"In less than three minutes," recounted Peter Fonda in his 1981 oral autobiography, "a script arrived at my door about the size of a Manhattan telephone directory. Heaviest damn movie script I'd ever held…."
It took six credited screenwriters to tackle Tolstoy's 1600-page epic tale - not necessarily due to the book's complex narrative and multiple characters, but because rival productions were being planned (including one by David O. Selznick) and the most efficient method to beat the competition to a production start date was by parceling out key passages to different screenwriters. King Vidor himself tackled the script, which included material translated to English from the Italian contingent, and according to Vidor biographers Raymond Durgnat and Scott Simon ("King Vidor, American," published in 1988 by University of California Press), the job was successfully done in a month.
The $6 million Dino De Laurentiis-Carlo Ponti production ultimately won, with Vidor - already a veteran of intimate, social and large-scale dramas and spectacles - becoming one of the first directors to use Paramount's new VistaVision widescreen process for the Epic Film genre. Vidor was already familiar with the big screen format, having directed one of the first commercial 70mm features in 1930. Shooting simultaneously in 35 and 70mm formats, he had helmed "Billy The Kid" in MGM's new Grandeur format - a system that was ultimately mothballed when exhibitors cried 'enough' after having just spent considerable monies to convert their theatres for sound. With only 12 theatres in the U.S. equipped for the Grandeur format in 1930, Vidor embraced the chance to go wide again when Dino De Laurentiis arrived at his doorstep in 1955.
"War and Peace" has aged rather well, perhaps because in the era of digital effects, the extraordinary level of coordination for real crowd and physical stunt scenes are more impressive. Thousands of extras and actors were hired - for the elaborate Battle of Borodino, and artfully composed shots of wandering crowds in linear perspectives - and many beautiful sets were constructed and filled with intricately attired extras. Jack Cardiff, recognized as a major pioneer of Technicolor photography - drew from his admiration and study of master painters, and composed some extraordinary images with vibrant colours and fine detail. Vidor himself described some of the finer cinematographic problems - the increased image scope and clarity of VistaVision and the beastly Technicolor cameras - in his brisk little book, "King Vidor on Film Making" (published in 1972 by David McKay Company), and offered an amusing series of production anecdotes regarding the spectacular Borodino battle, and some clever low-tech solutions for the film's Opera and duel sequences.
Paramount's DVD is a beautiful transfer, registering a solid level of rich Technicolor that the old full frame TV transfers lacked; the only flaw lies in a curious yellow 'sniper's dot' that appears during the Opera sequence, noticeable several times on poor Audrey Hepburn's forehead.
Though VistaVision was billed as "Motion Picture High Fidelity," the film was released rather surprisingly with a mono soundtrack. Nevertheless, the mix offers an even balance of sound effects, Nino Rota's multi-thematic score, and the extensive dialogue passages delivered by the international cast. Only Anita Ekberg's Brit dubbing evokes an immediate frown, while the performances of the overall cast successfully draw attention away from the cocktail of accents.
Some publicity and production info would have aided in placing this high-profile big screen production in its proper historical context - along with Cecil B. DeMille's "Ten Commandments," "War and Peace" was the studio's second major tent pole production of '56 - but the included black & white making-of trailer contains some behind-the-scenes battle footage that somewhat fills the void. Twittering Audrey Hepburn and then-hubby Mel Ferrer are shown arriving at the airport, and King Vidor himself closes the trailer with some quasi-earnest ballyhoo regarding the film's immense scope and historical importance.
A second trailer for the film's re-release is also included, and the off-kilter colors make for a good comparison between the older film elements, and the luminous qualities of the feature film's new transfer, that restores its epic grandeur.
© 2002 Mark R. Hasan