A gargantuan version of Tolstoy's national epic, approached as a priority as important as the Soviet space program, War and Peace is surely the biggest production ever put on film, with entire armies filling the screen and covering vast landscapes. The recreation of the Napoleonic era in St. Petersburg and Moscow is marvelous to behold. Director Sergei Bondarchuk makes the story work even better at the intimate level. The romantic adventures and heartbreaks of the central trio, Pierre, Natasha and Andrei lead to at least four or five devastatingly emotional highpoints.
Film 1: Andrei Bolkonsky, parts one and two (140 minutes): The sweeping story of Russian nobility during the Napoleonic wars starts in 1805. At the Moscow Rostovs, young Natasha (Lyudmila Savelyeva) is a child dreaming of romantic affairs. Frequent guest Pierre Bezukhov (Sergei Bondarchuk, the director) takes a serious liking to her. Russia allies with Austria against Napoleon, so before he leaves to fight Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (Vyacheslav Tikhonov) parks his pregnant wife in the country with his father and sister. For Natasha's brother Nikolai it is a first battle. Back in Moscow, Pierre is easily pressured into marriage with the beautiful but decadent Hélène, who is soon rumored to be taking lovers. Pierre challenges one of them to a duel, and has a crisis of conscience after wounding the man severely. Andrei returns to his country home just in time to see his wife die in childbirth. He determines that life is worthless. Then Spring comes and the world seems to be reborn.
Film 2: Natasha Rostova (93 minutes): At a glorious ball, Natasha is a wallflower until the meek Pierre encourages Andrei to dance with her, whereupon both fall gloriously in love. Andrei carefully proposes through her family, electing to wait a year before marriage. A year seems like forever to the still-immature Natasha. She goes on a wolf hunt and to the opera, where, with the connivance of Hélène, young wastrel Kuraghin catches her eye. Falling in love, and not realizing what will happen, Natasha agrees to elope with the scoundrel, a fate barely avoided by the intervention of her sister and Pierre. When Andrei breaks off their engagement, Natasha believes her life to be over at age seventeen.
Film 3: 1812 (78 minutes): Napoleon invades Russia once more, obliging Andrei to again take up his sword. His father remains in denial as the French advance steadily across Western Russia. Pierre takes leave of Natasha to go observe the big battle at Borodino. He speaks to Andrei the night before. The battle is an enormous clash of thousands of troops, and at the end the French prevail. Andrei is seriously wounded.
Film 4: Pierre Bezukhov (92 minutes) The main Russian general realizes he can't stop the French, and so elects to abandon Moscow without a fight, burning all useful resources on the way. Millions become refugees, and caravans of rich Muscovites flee Eastward. Pierre disguises himself as a common citizen with the vain idea of taking personal revenge on the invaders, but instead makes friends with a French officer who moves into his apartment. The Russians refuse to parlay with Napoleon, and leave him in a dead city with the poor. His soldiers loot tons of booty they can't possibly carry home. Pierre is arrested as an arsonist but is spared the death penalty. He witnesses a mass execution and is sent on a march by the French. On the refugee trail to the East, the Rostovs take in the mortally wounded Andrei, and he and Natasha spend time together declaring their love. When Napoleon quits the city, the Russian winter closes in to decimate his army as they withdraw. Pierre and Natasha are reunited.
Savant was excited to see this pricey-but-exceptional DVD release. Ruscico has a reputation for quality editions of hard-to-see Soviet pictures, and War and Peace is certainly the prize title, at least for Western audiences unfamiliar with the majority of Mosfilm's output. I saw the American release when sixteen years old, serialized over two weeks in a fancy theater in San Bernardino. I can't say I followed the story well, and mostly remember the grainy, washed out picture and the distracting English dubbing -- Natasha's voice squeaked like Minnie Mouse. But the eye-popping visuals stayed burned into my memory, especially a God's eye view, receding into the heavens, of the Austerlitz battlefield spread out below. It looked as if it took in miles of smoke and fighting.
