Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Audrey Hepburn Prevails Over War and Peace

After years of putting it off, recently I finally got around to perusing my way through the 1,400 + pages of Leo Tolstoy’s most famous work, and I immediately rewarded myself with a first showing of the Paramount film adaptation of War and Peace. 1956 definitely was Hollywood’s year for all-star three-hour plus epics, with Giant, Around the World in Eighty Days, and The Ten Commandments also premiering. In comparison to these critically-lauded blockbusters, the milder box office returns and mixed reviews which greeted War’s release marked the film as something of a disappointment; however, Dino de Laurentiis’ epic production (costing six million dollars, nothing to whistle at in the 1950's) stands as a worthwhile first attempt to capture the novel on film and, although flawed, holds a viewer’s interest for much of its 208-minute running time.

A significant problem with the film, which time and again manages to throw the tone of the movie off to a dismaying degree, lies in the decision to dub many of the actors. Some of the dubbing is in sync, but often it’s clear the actor is not jiving with the audio, which understandably has an adverse effect on the quality of some scenes. Also, in at least one important instance the decision to dub an actor makes absolutely no sense: as Princess Elena, Anita Ekberg is given a deep, cultured English speaking voice ill-suited to her, while the very Italian Vittorio Gassman is allowed to retain his rich, flavorful, and natural voice in his sexy, charismatic depiction of Natasha’s personal Waterloo, the magnetic Prince Anatol, who happens to be Elena’s brother (hey, Ekberg’s Italian, too; why not give the girl a chance to speak for herself?). What is especially frustrating concerning the Ekberg dubbing issue is the fact the actor and Tolstoy’s physical description of the beautiful, voluptuous Princess are a perfect mesh (reading the novel, I easily could picture Ekberg as Elena, constantly betraying her noble husband Pierre with her many liaisons). Furthermore, judging by her lively body movement and appropriate facial expressions/reactions, Ekberg seems to also have a fine grasp on Elena’s vapid, selfish nature. The dubbing just about kills the performance, though, and I just want to scream over this near-miss, even fifty years later.

The dubbing situation contributes to the curious, disjointed quality which sets in early on and hangs over the film; the movie never really becomes cohesive enough to grab the audience and hold them, ala a Gone With the Wind. Readers of the book can admire the many screenwriters’ deft incorporation of most of the book’s major thematic elements and memorable characters into a workable script, and the film certainly has grandeur and scope; however, despite Hepburn’s amiable presence and some rousing moments in the impeccably-staged battle scenes, not much humor or excitement occurs as the film slowly unfolds. Fortunately, in his penultimate film director King Vidor does contribute some remarkable work, as he manages to keep a semblance of order amid such a complex tapestry of plot and characters. I have to admit, though, that at times I was hoping Vidor would lose control of his senses a bit, so the audience could witness some of the florid passion found in his wonderful potboilers Duel in the Sun, The Fountainhead, Beyond the Forest, and Ruby Gentry. The director (perhaps appropriately, considering the highly-respected source material) keeps his film firmly anchored, however, which I’m sure is a very wise thing to do, even if the subsequent results don’t offer viewers the enjoyably-torrid moments found in Vidor’s less reputable, but a lot more fun and colorful, movies.

In the central role of Natasha, Audrey Hepburn (in her first major dramatic assignment) does much to redeem any of the movie’s shortcomings. Although Hepburn hadn’t quite developed the acting depth she would show in The Nun’s Story and Two For the Road, it's obvious Hepburn cares deeply for the characterization, and is intent on making her scenes come alive, as her Natasha evolves from a doe-eyed innocent into the strong young woman found at the close of the film. Hepburn also is as beguiling as ever, and she’s possibly never been more beautiful or radiant on film. The ultra-American (and here, rather willowy) Henry Fonda seems an improbable choice for the robust Pierre, but his unwavering professionalism, steely resolve, and serious demeanor are a good match for the character. In the other major role, Mel Ferrer (Hepburn’s husband at the time) captures Prince Andrei’s dreamy, aristocratic glamour, and he’s properly romantic with his leading lady (especially in their final scenes together, wherein Ferrer’s soft intonations suggest a poetic, even fragile aspect exists in Andrei’s personality). In other scenes, Ferrer’s glacial, unemotional acting style and sometimes-stilted line readings often keep him removed from the proceedings, and therefore distanced from the audience as well. Herbert Lom’s blustery, forceful interpretation of Napoleon may appear one-dimensional at times, but Lom actually offers a dead-on representation of Tolstoy’s portrayal of the Emperor as an inept buffoon. Along with Hepburn, Oscar Homolka gives perhaps the most artful and skillfully crafted performance as the experienced, weary General Kutuzov who, unlike his French adversary, takes into serious consideration the consequences any of his actions will have on him and his troops.

Despite the film’s occasional drawbacks, the solid screenplay, some fine emoting, competent direction, and the beautiful camerawork of ace cinematographer Jack Cariff supply the 1956 version of War and Peace with enough quality components to deem a viewing of the film necessary for fans of the book, Audrey Hepburn, and/or classic cinema (fortunately for me, I happen to fit in each category, so the 208 minutes was time well spent).


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