War and Peace (1956)

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Released 2-Mar-2004

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Drama Theatrical Trailer-2
Rating Rated G
Year Of Production 1956
Running Time 199:49
RSDL / Flipper RSDL (90:36) Cast & Crew
Start Up Language Select Then Programme
Region Coding 4 Directed By King Vidor
Studio
Distributor

Paramount Home Entertainment
Starring Audrey Hepburn
Henry Fonda
Mel Ferrer
Vittorio Gassman
Herbert Lom
Oskar Homolka
Anita Ekberg
Helmut Dantine
Tullio Carminati
Barry Jones
Milly Vitale
Lea Seidl
Anna-Maria Ferrero
Case ?
RPI $19.95 Music Nino Rota


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
French Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 1.78:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio Unknown Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English
French
Dutch
Spanish
Portuguese
Hebrew
Greek
Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

      1956 was a big year for the big picture. The Academy Award winner for best film was Around the World in Eighty Days, and its co-runners included Giant, The King and I and The Ten Commandments, so King Vidor's decision to present the world with the epic, War and Peace, seems perfectly appropriate for the era. Leo Tolstoy's 1000 page source material was considered so vast and so monumental that it hadn't been tackled since co-directors Vladimir Gardin and Yakov Protazanov presented a silent version of Vojna I Mir in 1915. Teaming up with legendary British cinematographer Jack Cardiff (The Red Shoes) and enthused with the panoramic technology of Vistavision, they set off to the Cinecitta studios in Rome with a Hollywood all star cast to create a movie that in its first cut was over seven hours long. The version we have today has been hacked down to a mere three and a half hours!

      Largely, it could be said that this was a film whose time had come. The ramifications of the Second World War a decade earlier were still clearly within the consciousness of the viewing public, and the historic background of Napoleon's incursions into Russia and the breaching of Moscow resonated with Hitler's attempts on Europe. Tolstoy's complex tome involves hundreds of characters and spans 15 years, but the film distils this down to the stories of three aristocratic houses in 1805, 1807 and 1812.

      It is a festive day in Moscow as the troops parade the streets on their way to face Napoleon. Viewing them from the window is gentle pater familias Count Rostov (Barry Jones, who, for me, can never quite shake his image as the gentle Mr Lundie in Brigadoon), his ebullient daughter Natasha (the exquisite Audrey Hepburn), and the restless Pierre Bezukhov (the controversially cast Henry Fonda). The Rostovs are a large and loving family and Pierre loves them all dearly - most particularly the charmingly naïve Natasha, but he is so aggrieved by his illegitimacy that he fails to make any advances towards the object of his desire. His lack of familial acknowledgement has resulted in deep seated strains of conflict within Pierre. His liberal views, contrasted with a deeper sense of duty have resulted in creating a dissolute young aristocratic wastrel. However, things change for him with a call to his father's death bed, where he is recognised as his legitimate son and heir to his father's vast estates. Within an instant of his father's death, his cousin Princess Helene (Anita Ekberg) makes a Machiavellian swoop upon him and convinces him to marry her, although she has no intention of changing any of her cuckolding ways. At a similar time, Pierre's confidant and decorated soldier, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (Mel Ferrer - a.k.a. Mr Audrey Hepburn) marries the charming and timid Lise (Milly Vitale). Anticipating further war with the French, Bolkonsky installs Lise in the country to wait out her confinement. He returns, wounded and filled with angst, just in time to meet with his wife before she dies in childbirth.

      Pierre introduces Bolkonsky to the impressionable Natasha and during a magnificent ballroom scene, the two cement a deep attraction to each other. Bolkonsky, smitten though he is, insists they wait a year before they become married, leaving Natasha for the war and vulnerable to the snaky, womanising charms of Anatole (Vitorio Gassman). With her good reputation only just rescued, Natasha is learning life's lessons the hard way, and turns inevitably to Pierre for comfort and support. But he is having trouble of his own. Cuckolded by his shallow conniving wife, he challenges her paramour Dolokhov (Helmut Dantine) to a duel with nearly disastrous consequences.

      With his emotional life in disarray, he accompanies Bolkonsky to the battlefield for a first hand experience of wartime conditions. On the disastrous Battlefield of Borodino he encounters the simple Russian peasant Platon (John Mills) whose homespun and simple philosophies comfort and realign his thinking. War has now infiltrated his life. The arrogant and irascible Napoleon (played magnificently by Herbert Lom) will clearly stop at nothing less than the total routing of Russia. As he plunders and pushes forward, in spite of a scorched earth defence, Pierre decides that the only way to stop final defeat is for him to kill Napoleon. His attempt however, is an abject failure, and he is taken prisoner. Meanwhile the aristocratic families are fleeing Moscow, amongst them the Rostov family. A sadder, more mature Natasha however, discovers her altruistic soul and convinces her family to abandon their possessions in favour of creating space on their carts for wounded soldiers. They find refuge in a monastery and so begins the true birth of Natasha's adult deportment. In caring for the sick and wounded, she develops from a flitty child to a compassionate and capable woman. And in that capacity, she nurses the near-dead Bolkonsky. For Bolkonsky, the imminence of death brings finally a recognition of the sweetness and beauty of life and his deathbed epiphany is of life-changing consequence to Natasha.

      Whilst Napoleon managed to withstand the stop-start, attack-retreat policies of the Russian army, the brutality of a Russian winter stalls his invasion and the lack of food, shelter and warmth bests his troops. At Berezina the demoralised and weakened troops are finally routed and Pierre is able to effect his escape. Amongst the ruins of the Rostov home he is reunited with the love of his life Natasha, and they walk into springtime with the Tolstoy quote, "The most difficult thing -- but an essential one -- is to love Life, to love it even while one suffers, because Life is all, Life is God, and to love Life means to love God" superimposed on the screen.

