed Beneath The 12 Mile Reef !!! Since those heady days I have tried to watch this Hollywood version of Tolstoy's epic novel on TV and VHS, but was always panned-and-scaned into numbness. With the Dec. 3rd , 2002, release, after nearly a half-century of missing its left and right sides, this solid, and beautifully mounted film emerges once again in its wide screen glory.Of course condensing a 1000 page novel into three hours eliminates many of Tolstoy's details, but the basic story remains very much in tact. What is stellar here is the cast. In 1956 Audrey Hepburn was peaking, both as an actress and a beauty. Henry Fonda played a sympathetic Pierre with considerable grace, and Mel Ferrer did admirably with the difficult role of the moody Andrei. Most impressive is Oscar (Mr. Eyebrows) Holmolka as General Katuzov, and Herbert Lom makes a believable brooding Napoleon. You even get Anita Ekberg! Then when you add John Mills, Vittorio Gassman and a number of other accomplished performers, this becomes a film well worth watching. It is also notable because it was the last major directing effort by silent film master, King Vidor.But hang on! Also in December the eminently preferable, 1968 Sergi Bondarchuk Mosfilm six-hour version of War & Peace also comes out on DVD. Paramount put together a "cast of thousands," but Mosfilm appears to have assembled a "cast of millions" To portray the vast French and Russian forces, Bondarchuk did not need "digital clones" for he had the services of the entire Red Army. In 1956 I was very impressed with Vidor's Battle of Bordino sequence, but compared the action Bondarchuk puts on the screen during the defense of Moscow, it almost seems quaint. Paramount's version is fine, but wait until Bondarchuk takes you on a ride across the battle field by hitching his camera to a cannonball.Clark Santee"