By 1956, Henry Fonda had been one of Hollywood’s biggest stars for nearly two decades, but his stardom was not built on him being a cool, charming adonis. He was an everyman, much like James Stewart. In temperament, he makes quite a bit of sense as the shy and awkward Pierre, but the character’s size is a major part as to why he feels uncomfortable with people, which Fonda doesn’t have. He was going to try his best to look like Leo Tolstoy’s character, but producer Dino De Laurentiis wanted a dashing leading man, as Fonda recalled in the book “The Films of Henry Fonda” by Tony Thomas:
“I knew I was physically all wrong for Pierre, but I decided that, with the right spectacles, some strategically placed padding and my hair combed forward, I could pass. Then it seems they didn’t want a Pierre who looked like Pierre. One who looked like Rock Hudson is closer to what they had in mind. They went into a nervous shock when they saw my original make-up. The padding went immediately –- over my anguished protests. And from that point on, it was a constant struggle between the producer and me as to whether or not I’d wear the spectacles. I won about half the time –- usually when he was nowhere near the set.”
De Laurentiis was clearly more interested in creating a Hollywood blockbuster, and Fonda wanted to serve the material. The end result falls somewhere in the middle, and for as much as Fonda gives himself over to the role, there’s still something off about this rail-thin movie star at the center. Beyond Fonda, the film itself finds itself caught between the two worlds, and Pierre probably best exemplifies that divide.