      "Sweeping" is an oft-used adjective in describing the plots of complicated stories - but here it is entirely apt. This is an incredibly ambitious project that dabbles with an icon of international literature. Its inevitable truncation was always going to lead to complaints about what elements were kept and what was abandoned, but in the interests of brevity it had to happen. No less than nine writers were involved during the two years that it took to develop the script, and this not without controversy in itself. Notably, Irwin Shaw, a distinguished scriptwriter, insisted his name be removed from the writing credits when the film was edited down from its original impossible seven hours. For their pains, Bridget Boland and Mario Camerini historically remain the 2 writers who are listed as responsible for the final cut.

      Seen in the context of modern blockbusters, War and Peace certainly shows its vintage. There is a stylisation that, to modern sensibilities, borders on melodrama. Casting too, has raised more than a few cinematic eyebrows. Whilst Hepburn is literally bewitching as Natasha, the choice of her then husband Mel Ferrer to play Bolkonsky inevitably, and, in my opinion, justifiably, raised questions of the triumph of nepotism over genuine talent. In his book Audrey - Her Real Story, author Alexander Walker clearly states that Ferrer had a Svengalian hold over Hepburn. According to the book, producer Dino de Laurentiis desperately wanted Hepburn for the pivotal role in his film, but he knew that the only way he could assure that reality would be to approach Ferrer, who also acted as Hepburn's manager, with an attractive part for him to play also.

      The hope of securing Audrey Hepburn for Natasha was actually deeply in doubt until right before shooting time. She had recently suffered a miscarriage and was emotionally and physically exhausted prior to acceptance of the part. Perhaps in some way, these personal trials and tragedies lent an authenticity to the metamorphosis of Natasha, although at no small cost to the woman herself, who was, in reality, as delicate and vulnerable as her screen heroine.

      Beyond the charges of nepotic casting, many questions were also raised at the choice of Henry Fonda to play the part of Pierre. Most aficionados of the novel saw this character as a bearish gigantean and an intensely physical character. There was a marked dichotomy between the way director Vidor and producer de Laurentiis saw this character. Vidor wanted to portray Tolstoy's bumbling and awkward semi-brute, whilst de Laurentiis saw the need for a more romantic central character to appropriate the conventions of film making of the day. Poor Fonda, who was entrenched in the minds of the viewing public as the all-American quintessential good guy from such films as The Grapes of Wrath and The Young Mr Lincoln, suffered quite some criticism for his (admittedly) rather American performance. For all of those criticisms, it is this humble reviewer's opinion that he provides the role of Pierre with no small amount of dignity and internalism.

      The scope of this film is exceptionally vast, and its production values are gloriously, almost decadently lush. The interiors are absolutely bewitching and the external sets are impressive. However, the visual feast is not matched to an equally sumptuous soundscape. The Cinecitta studios had no capacity for live sound so the entire film had to be overdubbed. This presentation on DVD recreates that unbelievably flat audio very faithfully, making particularly some of the battle scenes almost laughably implausible in terms of sound.

      In spite of these technical barriers, some questionable casting choices and the distinctly dated feeling of the production, it still successfully transports Tolstoy's central observation of the human nature that can find peace in war, and make peacetime warlike. It is a glorious, historic folly that I thoroughly enjoyed. Perhaps King Vidor's War and Peace could be added to the list of movies one should see at least once. It's very, very long - it has its highs and its flat points but it is truly a contribution to cinematic history that should not be discounted.

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Transfer Quality

Video

     The transfer is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 16x9 enhanced.

     It appears to be a direct transfer from original stock with inherent grain levels affecting the entire production. It is somewhat variable in its sharpness - there are times when the image seems to fall away somewhat, but at least on my 76cm screen, it was not unbearable. There is also some evidence of low level noise.

     The colours are typically 50's looking - with rather pallid skin tones and a noticeably blue cast in places, but they do not seem to be further compromised by the transfer.

     There are significant numbers of dust and scratch marks evident throughout the production and a very large scratch mark throughout almost the entire length of Chapter 10. There is also a disturbing pulsating effect throughout the film which can be somewhat distracting. The opera scene also gave pause for speculation. All scenes that showed the aristocracy in their box seats had a curious pin hole that frequently displayed over the radiant Hepburn's face. Given that only the box scenes showed this defect, which disappeared when we cut away to the odious Anatole, it can only be surmised that this is from the original stock.

     This is an RSDL disc with the layer change at 90:36, but the change is not disruptive.

Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

      The soundtrack is offered in English Dolby Digital 2.0, French Dolby Digital 2.0 and Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 but that's almost academic with the incredibly flat mono original sound that it delivers.

      The dialogue is are mercifully clear, albeit flat and lifeless. Subtitles are timely, accurate and very legible. Audio sync is really rather dreadful, but, given the manner in which the source was dubbed, this is probably an original sin, rather than a transfer booboo.

     The music is rather florid and melodramatic, probably a choice of its times, but lending a rather soap opera feel to the proceedings which it didn't need.

      There is absolutely no surround or subwoofer activity.

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

Menu

     The menu is static and silent.

Trailers

     There are 2 trailers offered - an original "behind the scenes" trailer featuring comments from King Vidor, and the modern re-release trailer.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

      In terms of features, the R1 version is identical to the R4, so I'm going for the PAL R4.

Summary

     A broad, ambitious and worthy project.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Mirella Roche-Parker (read my bio)
Friday, July 30, 2004
Review Equipment
DVDSinger SGD-001, using S-Video output
DisplayTeac 76cm Widescreen. Calibrated with Video Essentials. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Video Essentials.
AmplificationTeac 5.1 integrated system
SpeakersTeac 5.1 integrated system

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