Saturday, November 20, 2010

Capsule Review – War and Peace

November 20, 2010

War and Peace – U.S., 1956

I imagine that Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace would be difficult for any screenwriter to adapt. That it took six of them to create a script for King Vidor’s 1956 film adaptation is telling. That many cooks in the kitchen often either create a customer favorite or a complete disaster. Unfortunately, War and Peace is closer to the latter than the former; it’s an extremely long, poorly paced, rather dull experience, at least up until the last half an hour, and all the final act of the film does is show viewers visually something most of them already know from their high school history class. The three hours that precede this chapter of the film are filled with sappy dialogue and a genuinely fine actor who is woefully miscast, that being Henry Fonda. This is an actor who usually dominates Westerns and dramas. Here, though, he’s asked to play a member of an upper class Russian family, and I suspect that even those gifted with the greatest of abilities to suspend disbelief will find it difficult to accept him in the role. Audrey Hepburn does a better job as the young woman who loves him, but even she can’t save the film from its terribly slow pace, which robs the film of any momentum it may be trying to build.

War and Peace attempts to tell the story of Pierre Bezukhov (Fonda) and his long-time friendship with both the Rostova family and Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (Mel Ferrer) at the beginning of Russia’s campaign against Napoleon’s advancing forces. In the beginning of the film, Nicholas Rostova and Prince Andrei go off to war, but Pierre does not. He has a family dynasty to continue. For the next three hours, the film focuses mostly on the personal lives of each of the main characters – who loves whom, who’s cheating whom, who betrays whom – and their personal journeys: One looks for love, another for reason, another for a solution to loneliness. All of this would be fine, I suspect, with the right pacing, which sadly the film lacks. Several times, the action stops so that the camera can give viewers a close-up of a character as an inner monologue tell us things that we could already see clearly simply by looking at the facial expression of the actor. Speaking of odd moments, there’s even a trip to the countryside that turns into a musical number during which characters take turns running back and forth between sleighs and laughing like children at a theme park. It’s a truly bizarre moment. Another such moment occurs when Fonda rails against Napoleon out of nowhere. The moment is intended to mark a change in his character, but it bears more resemblance to the campy moments in the original Planet of the Apes and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (a great film, nonetheless) than it does a film like Casablanca. (on DVD)

2 stars

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