Thursday, July 24, 2014

War and Peace (1956)

I waited quite a while to see this movie. I'd told my mom that it would best be seen after reading the book—which I'd already done several years ago—and she had plans to read it, so we put off watching the movie till then. Mom finally read the book this summer. For a long time she kept telling me it was slow going, but by the final quarter of the book she was completely invested in the story and characters—giving the rest of us periodic bulletins on what they were up to, while I was kind of grinning behind my hand because I already knew how things turned out and had a feeling she'd like it. And when she finished the book last week, we finally watched the movie.

The first thing one has to acknowledge, of course, are the film's limitations. So much of the meat of Tolstoy's novels lies in the thoughts of his characters; so many important events are viewed through their eyes. That's the kind of thing that is nearly impossible to transfer to the screen. And the sheer massive size of War and Peace means that a feature film, even a three-and-a-half-hour one, must choose which scenes to dramatize and move quickly through them. The beginning of the film feels a little piecemeal, with a little of these characters, a little of those, different scenes that don't connect right away, but it gradually picks up steam and draws together a little as it goes on. I told my mom that if you borrowed a bit of music terminology you could call it "Selections From War and Peace." But there are a lot of individual moments and crucial scenes that are beautifully done.

The thing that has to be the biggest head-scratcher for anyone who knows the book is how the character of Pierre Bezukhov, variously described as "stout," "enormous," "corpulent" and "fat," could possibly be portrayed by...Henry Fonda? Yet he manages to give a pretty good performance. In spite of the obvious wrongness of his age and appearance, one still somehow gets glimpses of the personality and mannerisms of Tolstoy's Pierre. I don't know if it's the spectacles or something in makeup or hairstyling, but Fonda doesn't even look quite like himself sometimes (though there's never any question of his being the least bit stout).

On the other hand, the casting of Audrey Hepburn as Natasha Rostov is absolute perfection. She brings to life the flighty, heedless but bewitching girl and her gradual, sometimes painful maturation through love, mistakes made and the suffering of war. And she looks and sounds just as I always pictured Natasha. Mel Ferrer's Prince Andrei is also excellent, in spite of the script's stinting a bit on the development of his character. I thought their real-life chemistry (they were newly married at the time) particularly showed through in the lovely proposal scene, one of those fine moments of the film. (I also loved the whole sequence of Natasha's first ball). John Mills has fairly little screen time in the role of Platon Karatev, but makes the most of it, although the film doesn't really capture the importance of the character. I was amazed how entirely different his voice, accent and entire personality were from other characters I've seen him play. Some supporting characters, such as Dolokhov (Helmut Dantine), Anatole Kuragin (Vittorio Gassman) and the rest of the Rostov family, come off well, but others such as Helene Kuragina (Anita Ekberg) and Lisa Bolkonskaya (Milly Vitale) don't really have enough screen time to be understood or make an impression.

The film spends a while on Peace before working its way into War, but once there, the historical scenes really crackle with the contrasting personalities of the two commanding generals, Napoleon (Herbert Lom) and Field Marshal Kutuzov (Oscar Homolka). The appearance, posturing and mannerisms of Lom's Napoleon are so remarkably like every picture I've ever seen of the real man, it's uncannily like seeing a historical figure come to life before your eyes. The initial battle scenes seemed a trifle flat, but as the film goes on they gradually built in complexity and intensity—the battle of Borodino is staggering in its sheer scale and detail; moments like the French cavalry charge just stunning. It all climaxes in the devastating retreat from Moscow, with the demoralized French army struggling through rain, mud and snow. The final shot of Napoleon's face as he leaves the scene of the disastrous river crossing says it all.

The one thing that I found unforgiveable in this adaptation, however, was the slashing of the subplot concerning Nikolai Rostov (Jeremy Brett) and Princess Marya (Anna Maria Ferrero). In the novel, they are the most significant characters after the trio of Pierre, Natasha and Andrei, with large sections of plot told from their perspective; and incidentally some of my favorites. In the film they are reduced to peripheral characters, Marya practically a nonentity. The scene where Nikolai comes to her rescue during the French invasion becomes an off-screen incident, briefly mentioned in a couple of lines spoken by Pierre. I was also disappointed that the character of Denisov (Patrick Crean) was cut down to practically nothing; I enjoyed his scenes in the book.

Is it a good adaptation? Yes and no. The ending is obviously too quick; there isn't enough emphasis on how much time is supposed to have passed since the end of the war, and an important relationship is brought to a resolution almost instantly instead of undergoing the slow and natural growth it sees in the book. But this, as with most of the film's flaws, has to be put down to time limits. A viewer who doesn't know the book would probably find it an occasionally wandering but predominately well-acted and visually beautiful film. I still think it's best seen after reading the book; even though you know there are enormous gaps, it's worth the experience of seeing some parts attractively brought to life.

And now if you'll excuse me, I think I'm off to read War and Peace again...


Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

One of my favorite books, I think I must have read it 10 or 12 times. I agree that the movie has good points for what it is, but it's just impossible to capture the whole story on film. A BBC series of several parts did pretty well several years ago, with Anthony Hopkins as Pierre. The movie is more like the Cliff Notes, despite its longer-than-usual length for a film.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Elizabeth, thank you for an absorbing review of "War and Peace." I have not read the book or seen the film. I'm always amazed how filmmakers manage to contract a vast book such as this into a two- or three-hour film even if that means leaving out several parts that may seem important to many readers. I felt similarly about DOCTOR ZHIVAGO though I liked Pasternak's translated version better than the film which stands on its own. I agree that it is always better to read a book first and then watch its film adaptation.

Hamlette said...

Wait a minute -- Jeremy Brett is in War and Peace?!?!?! How did I not know that! Okay, now I definitely need to see this. I actually tend to prefer watching the movie version before reading the book for most things -- that way I don't spend the movie mourning things that were left out, but instead, I read the book rejoicing over all the new things.

Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

Jacqueline - Ten or twelve—wow! Do you have a favorite translation? We read the Pevear/Volokhonsky one.

Prashant - Thank you; I'm glad you liked it! I've read/watched a lot of literary adaptations, but War and Peace strikes me as one of the hardest to adapt, not just because of its size but its scope—so many different characters and plotlines (not all of which made it into the movie).

Hamlette - Yes, he plays Audrey Hepburn's brother! You won't believe how young he looks (I think it was his first credited film role, actually).

Now that's a good way of looking at the book/film comparison...come to think of it, I've enjoyed quite a few books after seeing the movie versions. I guess I suspected that if War and Peace turned out to be only a so-so adaptation, it might be a little harder to grasp the plot without already knowing what was going on.

Hamlette said...

Oh my goodness! Younger than when he played Freddy, even? Wow. I think my parents have this, so maybe next time I visit them I'll get to watch it :-)

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Mine is a New American Library copr 1968, translated by Ann Dunnigan from the Goslitizdat publishing house, Moscow, 1963.