HOLLYWOOD DOES WAR AND PEACE….AND HOLDS ITS OWN (And Then There Was Hollywood: Sixth Rumination)

War and Peace (1956)
D. King Vidor

It’s impossible, of course. Novels far less great and complex than War and Peace have tended to school anyone who dared to film them in the vicissitudes of economic and critical failure. Especially with a finely wrought Russian-language version available from the Soviet era (1966 to be exact) having been brought in at twice the length with what amounted to an unlimited budget, what’s to be expected of a Hollywood-financed version filmed in Italy a decade earlier with a bewildering array of international stars not even bothering to attempt Russian accents?

Well, whatever we had a right to expect, a great deal was delivered.

Not the novel, mind you. Even the six-hour Soviet version couldn’t do that. But taken on its own, King Vidor’s effort is more than impressive. After years of enjoying it–and accepting that the miscasting of Henry Fonda as Pierre is not subject to rectification by time-travel and a word in the producer’s ear–I’ve even begun to lean towards it having more than a little greatness in its bones.

Vidor was a pro’s pro–one of a mere handful of important American directors from the silent era still going strong in 1956. Having made every kind of film (and as entertainment no less), he was well suited to making one where every kind of drama–romantic, familial, political, martial, diplomatic, religious–must be sustained in order for the thing to work at all. Now that I’ve reached the point where I can quit worrying about why and how someone as quintessentially ill-suited to play a big bear of an emotionally tormented Russian as Henry Fonda was chosen for the lead, I can fully enjoy the precision with which Vidor directed each of the film’s dizzying variety of modes, and the grace with which he, keeping close concert with the source no matter how much had to be elided, wove it all together.

I can also appreciate how right most of the remaining cast is. That Dutch-Anglo Audrey Hepburn would make as great an English-speaking Natasha as we’ll have, or draw a relatively relaxed performance out of her then-husband, Cuban-American Mel Ferrer, is no surprise. But she’s not a patch on Sweden’s Anita Ekberg (as Pierre’s supremely haughty first wife, Helene), Italy’s Vittorio Gassman (as Helene’s snake-in-the-grass brother and Natasha’s seducer, Anatol), Austria’s Helmut Dantine (as Dolokhov, an especially strong reminder that cads often make the best soldiers when there’s a real enemy to fight), England’s Wilfred Lawson (unbeatable as the aging Prince Bolkonsky), Austria’s Oscar Homolka (as General Kutuzov, Russia’s military savior) or the Czech Republic’s Herbert Lom (a definitive Napoleon).

With all that going on, Vidor needed some thread to hold his (or, if you like, Tolstoy’s) story together.

It took me a long time to notice that the thread was religiosity, which grows from ritual to faith as the story develops…and Napoleon’s army advances.

Given how closely I usually attend such themes, I credit Vidor (and Tolstoy) for integrating it so thoroughly and naturally, for making it not merely a theme, but part of the film’s air.

It’s what give Natasha’s betrayal of Prince Andrei the quality of sin, without which it’s merely a spoiled tryst….

It’s what gives Pierre’s protection of her the quality of a knight’s honor…

which would otherwise seem ridiculous in any setting as modern as even the Napoleonic era…

It’s what lies, unspoken, at the heart of key reversals in the lives–and spirits–of characters as diametrically opposed as Pierre and Dolokhov, on their twinned-journeys from this….

to this…

It’s what holds Kutuzov upright as he’s driven remorselessly backwards by Napoleon’s onslaught…

knowing he’ll be rewarded by Faith in the end…

and, unlike any other film I’ve seen where Napoleon Bonaparte plays a key role, it establishes what he lacked…

…which was belief in something higher than himself.

It’s also what allows a viewer to grasp in shorthand what Tolstoy was at such famously long-winded pains to articulate as “the Russian soul.”

And, in true cinematic fashion, it’s done mostly by showing, not telling. Such long speeches as there are boil down to Pierre and Andrei playing philosophes….

…aping the intellectual airs of the French who are coming to destroy them, rousing themselves to gut-level emotional commitment only when Moscow stands ready to be consumed by fire (in scenes, I might add, that are as impressive and harrowing as Gone With the Wind‘s burning of Atlanta, to which there are an essay’s worth of literary, cinematic and historical parallels)….

