King Vidor, 87, who directed many of America's most memorable motion pictures during a film industry career that began in the silent era and spanned five decades, died yesterday of congestive heart failure at his ranch in Paso Robles, Calif.

One of the grand old men of the movies, Mr. Vidor was known for the scope and sensitivity of his imagination, for his affinity for the epic and as one of the few directors with the daring and the capacity to tackle such a film as his spectacular 1956 "War and Peace."

A native of Galveston, Tex., Mr. Vidor shunned his wealthy father's lumber business, and whetted an early interest in the infant movie industry by working as a youth as a summer ticket taker and part-time projectionist in his town's first nickelodeon. There, watching the incessant unreeling of a limited number of films, viewing one two-reeler in particular 147 times, he began the study of cinematic technique.

In later years, after an apprenticeship as an actor and an assistant to the legendary D.W. Griffith, he brought to the screen a procession of celebrated and classic motion pictures, many of them embodying his recognized ambition to harness to its fullest the sweep and power of the cinematic medium.

They included "The Big Parade," a 1925 silent film regarded by many as the first great war movie; "The Champ," with Jackie Cooper and Wallace Beery; "The Crowd," "Our Daily Bread" and "An American Romance."

Others were "Duel in the Sun," "The Citadel" and "The Fountainhead."

Resourceful and determined, he made his first feature film, "Turn in the Road," in 1919 with the backing of nine physicians. His last was "Solomon and Sheba," in 1959.

While his trail-blazing work was increasingly recognized in recent years, critics sometimes complained that his output was uneven and that his profusion of great scenes did not always add up to great films.

He was nominated five times for the Academy Award but never received it. However, in 1979 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave him a special award for "lifetime achievements as a cinematic creator and innovator."

Married three times, he is survived by three daughters.