Sunday, November 17, 2013

War and Peace (1956 and 1967)

Probably the two biggest cinematic assemblies of Leo Tolstoy's mountainous novel, which detailed the interweaving lives of several Russian families during the Napoleonic Wars, occurred first out of Hollywood in 1956 and then in a Russian adaptation of a no less mammoth scope in 1966. The American version, with marquee names like King Vidor in the helm, Jack Cardiff manning the cameras, and Henry Fonda and Audrey Hepburn in front of it, has gone largely forgotten despite some excellent photography, a fine performance from Fonda, and a generally well done treatment.
Sergey Bondarchuk's version, which has the greater historical reputation but has been about as equally consigned these days, set the record at the time for production costs, extras used, and a slew of other overages in a shoot that spanned several years. Despite its impressive scope, I found it to be murky, muddled, and uninvolving, with the saving grace coming in the form of performers Lyudmila Saveleva and Bondarchuk himself, who fill the same roles played by Hepburn and Fonda. One of the main issues, especially with the 1966 version (which did go on to win the Foreign Film Oscar and international acclaim) is that despite the fact of the sheer length of the novel, much of it is rhetoric or essay, all of which is not exactly fit for the screen and certainly not a two and a half hour movie or a seven hour miniseries.