Armand Assante in Napoleon & Josephine: A Love Story
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Marlon Brando in Desiree

War and Peace

Napoleon (Herbert Lom) contemplates retreat from the burning Moscow.
Release Year: 1956
Country: Italy/USA
Director: King Vidor
Writers: Leo Tolstoy (novel), Bridget Boland, Robert Westerby, King Vidor, Mario Camerini, Ennio De Concini, Ivo Perilli, Gian Gaspare Napolitano, Mario Soldati
Cast: Audrey Hepburn, Henry Fonda, Mel Ferrer, Vittorio Gassman, Herbet Lom, Oskar Homolka, Anita Ekberg, Helmut Dantine, Tullio Carminati, Barry Jones, Milly Vitale, Lea Seidl, Anna Maria Ferrero, Wilfred Lawson, May Britt, Jeremy Brett, Patrick Crean, Sean Barrett, John Mills, Marianne Leibl, Gualtiero Tumiati
Music: Nino Rota
Company: Paramount Pictures
Runtime: 208 minutes


tory: The dissolute, intellectual, and illegitimate Pierre Bezukhov (Henry Fonda) admires Napoleon's professions of egalitarianism, and is friends with the financially unstable Rostov family, which consists of Prince Mikhail Rostov (Barry Jones), his wife the Countess Rostov (Lea Seidl), their vivacious young daughter Natasha (Audrey Hepburn), elder daughter Vera (Marianne Leibl), elder son Nikolai (Jeremy Brett), younger son Petya (Sean Barrett), and the children’s cousin Sonia (May Britt). Nikolai, who has promised his love to Sonia, has joined the army, and is preparing to march off against the French.

Napoleon (Herbert Lom) after the battle at Austerlitz.
Pierre’s father (Gualtiero Tumiati) dies, leaving Pierre as his heir. The worldly (i.e. slutty) Helene Kuragina (Anita Ekberg) maneuvers Pierre into marrying her now that he’s rich, and sets about spending his money. Meanwhile, Pierre’s best friend, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (Mel Ferrer), is unhappily married to Lisa (Milly Vitale), who is pregnant. Andrei is also planning on going to war against the French, and parks his wife at a country estate with his irascible father Prince Bolkonsky (Wilfred Lawson) and saintly sister Maria (Anna Maria Ferrero).

At the Battle of Austerlitz, Andrei takes up a fallen banner and leads some men into battle. He is wounded and left for dead. After the battle, Napoleon (Herbert Lom) surveys the field and notices that Andrei is still alive and orders that his wounds be attended to. When he recovers, Andrei returns to his father’s home in time to see his wife die in childbirth, leaving him with a son.

Dolokhov (Helmut Dantine, far left) and Pierre (Henry Fonda, far right)
face off for the duel.
Pierre finds out that his wife is having an affair with Captain Dolokhov (Helmut Dantine), and when Dolokhov mocks him in public he challenges him to a duel. Although Dolokhov is an experienced duelist, the bumbling Pierre manages to wound him in the duel. Pierre is sickened by what he has done and throws away his pistol.

The Rostovs, with Pierre in tow, repair to their country estate and organize a hunt. While on the hunt, they come upon the brooding Andrei, and invite him to join them. He refuses at first, but is intrigued by the young Natasha and finally agrees. That night, Andrei is amused and enchanted as through the window he overhears Natasha and Sonia discussing him in their bedroom on the upper floor.

In Petersburg, Natasha attends her first grand ball and is afraid that no one will dance with her. Prince Andrei asks her to dance and they fall in love. Andrei tells his father that he wishes to marry, but his father opposes the marriage and insists that it be delayed for one year. Andrei proposes to Natasha, but she worries about the delay when he leaves the country. Natasha and her father visit Andrei’s father and sister, but the old man is rude to them and they leave.

Andrei (Mel Ferrer) and Natasha (Audrey Hepburn) at the ball.
At the opera, Helene's scoundrel of a brother, Anatol Kuragin (Vittorio Gassman), sees Natasha and feels he must have her. He arranges for his sister to have Natasha join her in her box so he can profess his love for her. Natasha is immediately attracted to the cad, but declines his advances. He insists that she visit his sister so he can continue to woo her.

