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Laramie Movie Scope:
War and Peace (1956)

Adaptation of great Russian novel into mediocre movie

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by Patrick Ivers, Film Critic
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(1956) As Napoleon Bonaparte's French army faces only resistance from England and Russia, Pierre Bezukhov (Henry Fonda) in Moscow regards him as "the greatest man in Europe," countering the pro-Russian view of Prince Mikhail Rostov (Barry Jones), by exalting the French emperor as "a colossus a cleansing force." Prince Rostov's adolescent daughter Natasha (Audrey Hepburn), who thinks Pierre has a heart of purity and goodness, is upset that she can't have the freedom of a man to go to war as well as that soldiers, including her brother Nicholas (Jeremy Britt), are on their way to be killed in battle.

At a raucous party of military officers as he's about to follow Capt Dolokhov (Helmut Dantine) in a wager, involving drinking an entire bottle of rum while precariously perched on a window ledge far above the street, Pierre is called away by Prince Andre Bolkonsky (Mel Ferrer) to his dying father's bedside. After hearing the intoxicated Pierre complain of being his father's bastard son, Andre says to his friend: "You're not being worthy of yourself, Pierre. You're not living up to the best things in yourself. You must be somebody."

Pierre replies: "That's where the puzzle begins. Be somebody. Be what? Who am I? Am I the next Count Bezukhov, lord of vast estates and the fixed positions, fixed responsibilities? Not quite. My father cannot quite acknowledge that I am his son, but he cannot quite acknowledge that I am not his son."

Expressing his self-disgust with a desire to change toward saintly conduct, though each resolution is soon spoiled, Pierre continues: "I want to discover why I know what's right and still do wrong. I want to discover what happiness is and what value there is in suffering. I want to discover why men go to war and what they say deep in their hearts when they pray to God. I want to discover what it is that men and women feel when they say they love."

Contradicting Pierre's assumptions of his character as determined by duty, Andre says that he's going to war to escape the obligations of marriage to a beautiful wife who is pregnant: "Never, never marry, Pierre," or at least not until you are old and good for nothing. At the deathbed, Pierre receives from his fast-expiring father a letter for the tsar which legitimizes Pierre as his son and names him as sole heir to his estate.

Directed by King Vidor with a cast of thousands, this three-and-a-half-hour adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's novel into a mediocre movie involved Vidor and seven other screenwriters; original music composed by Nino Rota. Giving a letter to be delivered to Field Marshall Kutuzov (Oskar Homolka), Andre's stern father Prince Bolkonsky (Wilfrid Lawson) cautions his son not to shame his parent in battle.

Natasha's cousin Sonya (May Britt) is in love with her brother Nicholas; Natasha tells Pierre she will never marry until she receives absolute surrender from her suitor. Pierre marries his beautiful cousin Princess Helene Kuragina (Anita Ekberg) whose interests are primarily directed at clothes and social engagements. When he leaves her to attend to business matters on his country estate, she takes up an affair with Dolokhov. Following a duel between lover and husband, Pierre, feeling guilty about getting involved in a violent act, separates from Helene.

The wise old warrior Kutuzov remarks to Colonel Andre Bolkonsky in facing a formidable foe: "The important battle is the last." Napoleon (Herbert Lom) finds Andre lying wounded on the ground at the conclusion of the battle of Austerlitz. The soldiers return home after an armistice, including Andre, who arrives in time for Lise (Milly Vitale) to die during childbirth, leaving him with an infant son.

Regretting losing Lise for his pursuit of glory, he later joins Pierre (remarking that there are only two wrongs, "remorse and illness") with the Rostovs (whom he regards as healthy, handsome but thoughtless) at their county estate where he makes acquaintance with the remarkable Natasha, whom he overhears telling Sonya of her admiration for him.

Back in Moscow at a ball, Natasha wishes Andre were there before he appears, asking her for a dance and thinking to himself, "She'll be my wife." However, Andre's father reacts harshly to his son's plan to marry a girl below his station and much younger than his age of more than 30 years - when one is "sad, meaningless, and hopeless" - urging Andre to first go abroad and put off marriage for a year.

As the Treaty of Tilsit is signed in 1807, disadvantageous to Russia, Helene's brother Anatole Kuragin (Vittorio Gassman), the most notorious woman-chaser in Moscow, takes a delicious interest in Natasha, who becomes a slave to his amorous mastery over her. When he convinces her to elope with him, fortunately Sonya and Pierre prevent her from a terrible mistake as Bezukhov tells Anatole in no uncertain terms: "amuse yourself with women of your own rotten breed." Nevertheless, rumors spread of the near disaster to her reputation, eventually reaching Andre in Poland.

Pierre, in attempting to assure her that she has done nothing that needs forgiveness from Andre, lets Natasha know of his own great affection for her. After Col Bolkonsky's acting as messenger between Tsar Alexander I and Napoleon, the French emperor crosses the Neman River in 1812 for another invasion of Russia.

The French find a desolate land in front of their advance on Moscow as the Russian peasants scorch the earth behind their abandonment of the territory. Pierre leaves Moscow to find Andre's regiment at Borodino where he expects that the coming clash of armies will change everything. Andre rejects Pierre's entreaty on Natasha's behalf, saying he has only thoughts for the imminent conflict and his men.

If war were truly and utterly horrible, with no prisoners taken (only "kill and be killed"), Bolkonsky tells Pierre, whose presence is surprising for someone who hates violence, perhaps no one would want to fight one again. Pierre answers that he felt he should experience war before deciding it is hateful.

After carrying a wounded Russian soldier to a dressing station, Pierre is informed that the man is already dead. He then curses the French emperor: "Damn you, Napoleon! Damn you to hell!"

In order to save Russia, Field Marshall Kuzutov orders a retreat, giving up Moscow. As citizens pack up and abandon the capital, wounded soldiers stream in, among them Andre. Upon Natasha's insistence that the Rostovs leave their possessions behind in order to help evacuate wounded men, her father agrees; Pierre, seen among the crowd, declines an offer to flee with them: "Remember me. Remember."

Napoleon enters to occupy an empty city, half on fire, with no one to surrender to him. Taken prisoner, Pierre watches a firing squad shoot those caught as incendiaries. Natasha takes care of Andre inside a monastery: a death, a door, an awakening. The French army, after decay and dissipation, retreats into winter and desolation with Pierre among the withdrawing soldiers.

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Copyright © 2014 Patrick Ivers. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Patrick Ivers can be reached via e-mail at nora's email address at juno. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

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