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At the end of the film, the following quotation from Leo Tolstoy's novel War and Peace appears onscreen: "The most difficult thing-but an essential one-is to love Life, to love it even while one suffers, because Life is all. Life is God, and to love Life means to love God." During the film, an offscreen narrator occasionally provides dates and factual information, and some voice-over narration by the actors is used to illustrate the thoughts and feelings of their characters, as when "Andrey" tells himself that if "Natasha" smiles at him while she is dancing, he will marry her. As depicted in the film, Napoleon Bonaparte's forces engaged the Russian Army in several important battles, especially at Austerlitz (20 November 1805) and Borodino (26 August 1812). Bonaparte's attempt to invade and conquer Russia was foiled, to a great extent, because of the "scorched earth" policy of the retreating military and civilians, who set fire to the countryside, villages and cities rather than allow the French to take possession of them.
As noted in Hollywood Reporter news items, British producer Alexander Korda announced interest in adapting War and Peace for the screen as early as 1941, with Orson Welles directing and Merle Oberon starring. A July 1942 New York Times article reported that Korda's film was to be made in cooperation with the Soviet government, and Hollywood Reporter news items in 1943 and 1944 announced that Agnes Moorehead and her husband, Jack Lee, would be starring in Korda's production, with Lillian Hellman writing the screenplay. Korda's production was never realized, however. Producer Mike Todd actively pursued filming the vehicle in the 1950s, even arranging with Soviet and Yugoslavian officials for filming locations and the massive number of required extras. According to modern sources, Todd, who had announced that Fred Zinnemann would direct his production, also wanted Audrey Hepburn to star as "Natasha" and was greatly disappointed when she instead signed with Dino De Laurentiis and Carlo Ponti. Todd's abandonment of his plans to film War and Peace was due partially to the heavy production and promotion schedule of his own spectacular, Around the World in Eighty Days. Two 1956 Cue articles noted that David O. Selznick had also announced his intention to film a version of the Tolstoy novel.
Italian producers De Laurentiis and Ponti announced pre-production on their version of War and Peace in October 1954, and on October 10, 1954, New York Times reported that Gerard Philipe "probably" would have one of the "major roles," and that in addition to offering the directorial assignment to Eliza Kazan, the producers were hoping to cast Marlon Brando as "Pierre." On December 10, 1954, Hollywood Reporter noted that Mario Camerini was set to direct the picture. The item also reported that Columbia was in negotiations to co-produce and distribute the feature. Although a February 1955 New York Times news item stated that Gregory Peck was soon to be signed for the role of Andrey, modern sources assert that the producers were interested in casting him as Pierre. In a modern interview, director King Vidor stated that he also considered Paul Scofield for Pierre. In March 1955, New York Times reported that the cast was to include Peck, Jean Simmons, either Stewart Granger or Richard Burton, Valentina Cortese, Gino Cervi and Massimo Serato. Information in the Arthur Freed Collection at the USC Cinema-Television Library notes that Sebastian Cabot was tested for a part in the picture.
According to an July 8, 1955 Hollywood Reporter news item, Fredric March was originally offered the role of "Gen. Mikhail Kutuzov." Information in the Paramount Collection at the AMPAS Library reveals that Arlene Dahl was cast as "Helene Kuragina" but fell ill and was replaced by Anita Ekberg, who was borrowed from Batjac Productions. A September 1955 Hollywood Reporter news item includes Paul Davis in the cast, but his appearance in the completed picture has not been confirmed.
According to modern sources, Hepburn, who had a great deal of control over the production due to her extensive contract, suggested Peter Ustinov for the role of Pierre and requested that Franz Planer, with whom she had worked on Roman Holiday, serve as the director of photography. Hepburn also employed makeup artist Alberto De Rossi's wife Grazia as her hairstylist and asked her friend, designer Hubert de Givenchy, to supervise her costume fittings. War and Peace was the only film in which Hepburn co-starred with her then-husband, Mel Ferrer (although Ferrer had a cameo in Hepburn's 1964 film Paris When It Sizzles. See AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1961-70). According to a February 1956 Los Angeles Times article, Hepburn received $350,000, the largest salary of any of the actors in the film.