The rest of the time, Vidor allows the haunted, glorious imagery of Orthodoxy to suffuse scene-after-scene so that, by the time it’s foregrounded, it seems to have sprung more from Nature’s design than man’s. An icon peeking from the side of a frame, a quick sign of the cross as a medallion is handed over or as Pierre, the skeptic, enters a rare church service, set a tone which allows the great Act of Faith–the abandonment of Moscow “the holy city”–to seem less miraculous than dutiful. In a word, the film accomplishes, through its use of music, painting (not to mention painter-inspired cinematography), sculpture and iconography, what few explicitly “religious” films have ever done, which is demonstrate the power of cohesive Faith. Russia’s class-bound society–portrayed with a concise, gimlet eye in the film’s early scenes–responds to the invader as one because the abstract nature of God allows what only belief in God can: real humility for those previously favored by Nature or Fortune…

and real dignity for those punished by same. ..

Of course, it helps that Vidor knew his way around a battle field…

…as this movie, which offers so many other things, also gets the shock of war–so carefully planned one minute, so arbitrarily executed the next–as right as any film ever has.

Listening to the pounding of the French drums at Borodino, you can understand why a man with God-like ambitions would define himself by war’s fleeting glory….and feel his loss when the God he sought to replace turns his back and casts him down…

…only to be reminded that he’s earned his fall by the destruction he’s wrought…

…a fate worth pondering as the modern beast, whispering W-W-three-e-e–e, continues to slouch, quite literally, towards Bethlehem, and stupid people seeking no more than a medal and a bigger office, dream once more of war with the Russkies and convince themselves that this time–this time!–it will be different.

TEN FILMS YOU MIGHT WANT TO WATCH (OR REWATCH) BETWEEN NOW AND NOVEMBER…

(Well, I said I might be in a list-making mood. So, as the long, hot summer hits its stride, I introduce a new category I created because I couldn’t fit this post into any of my existing ones. Having stretched my brain to its limits, I’m calling it….Lists.)

High Noon (1952)
Director: Fred Zinneman

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A supposed Cold War metaphor that could be claimed by either side, according to virtue-seeking whim. But it’s deeper than that, almost pre-civilizational, and the thematic structure is as spare and unforgiving as the famous “real time”  trick of the plot.

“You’re a judge,” Gary Cooper’s Will Kane says to the first person who decides to run instead of fight, when it becomes known that a vengeful outlaw’s gang is now waiting for him at the station on the edge of town, where he’ll arrive on the noon train.

“I’ve been a judge many times in many towns,” is the sensible, world-weary reply. “I hope to live to be a judge again.”

Last I looked, his shades are splitting time between the Supreme Court and the Council of Ministers. They’re all wearing different names and faces, of course, while every Leader of the Free World pretends this is his favorite movie.

A good, swift reminder that the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for enough good men to choose survival over honor…or let things come to such a pass that the only choices are laying down and dying or throwing up in your mouth.

The Last Hurrah (1958)
Director: John Ford

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High-middling by Ford’s standards, which means it still goes places worth going. Perhaps the first film to suggest that our politics had got beyond satirizing, a suggestion we’ve spent the years since proving beyond a shadow of a doubt. I thought it was a touch over the top the first time I saw it. Then, upon revisiting, I realized how much Frank Skeffington’s opponents reminded me of the Bush family, who had, in fact, emerged from this very Bostonian milieu.

Seen in one light, the film can be comforting: It’s all been round before.

Seen in another, it can send an entirely different message: We’re doomed.

Either way, the final scene is Spencer Tracy’s finest hour.

That Hamilton Woman (1941)
Director: Alexander Korda

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What? You mean England and “Europe” weren’t always chums? You mean England and America weren’t always chums? What gives?

This film, about England at high tide (and yes, about Horatio Nelson and his famous mistress, too), is a good reminder of how hard it is to have chums–or challenge social convention–when you’re intent on ruling an empire where, as some quipster once had it, “the sun never sets and the blood never dries.” That’s something Americans have been forced to learn a thing or two about in the world we’ve made since.