In Russian with subtitles in a number of languages, the new Ruscico / Image DVD is a completely different viewing experience. The Russian voices are beautiful, and it's easy to catch cultural things we had only read about, such as the St. Petersburg elite opting to speak French for many conversational details. It's not 70mm, but on a big widescreen television, the scope of the visuals is overwhelming.
Director Bondarchuk makes a brooding, introverted Pierre, too shy to dance at a ball and easily convinced of his insignificance even as he's inheriting a massive estate. Pierre's adoration of Natasha is matched only by his belief that he's unworthy of her. He makes an excellent foil for the dashing, closed-minded Prince Andrei, a traditionalist who chides Pierre about his scandalous associations, But Andrei boorishly persecutes his own loving wife because he feels tied down by family obligations. Both men evolve very interestingly through the story, experiencing the tumultuous events and their mutual love of Natasha from different perspectives.
Lyudmila Savelyeva is radiant as Natasha, starting as a pixie dreaming girlish dreams and bursting with childish enthusiasm. Her miniature features and expressive eyes are a feminine ideal. Besides the big ball, she performs a show-stopping folk dance at her Uncle's place in the country. Clearly meant to be the soul of everything precious in Russia, the character is the film's biggest success.
Given resources to dwarf American epics, the disciplined Bondarchuk restricts War and Peace to a cinematic vision, even the large battle scenes. If there's any doubt this is a classic Russian movie, it goes away with the entrance of Natasha, bursting through some doors in three Potemkin-ish cascading short cuts that end on her beaming face. The camera stays put when it's proper to do so, but when the director has something to express, it trucks and pans and cranes and tilts, and seemingly flies through the air. The big ballroom dance dissolves into West Side Story- like blurs and soft colors, and then the camera whips around in dizzying waltz circles, or flies down the hallway, watching the dancers from on high. Bondarchuk introduces little choreographed cuts by flashing a fan in front of the camera, a device that is unusually successful. The only 'showoff' trick that didn't work for Savant was a later tense scene where the director inserts subliminal flash frames at every cut point ... it just seemed distracting.
When the story is taken over by author Tolstoy's abstract thoughts, the characters often look for answers in the sky. Bondarchuk will often accompany disembodied speeches with aerial shots of clouds and vast landscapes, such as seen in the main titles. These provide a break from the melodrama on the ground. The high aerial shots are always at a conceptual remove from the narrative, so that we don't get the feeling that the 1812 era is being hyped with visuals alien to the historical experience.
Bondarchuk was criticized by some reviewers in 1967 for his eclecticism; in one scene he'll use split screens that seem to come from Pillow Talk, and another gives us multi-imaged superimpositions that evoke Metropolis. There is an 'Abel Gance' tendency toward camera gymnastics, but most of the film is visually straightforward. Bondarchuk is a classicist who makes the camera do some of the acting, and the result is by and large a big success.
I mentioned the four or five emotional high-points of the picture, most of which are heavy-duty dramatic scenes -- Natasha's hysteria at having her elopement foiled, Pierre's witnessing of the firing squads, the death of Andrei's young wife. In a Western film, we might expect the music to play a larger role in dictating the tone of the drama; most Hollywood epics lean heavily on their scores for their emotional telegraphy. War and Peace builds its emotional climaxes mostly through unadorned theatrics, and giant close-ups. But its battle scenes, the extended battle of Borodino, especially, have an impact that I don't think I've seen in any other epic.
Savant loves giant battle scenes and always admires the huge organizational patterns of masses of people moving in concert for the camera. Knowing how difficult it is to get just one actor to open one door and not look false, the moving panoramas of soldiers and organized mayhem in shows like Zulu Dawn are impressive displays of movies as a giant engine of movement. War and Peace outdoes them all for sheer vastness of scale and precision of effect. The gigantic computer-animated battles in The Two Towers are impressive, but this is 100% real. There's no substitute for the suspension of disbelief provided by real armies clashing on a real battlefield.
What we get is a poetic representation of the chaos of warfare, not a layout of strategies we can read or follow as a story. The overall image is of total insanity, the sum life energy of tens of thousands of men destroyed in armed conflict. A master shot might have a crane or a dolly or start with a wide shot and end up on a detail. In many masters it looks as though tens of thousands of soldiers and horses are rushing every which way, marching in set patterns. There are some shots of massed diamond-shape formations moving across the landscape, like a carpet of men. The longer it goes on, the more elaborate it gets.
