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The first sound film version of Leo Tolstoy's historical romance about Napoleon's invasion of Russia involved behind-the-scenes scheming, multiple screenplays and many compromises but resulted in a film version that still has power.
As Hollywood began searching for large-scale projects in the 1950's to give movie audiences something the television at home could not provide, several producers latched onto the idea of adapting War and Peace. The story had great battles, a love-triangle and, best of all, it was in the public domain. No author royalties! David O. Selznick wanted to do it, Mike Todd wanted to do it, but the ultimate winner was Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis, then best known as the producer of Fellini's hit film La Strada (1954). De Laurentiis knew he could only convince Paramount to allow him to make the film if he brought them something they did not have. Knowing that what they did not have was a finished script, he tore Tolstoy's 600,000-page novel into equal sections and handed the sections out to several Italian screenwriters. Three weeks later he collected the results, pieced it together, had a quick translation made from Italian to English, and flew to America where he plopped the 506-page screenplay on Paramount's desk. He got his permission to make the movie.
Next De Laurentiis hired King Vidor, director of Duel in the Sun (1946) and The Fountainhead (1949) to make the movie. Vidor chucked the Italian script, wrote a synopsis of the novel's action and went through a succession of screenwriters, including novelist Irwin Shaw, to create a new script. Meanwhile, the search for a cast began.
Audrey Hepburn was the first on board, chosen to play Natasha. However, the newly married actress could not bear to leave her husband Mel Ferrer behind for such a long shoot, so Ferrer was brought in to play war hero Prince Andrei. For the overweight, bespectacled Pierre, the center of the novel, many names were thrown about including the most likely candidate Peter Ustinov, but after many compromises, Henry Fonda was cast in the part.
Fonda knew he was wrong for the role. "...But I decided that, with the right kind of spectacles, some strategically placed padding and my hair combed forward, I could pass." However, this was not what De Laurentiis had in mind. He wanted to turn Pierre into a straightforward romantic hero. "The padding went immediately, over my anguished protests. And, from that point on, it was a constant struggle between the producer and me as to whether or not I'd wear the spectacles. I won about half the time, usually when he was nowhere near the set."
Despite the compromises, the result still followed the original novel even though there were numerous deletions. The film itself, however, also went through cutting, down from 220 minutes in the first release print to 205 minutes later. Critics praised the results but American audiences never warmed to it. Russian audiences, however, did and this version became a big hit in the Soviet Union, a great embarrassment to Soviet officials. This was at the height of the Cold War and surely the Americans could not be allowed to create the only movie version of the greatest Russian novel ever written! The Soviet government threw every thing it had into their own gigantic film version. Released in 1967, their War and Peace would, in scope and fidelity, dwarf this 1956 adaptation.
Director: King Vidor
Writers: Bridget Boland, Robert Westerby, King Vidor, Mario Camerini, Ennio De Concini, Ivo Perilli, based on the novel by Leo Tolstoy
Producer: Dino De Laurentiis
Music: Nino RotaCinematographer: Jack Cardiff
Editor: Leo Cattozzo
Art Director: Mario Chiari
Cast: Audrey Hepburn (Natasha Rostov), Henry Fonda (Pierre Bezukhov), Mel Ferrer (Prince Andrei Bolkonsky), Vittorio Gassman (Anatole), Herbert Lom (Napoleon), Oskar Homolka (General Kutuzov).
C-209m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Brian Cady