Later, Helene has a soiree and invites Natasha and her father. While Rostov is distracted, Anatol gets Natasha alone and wins her over. They plan to elope, but Sonia finds out about it and sends word to Pierre, who intercepts Anatol (his brother-in-law) and tells him he knows that he is already married. He convinces Anatol to leave, and confronts Natasha with the truth. Natasha repents her rash actions, is horrified that she has betrayed Andrei, and believes that her life is over. Pierre assures her that this is not true, and reveals that if he were worthy, and not already married, he would beg Natasha for her love.

Napoleon (Herbert Lom) observes the Battle of Borodino.
Napoleon invades Russia, and the Russian army pulls back until General Kutuzov (Oskar Homolka) makes a stand outside the town of Borodino. Feeling he must do something, Pierre goes to Borodino to observe the battle. The night before the battle, he meets Andrei, who still cannot forgive Natasha for her betrayal. They part, not expecting to see each other again. The next day, Pierre comes upon an artillery emplacement and gets caught up in the battle. When the French overrun their position, Pierre takes a wounded soldier back to an aid station, only to learn that the soldier has died en route. Disgusted with the waste of war, Pierre damns Napoleon.

In a conference held in a hovel in the village of Fili, General Kutuzov decides his army cannot withstand another direct engagement with the French and that Moscow cannot be defended. As the citizens of Moscow evacuate the city, a convoy of the wounded stops at the Rostovs' mansion to rest. Prince Rostov offers them the use of the mansion, but Natasha convinces him to abandon the family's furniture and take the wounded with them instead. On the way out of the city, they see Pierre, who says that he must remain behind to complete a task. As the Rostovs continue on their way, Natasha learns that Andrei is among the wounded.

Kutuzov (Oskar Homolka) orders a retreat at a conference in Fili.
Napoleon triumphantly marches into Moscow, then waits in vain for a surrender. Natasha goes among the wounded and finds Andrei. They reconcile. Pierre plans to assassinate Napoleon, but when he has his chance he hesitates and the opportunity passes. He then is rounded up as an incendiary, and is marched off to be executed. The execution is halted just before they get to Pierre, and he is housed in a barn with other prisoners. He becomes acquainted with Platon Karataev (John Mills), a peasant philosopher who gives him new insight into life.

Andrei's sister Maria and his young son join the Rostovs at a monastery where Andrei is being cared for. Nikolai accompanies them and has fallen in love with Maria. Sonia releases him from his promise of marriage. He is told that his young brother Petya has joined the army to fight the French. Near death, Andrei feels complete love for Natasha, and realizes that his hatred was mere vanity. They declare their love for each other, and Andrei dies.

Natasha (Audrey Hepburn) and Andrei (Mel Ferrer) reconcile.
Napoleon can't believe that the Russians will not surrender, and questions his staff as to whether a deputation may have been held up by the sentries. Assured that there has been no attempt to surrender, he expresses his disgust at the drunken rabble that his soldiers are becoming. Realizing that they cannot stay in the smoldering ruins of Moscow, he orders a retreat. Pierre, his new friend Platon, and the other prisoners are taken along on the march, as are the Russian women who have become involved with the French soldiers. The harsh winter takes its toll, and many die along the way. Pierre perseveres by counting his steps, but Platon falls exhausted by the wayside and is shot.

Young Petya joins Dolokhov's band of Cossacks, and they make plans for harassing the French. Petya learns about the realities of war when he shares his food with a young French prisoner. The next day, the Cossacks attack the retreating French troops and free Pierre, but Petya is killed in the attack. Pierre learns from Dolokhov that his wife has died.

The French crossing the Berensina River.
The dwindling French Army is pursued to the Berensina River, and the retreating troops come under cannon fire as they cross the makeshift bridge. From the other side, Napoleon watches his troops being slaughtered and orders the burning of their standards to keep them out of the hands of the Russians. With tears in his eyes, he boards the sleigh that will take him back to Paris.

In Moscow, the Rostovs return to their partially destroyed mansion. With Maria and Andrei's son joining the family, the Rostovs and the Bolkonskys are finally united. As Natasha surveys the ruins, she sees a figure in the shadows by the door. It is Pierre. They run to each other and embrace. Walking out into the open air, they are surrounded by the beauty of nature as they plan their future together. They have survived the war and life goes on.

