KING VIDOR FOR WAR AND PEACE (1956)
The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)
George Stevens for Giant
Michael Anderson for Around the World in Eighty Days
Walter Lang for The King and I
William Wyler for Friendly Persuasion
NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.
I would venture to say any screen adaptation of War and Peace would be folly, but Sergei Bondarchuk’s seven-hour version (thanks to Khrushchev’s munifience, the most expensive film ever made), is apparently waiting to prove me wrong when I finally see it. But at half the length, Paramount’s truncation of Tolstoy’s irreducibly vast novel was a misbegotten dream. The film’s six credited screenwriters indicate the difficulty with which the studio attempted to cram the sprawling story into a *mere* three and a half hours, and the end result—for the most part—feels as though it’s reciting a series of quotes without grasping the underlying meaning of the text. Still, the redoubtable King Vidor manages to wring some highlights—and one masterful extended sequence—from this abbreviated epic. If the film cannot match the peerless quality of its source material, it at least musters up, in Vidor’s visual design, Audrey Hepburn’s ethereal beauty, and Jack Cardiff’s prismatic photography, a sporadic visual eloquence to suggest Tolstoy’s grand vision.
The first two-plus hours of the film, hewing to the bare bones plot of Moscow’s petty aristocratic affairs as Napoleon’s shadow darkens the horizon, feels like a highlight reel that bypasses the underlying current of the narrative. Still, Vidor finds his openings for memorable imagery, including the pithy map of Europe that accompanies the prologue, and the textures of battle sites that distinctively shape the combat: Austerlitz’s deeply creased fields, Borodino’s rolling hills. Jack Cardiff, incomparable cinematographer just a few years away from his own Best Director nomination, uses his Technicolor palette like a symphonic orchestra, ranging from the pearly hues of Pierre and Dolokhov’s duel to the orange fires that pierce the landscape in advance of Napoleon’s army. Back in Moscow, it’s a shame that only Maria de Matteis received a nomination, as her costumes and Mario Chiari & Piero Gheradi’s production design work in tandem to craft the pastel harmony between the Russian nobility and their pre-invasion environs, followed by the discord of the ashen ruins that greet them on their return.
But the film’s high point—a high plateau, really—is the winter march of the Russian and French armies that closes the film. The twenty minute sequence, beginning with a grim parody of the title procession in Vidor’s The Big Parade, climaxing in the spectacular crossing of the Berezina, and concluding with the glimmer of a tear in the retreating Napoleon’s eye, is a marvelous piece on the bitter price of war exacted on both the victors and the vanquished. Closing out the film with a bang, Vidor makes a resounding statement in the rare scene long enough to truly find its voice.
King Vidor was perhaps the greatest American director of the 1920s, the prize director of MGM’s The Big Parade, Show People, The Crowd, the last of which placed him in the very first Best Director race in Oscar history. Twenty-nine years later, in the penultimate film of a nearly fifty-year career, Vidor had survived not only the introduction of sound but also the conquest of color. The 1956 Academy Awards featured the first all-color slate for both Best Picture and Best Director. Whatever their other strengths and weaknesses, all five directors made terrific use of their palettes. Vidor’s fifth and final nod pitted him against two other decorated veterans: George Stevens, earning his fourth of five nominations (and second Oscar) for his dusty Texan saga Giant, and William Wyler, breaking his own record with a ninth of twelve nominations for one of his middling efforts, Friendly Persuasion. Joining the group were two one-time nominees, Michael Anderson for the tedious extravaganza Around the World in Eighty Days and Walter Lang for the exquisite and emotional Rodgers & Hammerstein adaptation The King and I. Stevens and Lang both do admirable work here, but it’s rare indeed for a Broadway adaptation to excel on the screen, and Walter Lang’s soulful romance wins my vote.