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Tag Archives: Historical Fiction

War and Peace (1956)

War_and_peaceThis film is not Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which I knew coming in so I meant to give the film a fair viewing on its own merits and not as an adaptation. But it was harder to do than I thought, especially because I’d just completed the novel. But I gave it my best shot.

Actually, sometimes when a movie tries to follow a book and doesn’t quite make it (whether for scripting or casting reasons) I often wish it would depart even more from the story than it does rather than doggedly follow the main events. An entirely different, internally consistent film (consistent as a film, not consistent with the book) can be more satisfying and I confess, I wish they had changed War and Peace more.

The film chooses to focus on three characters: Natasha Rostov (Audrey Hepburn), Pierre Bezukhov (Henry Fonda), and Prince Andrei (Mel Ferrer, who was married to Audrey Hepburn at the time), which is understandable, though it does turn the film into a love triangle. Other important characters, like Nicholas Rostov (Jeremy Brett) and Princess Mary (Anna-Maria Ferrero) are sidelined, especially Princess Mary. It’s only 208 minutes (a faithful 1972 adaption of War and Peace is 890 minutes) and even with the characters trimmed, my dad commented that it is not easy to keep up with them all. It often felt, he said, like scenes that probably took ten pages (or even chapters) were flying by in 30 seconds.

The film’s biggest issue is its inconsistency and the casting (frequently cited as a problem) contributes to this feeling. It’s like it can’t decide whether to stick with the book or branch out into new territory. Of course, any time you cast big stars (those Hollywood stars with established personas) it nearly always skews the movie in favor of the stars and away from the story.

For example, Audrey Hepburn does not play Natasha Rostov; she plays Audrey Hepburn, though she does so very well, looking like she was born to play Cinderella when she is at her first ball and Prince Andrei is falling in love with her. Henry Fonda is a strange mix of naive indecision (leftover from the book) and decisive hero (left over from Henry Fonda). But his character is at its most convincing when he plays the war-hating, peace-loving, take charge to rescue Natasha’s reputation Pierre, as opposed to the Pierre who naively falls for his cold and shallow cousin, Princess Helene (Enita Ekberg). Mel Ferrer as Prince Andrei is adequate, but seems a bit stiff.

Mel Ferrer, Audrey Hepburn, Henry Fonda

Mel Ferrer, Audrey Hepburn, Henry Fonda

But because the film is focused on its stars – with space saved for Napoleon, who is played plausibly by Herbert Lom (he captures that theatrical, pompous, faintly ridiculous, entirely earnest, and even a bit petulant attitude that Tolstoy gives him in the book) – almost all of Tolstoy’s philosophical and historical opinions are left behind. Pierre does not seem to be spiritually lost or searching, except at the beginning of the film (which I had trouble believing coming from Henry Fonda). Andrei’s trouble seems to be more moodiness than ambition and pride. The notion of living by instinct and accepting one’s place in life is absent. The film is really an old fashioned historical melodrama set during Napoleon’s invasion of Russian in 1812.

But here are some examples of how I think the film could have departed even further from the book. Pierre’s character is inconsistent, which is perhaps best illustrated by his disappearing and reappearing spectacles. The trouble was that director King Vidor wanted Pierre to be played as a more traditional romantic hero without spectacles while Henry Fonda wanted to try to be true to the Pierre of the book as much as possible and wear them. Th result was that whenever the director was near the set, Fonda couldn’t wear them, but he whipped them out whenever Vidor was absent. But Pierre’s character is somewhat like that and I almost wish they had just made him the slightly more romantic hero (still with an emphasis on being a thinker who hates war…not that Pierre is a pacifist in the book, but it works in the film). But the film really seems to not want to be a proper love triangle. It should be more of a straightforward romance between Pierre and Natasha, with Andrei third in the film. We’re just waiting for the two of them to both realize that they love the other and to get untangled from other relationships. I almost wished for more of that and less of the annoying entanglements.

