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War and Peace
1956 - PG - 205 Mins.
Director: King Vidor
Producer: Dino De Laurentiis
Written By: Bridget Boland, Mario Camerini, Ennio De Concini, Ivo Perilli, King Vidor and Robert Westerby
Starring: Audrey Hepburn, Henry Fonda, Mel Ferrer, Vittorio Gassman and Herbert Lom
Review by: Bill King

Do you think your daughter Jane will protest this war?
You see a movie that's over three hours long and assume that it must be some kind of masterpiece. King Vidor's "War and Peace" (205 minutes) does not belong in the same company as "JFK," "Dances with Wolves," "Titanic" or "Apocalypse Now Redux." Despite its respected source (Leo Tolstoy's novel), director and cast, this film is ultimately devoid of interest and spectacle. It's a costume drama with the costumes but no drama.

The movie is too long, which is a generic excuse for anyone disliking a movie that's over three hours, but I will use it here. There are passages that serve no purpose except to give the illusion of character development. When these scenes pass, I couldn't recall them. They make no impact, because there is no urgency in the script. I like certain movies that move slow, but this is not one of them. Sweeping epics like this have to justify their vast scopes and long running time. "War and Peace" does not. It's as if the seven credited screenwriters (with more uncredited) couldn't decide on a final draft, so they included everything in the movie.

The film takes place during Napoleon's invasion of Russia in the early 1800s. Though Audrey Hepburn gets top billing as Natasha Rostov, she doesn't dominate the movie as much as you'd think. She shows up occasionally to utter some dialogue before departing until whenever the plot needs her. The main character is Pierre Bezukhov (a very American Henry Fonda), who loves Natasha but has reservations about starting a relationship. Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (Mel Ferrer, Hepburn's real-life husband) also loves Natasha, and is the only one of the two who has the courage to ask for her hand in marriage. After his own wife dies in childbirth, he proposes to Natasha, but asks that they wait a year before committing.

When Andrei is sent off to fight against Napoleon, Pierre goes along, wanting to observe the war for himself. The Rostov family fears that Napoleon might get too close to Moscow, so the family abandons its home and seeks shelter in a monastery. On the front lines, the war goes well for the Russians. The French flee for Europe, but the devastating cold season takes a huge toll on the army. Pierre ends up as a prisoner of war, and he too must endure the long journey back, along with many of his countrymen who were abducted in Moscow.

The movie's first hour spends too much time setting up the conflicts between its characters, which is not a wise move since the last hour of the film (the best part of the movie) covers a battle between the Russians and French, and the long walk back to Europe, centering the entire narrative on Pierre's plight. Even if that weren't the case, the weak script doesn't flesh out any of the characters. They are wooden statues wearing 19th century attire. Only Hepburn infuses any kind of sincerity or effort in her role. Henry Fonda just doesn't work as a Russian noble. Mel Ferrer fares better, but I can only remember him giving one facial expression in the entire film.

King Vidor, a distinguished director with many films to his credit, tries gallantly to bring this sprawling film to life, but he just doesn't. I've never read Leo Tolstoy's novel, and I probably won't anytime soon. The longest movie I've ever seen is the brilliant TV movie "The Stand," which clocks in at 366 minutes. I've seen the movie on DVD, all the way through without a break, so I know a lengthy movie can hold my interest if it's good enough. "War and Peace" is not good enough, I'm afraid.
Movie Guru Rating
Disappointing.  Had the right ingredients and should have been better. Disappointing.  Had the right ingredients and should have been better.
  2 out of 5 stars

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