Urban Cinefile  
 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Tuesday July 28, 2020 


As Napoleon (Herbert Lom) prepares to invade Russia, Pierre Bezukhov (Henry Fonda), a gentle but clumsy pacifist, falls in love with Natasha (Audrey Hepburn), a beautiful young aristocrat, but presumes himself unworthy of her. Instead he weds the voluptuous but wanton Helene (Anita Ekberg) in a marriage doomed to failure, and introduces Natasha to the haughty but handsome Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (Mel Ferrer). When Andrei returns to the battle front, Pierre comes to witness the Russian rout at Borodino, but when one is critically wounded and the other captured by the French, Natasha is left alone in Moscow and vulnerable to the amorous attentions of a good-looking scoundrel. 

Review by Keith Lofthouse: 
Many readers will tell you that Leo Tolstoy’s 19th century novel is the greatest ever written… which kind of puts things in their right perspective because no one will tell you that King Vidor’s movie is the greatest ever made. The flaws are so manifestly obvious…the missing pages, the monumental miscasting, the mixing of a dozen different accents…and few of them Russian. John Mills, for example, plays a cheerful Russian peasant (!) with a thick Somerset brogue! It makes you wonder whatever possessed Vidor to imagine that he and six writers could successfully reduce Toltstoy’s tome, that took six years to write and six months to read, into a mere three and a half hours of film. 

It has all the colour and grandeur of an epic and its achievement is not insignificant, but history is littered with the screen’s failed epics…from Alexander The Great to Heaven’s Gate…and this, in critical and commercial terms, is one of them. Why then, oh why, did Henry Fonda do it? He knew he was miscast, tripping over his own feet as the heavily mascaraed Russian Count and making no effort to disguise his Hollywood drawl. “When I first agreed to do it,” he said, “Irwin Shaw’s screenplay was fine, but what happened? Vidor would go home at night with his wife and rewrite it. All the genius of Tolstoy went out the window.” 

Fonda might not appear bored by this episodic enterprise, but he is uncomfortable and when he is called on to lapse into spasms of sobbing at his father’s death-bed you see Fonda in the most embarrassing moment of his career. When father succumbs, Pierre becomes one of the richest men in all of Russia, but no-one dresses more drably. He is weak and emaciated beside the dashing young officers in their spanking uniforms and while ogling Hepburn at her most ravishing he looks ridiculous…not the bear-like figure that Tolstoy imagined…25 years her senior and clearly old enough to be her father. The blue bloods may marvel at the opulence of it all, but it takes two hours before the red bloods are stirred from their slumber by a decent skirmish. 

Somehow, the insipid Hepburn escaped serious critical summary from those bewitched by her beauty, her mystique, her… something or other. To be fair, Natasha is a bit of a drip. “Isn’t it lovely,” she gushes, at first sight, and later, like chalk on a blackboard she squeaks: “Do just come and see…see how glorious it is.” And: “Is it possible that I, Natasha, am to be the wife of this strange, dear, clever man who even my father looks up to.” And, at last: “I’m just a little country mouse!” This is not good writing, whatever the source, but Fonda and Ferrer (the Svengali who was Hepburn’s husband at the time) are stricken with the same curse. When the unarmed Pierre strolls to the front in his ludicrous top hat to observe the war at first hand, he is caught in a confusion of gunfire and explosion and is politely told by a sword-wielding gunnery sergeant: “Sir, you can’t stand there; you are in the way.” He meekly replies: “Sorry, I’ll try to stay out of everyone’s way.” On and on it grinds with the speed of a Moscow winter. 

The war, when it finally comes, is impressively staged by co-director Mario Soldati…except for those horses, buckling headlong into the dirt, the victims of cruel movie tripwires. Then there’s that other kind of horse, the rocking variety, plainly filling-in for the real thing in close-ups. The finest moments capture, in all its misery, Napoleon’s disastrous retreat from Russia’s “scorched earth,” but one wonders if Napoleon would really have taken Russian prisoners on that torturous trek when he was unable to feed his own army. Still, something of Tolstoy’s 650,000 words had to disappear. And so went thought and deliberation; so was sacrificed character, subplot and a great deal of substance, until we are left with the epic numbers of empty spectacle: 5000 guns; 6000 Italian troops; 7000 costumes; 100,000 buttons; a few dead horses and a piece of war. 

Published May 20, 2004

Email this article


(US/Italy, 1945)

CAST: Audrey Hepburn, Henry Fonda, Mel Ferrer

DIRECTOR: King Vidor

SCRIPT: Bridget Boland, Robert Westerby, King Vidor, Mario Camerini, Ennio De Concini, Ivo Perilli, Irwin Shaw

RUNNING TIME: 208 minutes

PRESENTATION: Widescreen, enhanced for 16:9; Dolby Digital; English mono

SPECIAL FEATURES: trailer; behind the scenes of War & Peace


DVD RELEASE: March 4, 2004

© Urban Cinefile 1997 - 2020