In the film it is clear nearly from the beginning that Natasha and Pierre are right for each other – they already seem to be in love (and to have a real relationship based on friendship and understanding), though it is unacknowledged and unrealized. This is helped by the fact that while Natasha is only thirteen at the beginning of the novel, Audrey Hepburn is clearly not. She seems to be playing someone who is in her late teens.

But all other romances appear to be distractions. Pierre’s infatuation for Helene, even Natasha’s crush on Andrei (it comes off like a crush). Likewise, Natasha’s other crush on Prince Anatole, Helene’s brother (played by Vittorio Gassman). Because one character (a family friend with a forceful personality) is understandably removed from the movie, suddenly Natasha’s elopement must be dealt with more forcefully by her cousin, Sonya (May Britt), and by Pierre. Not only does this show how much Pierre loves her, but that he is already worthy of her. It felt natural that he should act so decisively, however wrong for the Pierre of the novel.

Jeremy Brett and Audrey Hepburn...eight years before they made My Fair Lady

Jeremy Brett and Audrey Hepburn…eight years before they made My Fair Lady

But Sonya also gets to act more maturely in the novel then she does in the book and since we spent considerably more time with her than we ever do with Princess Mary, it seems like the height of injustice that she should not win Nicholas, Natasha’s brother. Instead, Nicholas and Mary’s romance occurs off-screen and Sonya is deprived of the man she loves for no apparent reason other than that they were following the book for the mere sake of following the book.

I’ve complained a lot, but it’s not as bad as all that. The second half is better than the first, when Napoleon invades Russia. The battle where Pierre observes Borodino is well-done and visually compelling. When Pierre is captured, the character of Platon (John Mills) does seem somewhat tacked on. He’s important in the book because he shows Pierre how to live, but he’s wasted in the film because Pierre does not appear to be experiencing an existential crisis. But the portion where the French are retreating from Russia is also extremely well-down. I almost felt sorry for Napoleon.

It’s Hollywood glossy (which for some reason stood out to me more than usual, perhaps simply because I had the book so freshly in mind), with a more British than Russian feel to it. When the Rostov family ride out hunting, they could be fox hunting rather than hunting wolves (as they were doing in the book). But still, there is an inherent grandeur and breadth to the story (how can you lose with Napoleon invading Russia?) that carries the film along.

 
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Posted by on November 16, 2015 in Movies

 

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The Bride of Lammermoor – Sir Walter Scott

Henry_Gillard_Glindoni01I’ve read that The Bride of Lammermoor is quite different from Sir Walter Scott’s usual books, but since the only other one I’ve read is Ivanhoe I can’t say if that’s true. The Bride of Lammermoor is much shorter, though, and Gothic, romantic, and mystical. There are a lot of comparisons to be made with Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”

It was published in 1819, but the story is set sometime in the late sixteen hundreds. Edgar, Master of Ravenswood, has lost his ancestral lands (rather, his father lost them because he supported James VII of Scotland, who was also James II of England – the king who was ousted during the Glorious Revolution in 1688). The new owner of the Ravenswood estate is Sir William Ashton, a malleable and shrewd lawyer who always has his finger to the political wind.

Ravenswood is a stern and fierce young man who desires to revenge himself on Sir William and now lives in the tower of Wolfscrag, which was once a fortress and looms over the ocean in dilapidated, Gothic splendor. However, instead of revenging himself, he saves Sir William and his daughter, Lucy Ashton, from attack by some kind of wild cow and Lucy and Edgar fall in love. The two engage themselves secretly, despite deep forebodings from an old former servant of Ravenswood’s named Alice, various portends (a dead raven falls at Lucy’s feet when they engage themselves to each other) and a warning from Ravenswood’s one remaining servant, Caleb.

