October Issue 2012

By | Arts & Culture | Movies | Published 8 years ago

Leo Tolstoy is Hollywood’s favourite go-to Russian novelist. To date, his novel Anna Karenina has been adapted for film 25 times (with the latest Joe Wright-directed version released just last month), and War and Peace has been brought to life on screen no less than 13 times. This 1956 version was the first English-language adaptation, and it does a remarkable job of condensing Tolstoy’s 1200-page epic saga into just less than three-and-a-half hours of running time. Perfectly balancing the senselessness and chaos of war with the brief interludes of peace, it chronicles the social and personal upheaval that was wrought by Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia.

Starring the radiant Audrey Hepburn as the charming and naïve Natasha, the youngest daughter of the loving and close-knit Rostov family, Henry Fonda as the idealistic Count Pierre and Mel Ferrer as the disillusioned yet sensitive Prince Andrei, the film focuses on the entangled relationships of the three against the backdrop of the Napoleonic invasion.

The film does a commendable job of charting the maturation of the three main characters, as well as tracing the political events that were unfolding around them. The political intricacies are not delved into in too much detail, so the events are easy to follow even for those unfamiliar with Russian history.

Hepburn is delightful to watch as she progresses from a wide-eyed, innocent young girl to a thoughtful and sophisticated woman. Fonda, although criticised for being too old and too “American” for the role, nevertheless brings a certain gravitas to Pierre and portrays his conflict about the war and Napoleon with grace. The somewhat detached performance of Ferrer as Andrei lends itself well to the character’s restrained and aristocratic manner. One of the most memorable performances is that of Herbert Lom as Napoleon who, while only being on the screen for a total of 14 minutes, brings depth to the domineering conqueror by giving a glimpse of the humanity beneath his tyrannical demeanour.

The battle scenes are impressive, and the director’s decision to hire around 10,000 soldiers from the Italian Army lends the scenes a certain authenticity. The Battle of Berezina and the French Army’s subsequent retreat are especially formidable and intense, and helped score the film an Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography in 1956. The film also won the Golden Globe for the Best Foreign-Language Film. While not as critically acclaimed as the seven-hour long Russian version of 1966, War and Peace still manages to do justice to one of Tolstoy’s finest literary achievements.

This review was originally published in the October issue.

Nudrat Kamal teaches comparative literature at university level, and writes on literature, film and culture.