Modern sources report that Hepburn was borrowed from Paramount and Associated British, which co-owned her contract, and that in exchange for her services, Associated British was given the right to distribute War and Peace in Great Britain. According to a May 20, 1955 Daily Variety article, Paramount was to receive "global distribution rights (except Italy)" in exchange for a payment of $2,000,000 to Ponti and De Laurentiis upon the film's completion. The Paramount Collection and Hollywood Reporter news items reveal that Lux Film loaned a significant amount of production money to De Laurentiis and Ponti, in exchange for the Italian distribution rights. According to the July 1956 Cue article, De Laurentiis gave Ponti his interest in their film studio in exchange for the full rights to War and Peace.
Although onscreen writing credits for War and Peace read "Adaptation Bridget Boland, Robert Westerby, King Vidor, Mario Camerini, Ennio De Concini, Ivo Perilli," as reported in numerous contemporary sources, Irwin Shaw wrote the final shooting script for the film. According to a August 1, 1956 item in Hollywood Reporter's "Rambling Reporter" column, Shaw insisted that his name not be included in the onscreen credits. The item went on to state that Shaw's ire was caused by Vidor's admission that Vidor's wife, Elizabeth Hill, changed much of the dialogue. In noting that the onscreen writing credits were for adaptation only, rather than for screenplay, the Daily Variety reviewer commented: "The film's scripting credit is strangely anonymous in light of Irwin Shaw's request to remove his billing when director Vidor reportedly rewrote so many scenes on his own." The February 1955 New York Times article included Jean Aurenche, Pierre Bost and Sergio Amidei in the list of writers working on the project, but the extent of their contribution to the completed picture, if any, has not been confirmed. According to a modern interview with Vidor, second unit director Mario Soldati, who directed the battle scenes, also, contributed to the completed script.
In commenting on the difficulty of adapting Tolstoy's very complex and long novel for the screen, reviews of the picture noted that the filmmakers eliminated several characters and some of the battle sequences. The Hollywood Reporter critic noted that the film "has reduced the number of major characters [from over 30] to 18, eliminating some and combining others." Although the battles of Austerlitz and Borodino are depicted in the film, Tolstoy's description of battles at Amstetten, Preussisch-Eylau, Friedland and Ostrovna were not included.
According to contemporary sources, the picture was filmed on location in Turin and Rome, Italy, and utilized the Ponti-De Laurentiis Studios and Cinecitt Studios in Rome. A August 7, 1955 New York Times article reported that a third "major," but unidentified, studio in Rome also was used. According to a January 1955 Hollywood Reporter news item and a May 1955 New York Times item, background footage involving snow scenes had been shot in Finland, but a mid-July 1955 Hollywood Reporter news item stated that the entire picture would be shot in Italy because "planned locations" in Finland and Yugoslavia had been "cancelled as unnecessary." It is probable that the Finland footage was used for process shots. The New York Times item also reported that Soldati was shooting background footage in Sardinia. Contemporary sources report the lavish film's cost as between $6,000,000 and $7,000,000, with Vidor noting, in a September 1956 BHC interview, that the picture would have cost much more if the thousands of extras from the Italian Army had been paid by the production company.
Various source state that between 5,000 and 8,000 Italian troops were used, although a pressbook from the film's 1963 re-release proclaimed that 18,000 soldiers and thousands of horses were employed. [A 12 May 1957New York Times article reported that "use of Italian troops for War and Peace caused a furor in public and parliamentary circles, and permits have been denied or discouraged ever since."] The pressbook also reported that the more than 100,000 uniforms, costumes and hairpieces required for the film were reproduced from original, contemporary drawings. In May 1955, Daily Variety reported that a 16mm documentary film, being produced by Fausto Saraceni and designed for television, theatrical and educational distribution, was being shot about the making of War and Peace; however, no information about the documentary's release has been found.