Sir William is not actually entirely opposed to the match, since it is possible that Ravenswood’s uncle, the Marquis of A_______(we never do find out what the A________ stands for) might be able to raise Ravenswood up when his political party regains power in the Scottish parliament. But Lady Ashton is opposed. As soon as she arrives in the story, Sir William almost completely disappears, becoming a henpecked, ineffectual husband. Lady Ashton reminds many people of Lady Macbeth, although she does not love her husband as Lady Macbeth did; but she is the driving force behind him, the one he listens to, who is willing to stop at very little to get what she wants. And what she does not want is for Lucy to marry Ravenswood; she wants her to marry another young man called Bucklaw. She sets out, therefore, quite deliberately, to break her daughters resolution to honor her betrothal to Ravenswood and if breaking her resolution means breaking her mind, Lady Ashton does not balk.

The book ends in tragedy, madness, death, stabbing, and broken family lines. However, despite the inevitable sense of tragedy, it is not a depressing read. The chief fun comes from Ravenswood’s devoted family servant, Caleb Balderstone. He will do anything to keep up the family honor, including lying, stealing, and arson. It is always a source of amused suspense to both the reader and to Ravenswood to see how Caleb will find Ravenswood’s next meal or provide for his guests or excuse his lack of provisions or even prevent Ravenswood from having guests so that no one will know the extreme poverty Ravenswood has been reduced to. But his devotion is touching because of his genuine concern for his master, as well as the family honor.

Charles_Robert_Leslie_-_Sir_Walter_Scott_-_Ravenswood_and_Lucy_at_the_Mermaiden's_Well_-_Bride_of_LammermoorScott seems to be drawing, self-consciously, from “Macbeth.” They are both tales in Scotland, there is a woman who is the power behind the husband who causes most of the evil, there are mighty storms with thunder and rain, specters appear, and Scott even has three old women like the three Weird Sisters in “Macbeth,” though Scott’s three women are being led by one, Ailsie Gourlay, who seems to know who is marked out for death and even helps Lady Ashton to poison Lucy’s mind.

The book ends up being part Gothic, part comic, and also part political as people scheme to be part of the winning party while such troublemakers as Craigengelt tries to persuade Bucklaw and Ravenswood to assist the exiled James II in France. It was a little hard to follow all the political aspects, but it didn’t fundamentally diminish my understanding of the story. Another difficult aspect of the book is the language. Many of the Scottish characters, such as Caleb and Ailsie Gourlay and Alice, speak in a Scottish dialect that is hard to decipher.

The books central couple make a very curious romantic pair, because they are not particularly suited. She is romantic-minded (she loves the stories, myths and legends) and very meek and pliable. He is stern, proud and energetic. They seem bound to each other less because they love each other (they hardly know each other), but because in a moment of heady-emotion, they became betrothed. She is sticking to it for the romance of it and he because he is honorable.

One complaint I do have is that the book appears to be rushed at the end. Just when the book should be getting most dramatic is when it wraps up. Plot Spoilers! When Lucy goes mad and stabs her husband Bucklaw and when Ravenswood dies afterwards, it is recounted almost as if it were a postscript. However, it is still not a story that is easily forgotten; it seems to imprint itself very clearly on the imagination. End Plot Spoiler.

Walter Scott is said to have derived the story from life and it was a story that Scott heard from many different people, including his mother, and he always thought that his mother told it particularly well. He was worried that the story would lose something in translation from an oral story to a written one. He thought a full-length novel wouldn’t have nearly the impact of, as he put it, a story told in thirty minutes by the fire. I see what he means. Sometimes, when a story captures our imagination, it can be hard to actually do it justice in a novel, where you have to provide so many more details that you do not have to provide in an oral tale. I think the power of his story is more in the story than in the actual writing – though there is nothing wrong with his writing; it is skillfully amusing and evocative. However, this might be why there are many details that seem to get lost in the book that Scott neglects to give us, like why Ravenswood does not receive Lucy’s letters, but suddenly gets them later. This is a story, not about details or human motivations, but about the romance of the story itself. It is a book that cries out to be read during the evening or night, on a rainy day, or during a storm.

 
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Posted by on September 26, 2014 in Fiction

 

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