Bondarchuk's experts use smoke as a choreographed element. Plumes of cannon-hits erupt from the foreground all the way back to what might be a mile's distance. The wind carries clouds of black and white smoke across the screen in patterns that accentuate the blind chaos of what it must meant to be in this kind of a fight. Bright sunshine turns to dark shadow and back again as the smoke ebbs and flows.
Nobody has the big picture of this struggle, not even the commanders that sit helplessly while their rigid battle plans collapse around them. The rules of combat put ceremony before the lives of the soldiers. Andrei's company waits in reserve, but loses a third of its men to shelling as they stand in their formal lines.
When Bondarchuk decides to move his camera through the melee, we get perhaps ten unbroken minutes of continuous amazement. Hundreds of cavalrymen charge a small hill. A long line of horsemen on that hill disperse to reveal cannon that all fire at once - the camera whips left to see the entire wave of enemy horses tumble to the ground. Cameras on rails truck past men climbing ladders and stairs, and race down trenches as dozens of horses leap overhead. It's like a battle for the end of the world, and the pacing and emphasis is flawless. One overhead wide angle view rushes downward over the heads of soldiers fighting hand-to-hand. It makes the viewer feel like a cannonball crashing to Earth.
Ruscico's DVD of War and Peace is handsomely presented on four discs in a thankfully easy-to-understand package. The transfer image isn't going to be able to compete with restorations done here, however. War and Peace was shot in a Soviet color system in 70mm, and the colors are a muted set of pastels we aren't used to. Either the age of the elements, or the reduction printing, or bad storage has given many scenes a dupey look, with slightly fluctuating contrast. The image is stable and intact, but there are occasional scratches and slight damage.
The encoding is also not top-end. Battle scenes with the choreographed smoke usually look fine, but occasional images have artifacting, the kind of image popping when details don't update with every frame. When Andrei is wounded, the camera swoops up to give a view of the whole valley, and the artifacting makes a mess of the foliage as it pans by.
Either that one bad shot was an isolated instance, or most of the time we're too caught up in the story to notice such things. I should point out that I viewed the discs on a 65" monitor that magnifies these kinds of flaws, so many viewers will probably be less aware of them.
The DVD producers have included a generous allotment of extras, listed below. A fifth disc contains a couple of Soviet docus on Tolstoy and an elaborate commemorative behind-the-scenes piece. It starts with the stars at a Moscow premiere, and then backtracks to show details of the production. The cameraman in the ballroom scene is on roller skates, and a trucking scene through the battlefield shows exactly how some of the more amazing shots were captured. The cameramen use portable 70mm cameras of a kind I've never seen, and that look every bit as sophisticated as ours.
The docus from the 60s show how far apart Russia and America were at the height of the Cold War competition. A Tolstoy piece ends with one of the author's statements about freedom, and the Russian editors show anti-war riots in the West, as if the suppression of human rights were happening exclusively on our side of the Iron Curtain. A shot of a protester's American flag with a skull on it is prominently displayed. The narration stresses collective action, with 'comrade' this, and 'comrade' that heard; the stars' names go mostly unmentioned.
In one of the interviews, the President of the Mosfilm studio says that after the years of filming, War and Peace wasn't unanimously praised in the Soviet Union. Everybody saw it, but not everyone thought it was a masterpiece. Audiences are audiences, Russian or American, and the ending does seem rather downplayed and anti-climactic. But after 35 more years of film history, this enormous epic seems more of an accomplishment than ever.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
War and Peace rates:
Sound: Very good
Supplements: 5-disc set, Behind-the-scenes featurette, Interviews with actors Irina
Skobtseva and Vassily Lanovoy, cinematographer Anatoly Petritsky, composer Vycheslav
Ovchinnikov, and Mosfilm Studios president Karen Shakhnazarov, Leo Tolstoy documentary,
Art direction and set design studies, Cast and crew filmographies
Packaging: double folding plastic and paper cases in card sleeve.
Reviewed: April 27, 2003