From Gone With the Wind onward, Vivien Leigh was always some measure of great, and never greater than here, which may be the role she was born to play. The final scene is all hers and a killer. But it’s not more poignant than the moment, mid-film, when Leigh’s Emma Hamilton sees Laurence Olivier’s Nelson, returning from his “triumphs,” emerging from the shadows a broken man only she can redeem.

Winston Churchill’s favorite movie, back when it was still possible to believe “there will always be an England” meant there would always be something more than a plot of ground with the name attached.

La Marseillaise (1938)
Director: Jean Renoir

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Renoir and Ford were two sides of a coin. Ford’s specialty was weaving the life-size concerns of ordinary people into the tangled fabric of larger-than life-historical tapestries. Renoir, being a “man of the Left”–and the thirties’ Left at that–was practically obligated to have a go at the same.

It was his bad luck to be utterly bad at it–every bit as bad as Ford was at portraying the New World’s moneyed aristocracy. In his greatest films (here, The Rules of the Game, The Grand Illusion) the representations of the proles, whether earnest or earthy (the default positions for any intellectual purporting to celebrate the Common Man), were always woodenly conceived and executed.

Our good luck is that this ended up being a minor problem. Whatever Renoir’s politics, he knew his own strengths (the same might be said of Ford, whose politics were much more complicated, though, not, I believe, the complete mystery some have made of them). Beyond society itself, the great, sensitive portraits in his films–the ones he and his actors lavished real care on–were of the aristocracy, the nobility, the landed classes, and, here, the King, Louis XVI (pictured above, among his legions, as played by Renoir’s brother, Pierre).

One of the many reasons Renoir is so revered today is that he saw the collapse of France coming. Deep down, he must have known what that collapse meant: In essence, that, despite its long arc, the French Revolution had failed, with reverberations that will be felt until France is no more.

That was worth noting on the eve of WWII. If this political year somehow ends up marking another break with the past, it will be worth remembering in the Age to come.

War and Peace (1966)
Director: Sergey Bondarchuk

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What? You mean Russia and “Europe” have never been chums? Ever?

Of course no film can match the pure narrative depth and scope of Tolstoy’s mind-blowing novel, but this effort from the high tide of the Soviet Union’s crudely failed attempt to do what the super-sophisticated European Union is about to fail at as well, comes as close as anything can.

King Vidor’s 1956 Hollywood version has much to recommend it. Audrey Hepburn was a fine Natasha, Anita Ekberg a definitive Helene, Herbert Lom a Napoleon capable of making you feel for the man without quite forgiving him. The retreat from Moscow will never be done better. I’ve watched it a dozen times, but never without realizing that nothing can overcome whatever hallucination led someone to think Henry Fonda, great as he was, could make even a serviceable Pierre.

That’s well taken care of here, by Bondarchuk himself. He seems to be channeling Jean Renoir’s director/actor turn in The Rules of the Game, which was itself probably modeled on Tolstoy’s Pierre. Better than that, Bondarchuk found the definitive Natasha in Lyudmila Savaleya (Hepburn was great, but there’s an insurmountable advantage in being Russian when you’re playing the consummate Russian heroine).

The other big advantage in making a state-sponsored national epic? No time restraints. This runs north of seven hours, so you’ll either get lost or get bored (just like with the novel). But, just like the novel, if you stick with it, the rewards are enormous. And it’s worth remembering that Tolsoy’s various Russias–the one he lived in even more so than the one he remembered and imagined–were not far from collapse either.

Robin Hood (1991)
Director: John Irvin

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Talk about pre-civilizational. This deceptively modest rendering of the legend got swamped by the flashy Kevin Costner version that came out at the same time. Being ten times as good doesn’t always help.

Uma Thurman makes an odd, though not entirely ineffective, Maid Marion. (The role has been surprisingly hard to cast. Even Olivia De Havilland wasn’t quite right for it, she was just so luminous in Technicolor it didn’t matter. The definitive Marion was Glynis Johns, who, under the name of Henry VIII’s sister, Mary Tudor, in a story set at his court, played the type to sublime perfection in Disney’s The Sword and the Rose. She somehow missed getting the part under the right name, in the right setting, when, with much of the same cast and crew, the studio made its own excellent version of the Robin Hood story a year earlier. Sometimes, the gears of the Cosmos slip just that little tantalizing bit, leaving us with insoluble mysteries.) And, for some reason, Nottingham has been split into two men, one a touch sympathetic, the other nasty-to-the-bone, neither named Nottingham.