Napoleon (Herbert Lom) leaves his army to return to Paris.


omment: Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace had first been adapted to film in a 1915 silent version made in Russia entitled Voyna i mir. It was directed by Vladimir Gardin, who also played the role of Napoleon, and was apparently followed by two other versions made in Russia that same year, one directed by Pyotr Chardynin (Natasha Rostova, with Vera Karalli in the title role) and the other by Anatoli Kamensky (Voyna i mir).

Hollywood had long shown an interest in adapting Tolstoy's great work, with D.W. Griffith, Ernst Lubitsch, Erich von Stroheim, Irving Thalberg, and Michael Todd all having considered the project at one time or another, but it took the audacious Italian production team of Dino De Laurentiis and Carlo Ponti to put together the money and resources necessary to pull it off. Reportedly paying exorbitant bribes, De Laurentiis also secured the participation of somewhere between 6,000 and 18,000 soldiers (reports vary) from the Italian Army for the battle scenes.

Natasha (Audrey Hepburn) and Pierre (Henry Fonda) reunited in Moscow.
Producer De Laurentiis' somewhat dubious solution to adapting Tolstoy's 1400 page novel into a filmable screenplay apparently consisted of hiring separate writing teams to each adapt separate segments of the novel. The resultant mishmash was unacceptable to director King Vidor, so he turned the whole mess over to another team of writers, himself included, to quickly rewrite the script as the start of filming rapidly approached. Surprisingly, at a running time of just under three and a half hours, the finished script does a fairly adequate job of hitting the high points of Tolstoy's novel, though the writing is a bit uneven and there are a number of rough spots. Of course, most of the intricacies of the original novel and much of Tolstoy's philosophizing had to be jettisoned.

Critics have generally condemned Mel Ferrer's performance as Andrei, though I believe that his somewhat distanced performance matches the restrained and aristocratic character in the novel quite well, but a happy consequence of (and most likely the motivating factor for) him being cast was the hiring of the radiant Audrey Hepburn, who he was married to at the time, as Natasha. Although slightly too old for the part, Hepburn gives an excellent performance and serves as the focal point of the movie.

The critics have also generally considered Henry Fonda to have been miscast as Pierre, complaining that at age 50 he was too old to be playing Pierre, that he was too thin, and that he was too "American." While all of this may perhaps be true, and Fonda himself reportedly felt that he wasn't right for the role, he also gives a memorable performance as the conflicted nobleman and looks younger than his years.

Perhaps one of the most memorable performances in the film comes from Herbert Lom as Napoleon. Although he had played the role once before in The Young Mr. Pitt (1942), his performance here brings much greater depth to the character. Appearing for a total of little over fourteen minutes onscreen, Lom manages to bring out at least a hint of humanity beneath the Emperor's single-minded ambition to conquer Europe. Although the story is being told from the Russian point of view, and therefore Napoleon is definitely the villain of the piece, we still see warmth when Napoleon orders that the wounded Andrei be cared for following the Battle of Austerlitz, when he proudly views the portrait of his son before the Battle of Borodino, and as he leaves his broken army after crossing the Berensina River.

The one thing that the film is almost universally praised for is its battle scenes. Whatever it cost De Laurentiis to "arrange" for the participation of a significant portion of the Italian Army, it paid off handsomely onscreen. The sight of the massed troops marching on the Russian positions in the Battle of Borodino is convincingly intimidating, and the cavalry charge pouring through the retreating troops to overrun the Russians is breathtaking. Portions of these scenes were later used as stock footage in the 1987 mini-series, Napoleon and Josephine: A Love Story.


istorical Context: Tolstoy has done his research, and even the heavy hand of the screenplay's adapters has not caused significant deviation from the historical record. A number of important events are glossed over, and important battles have been omitted, but what remains of the history of the era is more or less accurate. Of course, the story is told from the Russian point of view, so the French side of the story is pretty much ignored. The invasion of Russia was no doubt Napoleon's greatest blunder, but he arguably had sufficient provocation due to the Czar's double dealing and broken promises.

Availability: War and Peace has been released on DVD and is available at and other outlets.

References: IMDb; Wikipedia; Durgnat, Raymond and Simmon, Scott, King Vidor, American, Berkely, California, University of California Press, 1988; Robinson, Harlow, Russians in Hollywood, Hollywood's Russians: Biography of an Image, Lebanon, New Hampshire, University Press of New England, 2007.

Return to Napoleon Filmography.