The film's New York premiere was a benefit for the Tolstoy Foundation, while Tolstoy's daughter, Countess Alexandra Tolstoy, personally attended the picture's Los Angeles opening. Hollywood Citizen-News reported that the countess was pleased with the film adaptation, stating that it "caught the spirit of my father which permeated the pages of the novel." Because of the film's epic scope, many reviews compared it to Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1911-20 and 1931-40). The Saturday Review (of Literature) critic noted that the "picture originally ran about five-and-a-half hours" before being editing into a commercially viable length. While professing reservations about the film's success in adapting Tolstoy's complicated novel, most reviews complimented Jack Cardiff's cinematography and the majority of the acting. Several critics took issue with the various, contrasting accents in the film, however, stating in particular that John Mills's cockney accent was out of place with his Russian character, "Platon." According to the Variety review, "some of the lesser principals, of native Italian lineage, also found themselves dubbed into British English." Modern sources add that Vittorio Gassman and Anita Ekberg were two of the actors who were dubbed. War and Peace was nominated for Academy Awards in the categories of Best Cinematography (Color) and Best Costume Design (Color), and Vidor received a nomination as Best Director. As an Italian entry, the picture won a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film. According to 1958 Hollywood Reporter news items, War and Peace was the first "major film with Hollywood stars to play in Russia since the end of World War II." The Soviet government purchased the rights to distribute the film from Ponti and De Laurentiis for approximately $106,000. By February 1959, the film had grossed $18,000,000 worldwide, according to a Hollywood Reporter news item.
Modern sources include the following actors in the cast: Teresa Pellati (Masa); Maria Zanoli (Mayra); Alberto Carlo Lolli (Prokofiev, Rostov's major-domo); Mario Addobati (Young Mlle. Georges); Gianni Luda, Eschilo Tarquini, Alex D'Alessio, Alfredo Rizzo, John Douglas, Robert Stephens, Angelo Galassi, David Crowley, Patrick Barrett and Michael Billingsley (Russian soldiers); Mauro Lanciani (Kolya, Andrey's son); Ina Alexeiva (Kolya's governess); Don Little and John Home (Natasha's dancing partners); Sdenka Kirchen (Rostov maid); Nando Gallai (Count Bezukhov's servant); Michael Tor (Pope); Piero Pastore (Andrey's servant); Vincent Barbi (Balaga, Dolokhov's coachman); Luciano Angelini (Young soldier at Borodino); Charles Fawcett (Russian artillery captain); Piero Palermini (Russian artillery lieutenant); Aldo Saporetti, Dimitri Konstantinov, Robin White Cross and Lucio de Santis (Young officers at Dolokhov's); Robert Cunningham (Pierre's second); Andrea Esterhazy (Dolokhov's second); Marianne Leibl (Vera, Bolkonsky servant); Marisa Allasio (Matriosa, Dolokhov's servant ); Stephen Garrett (Coachman/Doctor); Cesare Barbetti (Young boy); Francis Foucaud (French soldier); Savo Raskovitch (Czar Alexander I); George Brehat (French officer at execution); Gilberto Tofano (Young dying soldier); Umberto Sacripante (Old man); Paole Quagliero (Woman rescued by Pierre); Christopher Hofer (French officer during retreat); Carlo Delmi (Young guard); Enrico Olivieri (French drummer); Eric Oulton, Archibald Lyall, John Stacey and Mino Doro (Russian generals); Alan Furlan and Joop van Hulsen (Russian officers); Giovanni Rossi-Loti (Young Russian officer at Austerlitz); Giacomo Rossi-Stuart (Young Cossack); Guido Celano (Napoleon's officer); Jerry Riggio, Geoffrey Copplestone, Mimmo Palmara, Giorgio Constantini and Carlo Dale (French officers); Richard McNamara (De Beausset); Stephen Lang (Tichon); Gualtiero Tumiati (Count Benuchov); Celia Matania (Mademoiselle Georges); Andrea Fantasia (Constand); and Micaela Giustiniani, Giuseppe Addobati, Augusto Borselli, Carmelo Consoli, Tiziano Cortini, Henry Danieli, Richard Dawson, Dino Gelio, Arcibaldo Layall, Nino Milia, Frank Pex and Henri Vidon.
In 1987, Los Angeles Times noted that "about five minutes" of footage from the 1956 version of War and Peace was utilized in the television miniseries Napoleon and Josephine: A Love Story. Between 1962 and 1967, a 480-minute version of War and Peace was produced in the Soviet Union. Released in the United States in 1968 in a 390-minute, English-language version, the picture was directed by Sergei Bondarchuk and starred Lyudmila Savelyeva as Natasha, Vyacheslav Tikhonov as Andrey and Bondarchuk as Pierre (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1961-70). In 1973, Tolstoy's novel was used as the basis for a PBS television miniseries, directed by John Howard Davies and starring Morag Hood, Alan Dobie and Anthony Hopkins. A Russian ballet of the story was telecast in 1991 with Elena Prokina, Alexander Gergalov and Gegam Grigorian as the stars.