In my opinion, 1956 had one of the weakest Best Picture line-ups with the majority of the movies nominated being featured for their big budgets rather than their quality. These colourful epics included the hokey The Ten Commandments, the rather dull Friendly Persuasion and that year’s winner; the lightweight adaptation of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days. That year’s only Best Director nominee not to be nominated for Best Picture continued that year’s theme with King Vidor’s three-and-a-half-hour adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace being the film in question. Again, this was a film that favoured style over substance and was substantially longer than it had any right to be but to be fair to Vidor and the film’s numerous screenwriters adapting Tolstoy’s multi-volume novel couldn’t have been easy.
Due to the epic nature of the story, and the fact that I feel a lot of people will know the plot, I’m not going to write a plot synopsis for Vidor’s War and Peace but instead discuss the positives and negatives. On the plus side the casting, certainly of the lead actresses, makes sense especially the fact that Audrey Hepburn takes centre stage as the initially childlike Natasha Rostova. Two years after she made Sabrina, Hepburn is still as charming as ever but as the film progresses you can see her mature as an actress especially after Natasha’s suicide attempt. She similarly portrays the character’s third act redemption perfectly which goes all the way until the final scene in which she finally finds happiness. Anita Ekberg is also well cast as the cold and flighty Hélène Kuragina; who is betrothed to the film’s lead male protagonist Andre after he inherits his father’s fortune. Ekberg is the perfect femme fatale of the piece and adds a bit of spice to a movie that is sorely lacking character elsewhere. As much as I love Henry Fonda, I think he was far too old to portray Andre and although he’s great during the character’s final scenes I just couldn’t buy him in the role. Hepburn’s then husband Mel Ferrer portrayed War and Peace’s other key character of Prince Andre however the couple’s chemistry lacked the certain zing that was needed for the audience to buy into their relationship. In fact, I think all of the film’s various romantic pairings lacked a spark and in fact the movie as a whole lacked anything you could really sink your teeth into.
As you can imagine the piece was well-designed and the Oscar-nominated cinematography from the legendary Jack Cardiff was particularly impressive. During the film’s final hour, Cardiff managed to get over both the serious nature of the battle scenes and the hardship that befell Pierre and his fellow prisoners as they trudged through the merciless Russian winter. The film’s various set pieces were well-designed most notably the ball where Natasha first locks eyes on Andrei and the operatic scenes in which she’s tempted by the dastardly Anatole. These scenes also demonstrated why Maria De Matteis received a nomination for her sumptuous costume design that dominated the piece. I was surprised that the film didn’t receive more nods in the technical categories as I was impressed by the movie’s Production Design, Editing and Sound Mixing. One element of the movie that didn’t work for me was Nino Rota’s score which I thought was too intrusive and made War and Peace feel even more melodramatic than it was. Although the story was edited down significantly I felt there was at least thirty minutes of War and Peace that could’ve been edited out. The specific segments I’d edit out were those involving the wartime plans where we saw both Napoleon and the Tsar consulting their troops during the film’s various conflicts. One other major issue I had with the film was the differing accents that the actors decided to employ with Fonda sticking with his American drawl whilst most of the cast used a British accent however some did attempt to sound as Russian as possible. Although I’m able to employ dramatic license to a point, I never felt that the film really depicted war-torn Russia and that’s an issue when you’re watching War and Peace.
One thing I can understand is why Vidor was nominated for Best Director as War and Peace is certainly a spectacle even if it didn’t quite work for me as a cinematic adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel. I feel it’s a feat in itself to put together a number of spectacular set pieces as Vidor did here and for that he deserved to be recognised. What I don’t understand is why he replaced Cecile B DeMille who didn’t receive a nod for helming the equally impressive The Ten Commandments. In fact if I were going to swap a director out of that year’s category it would probably be William Wyler whose Friendly Persuasion was an unremarkable civil war movie. However I don’t think War and Peace’s inclusion in that year’s Best Picture category would’ve really made that much of an impact as it was just another colourful epic that the academy seemed keen to recognise that year. Thankfully, this isn’t the last we’ll see of Vidor; who is a director whose career spans several decades and who received five nominations it total.
Interestingly, our next Vidor film sees us travel back all the way to the third Oscar ceremony to watch the director’s first ever sound picture ever several years working exclusively in the silent movie industry.