But forget all that. It’s glorious.

We’re spared the return of good King Richard (or much reference to him at all, though Edward Fox has a fine cameo as a querulous Prince John), and spun straight back into tribalist politics, twisting Norman round Saxon and vice versa. Bergin’s Robin isn’t standing for the rights of Englishman as much as his own pride. Unlike any other version I’ve seen, his self-knowledge isn’t complete from the get-go–he doesn’t know who he is until events force him to accept that, if he doesn’t bring an end to the misery, no one will.

And If “justice” results?

So be it!

The Long Good Friday (1980)
Director: John Mackenzie

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Meet Harold and his Maid Marion, Victoria. No last names. He’s a man of the people, straight up from the streets. She’s either slumming upper class, or playing at posh, up from the same streets. Hard to tell.

Together, they rule the London underworld, with their sights set on moving.up. Today London, tomorrow the world.

Then a bomb blows up in a car and their world starts spinning. By the time it stops, they’ve done Shakespearean melodrama (nobody has a last name) and the good old gangster film proud.

This was Bob Hoskins’ breakout film. I don’t know who won the lead Oscars for 1980 without looking it up, but, trust me, whoever they were, he and Helen Mirren wasted them.

All those are plenty good reasons to watch this any old time, but the lesson for the long, hot summer coming is just this: It can always be worse.

The Long Riders (1980)
Director: Walter Hill

THE LONG RIDERS, front from left: Amy Stryker, James keach as Jesse James, Savannah Smith, Stacy Keach as Frank James, Fran Ryan, 1980, © United Artists

The most nuanced and effective look at the American Robin Hood, Jesse James, brought too close to get off lightly under the guise of romantic legend. You want tribalist politics? Try Savannah Smith’s Zee James (Jesse’s wife) giving a deathly quiet reading of a line so primordial you can miss it’s import if you aren’t paying strict attention.

“You gonna make ’em pay Jesse?”

That’s after the Pinkertons, trying to stand for justice just this once, accidentally (or, perhaps, “accidentally”) have killed Jesse’s little brother with a firebomb.

You gonna make ’em pay Jesse?

On earth, in every Age of Disintegration, that is all ye know, and all ye need know.

(Best scene: A brutal frontier barroom knife fight between David Carradine’s Cole Younger and James Remar’s Sam Starr, the half-breed husband from whom the woman born Myra Maybelle Shirley, played wonderfully here by Pamela Reed, took the famous form of her name).

(Second best scene: Zee James and two other women daring the Pinkertons to shoot them on their porch.)

(Not quite fatal flaw: The Northfield Raid being drag-g-g-g-g-ed down by copious and pretentious use of the era’s Wild Bunch-style slo-mo.)

A Perfect Murder (1998)
Director: Andrew Davis

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A re-imagining of one of Hitchcock’s classy, entertainments, Dial M For Murder, which it bests by miles. Reduced to plot, it is, like its predecessor, a slick, satisfying, murder-for-hire tale with a twist (look at the picture above and guess who’s going to murder who–look again after you watch the movie).

Michael Douglas is the typecast Wall Street buccaneer, Gwyneth Paltrow the typecast debutante trophy wife with social justice tendencies (she’s a trust fund baby who works for the U.N., and she’s Gwyneth Paltrow, how typecast can you get?), and Viggo Mortensen the typecast low-life.

That’s on the surface.

Underneath, it’s a Death Cage match between a couple of born-to-be Manhattanites (who cares where they really came from), whose abiding concern for the social niceties they’ve mastered in order to run in place is subsumed by the more human emotions: lust, greed and revenge.

Make of that what you will in this election year.

The Conservation (1974)
Francis Ford Coppola

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Just remember. No matter who the president is or will be, they are still listening.

You didn’t think the cost of empire was gonna be nothing did you?

Happy Fourth of July!