War and Peace (1956): Vidor’s Ambitious Effort at Intimate Epic, starring Audrey Hepburn and Henry Fonda

King Vidor’s screen version of Tolstoy’s famous novel, War and Peace, is an ambitious epic, more commendable for its intent than for its execution.

The half a dozen scripters took considerable freedom with the original and overwhelming text, instead centering on a romantic triangle.

In recreating the social and personal upheavals around Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia, a budget of $6 million was applied by producers Carlo Ponti, Dino de Laurentiis for this Paramount Pictures release.

Some of the panoramic battle sequences are expertly handled by second-unit director Mario Soldati, relying on Technicolor-and-Vistavision strategy.

The film suffers from problems of casting, narrative flow, and lack of genuine drama.

Sharply uneven, the film contains some good sequences, but Vidor’s uncharacteristically diffuse direction leaves much to be desired.

Audrey Hepburn is charming and creditable, Mel Ferrer is as usual too bland, and Fonda too much on an American Yankee to play his part convincingly.

Proving too long and unwieldy for most audiences, War and Peace was a box-office flop, failing to recoup its big budget.

Oscar presenter Jerry Lewis quipped: “At $9 million, War and Peace cost more than the war itself did.”

Oscar Nominations: 3

Best Director: King Vidor

Color Cinematography: Jack Cardiff

Color Costume Design: Marie De Matie

Oscar Context 

The winner of the Best Director was George Stevens for Giant.

Lionel Lindon won the Cinematography Oscar for Around the World in 80 Days, which also got Best Picture.

Irene Sharaff won the Color Costume Oscar for The King and I.

Credits

Directed By: King Vidor

Screenplay: Bridget Boland, Robert Westerby, King Vidor, Mario Camerini, Ennio De Concini

Released: August 21, 1956

MPAA: PG

Running time: 208 minutes