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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » War and Peace (Criterion) (Blu-ray)
War and Peace (Criterion) (Blu-ray)
The Criterion Collection // Unrated // June 25, 2019 // Region A
List Price: $49.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted July 8, 2019 | E-mail the Author
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A staggering production, the Soviet-financed, four-part adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace (1965-67) is an epic among epics, the biggest scale film production ever attempted, the kind of motion picture event that almost certainly will never come again. But this seven-hour-plus film is far more than its immense scale, artful in ways quite unlike Hollywood's epics from the same period, though it's understandable that its incredible "money shots" have always grabbed all the headlines.

For years in the west, it was believed to have cost around $100 million in mid-1960s dollars, or around $700 million in today's money, and that 120,000 extras were employed for its recreation of the Battle of Borodino alone. Director (and star) Sergei Bondarchuk later scoffed at such estimates, insisting, "All I had was 12,000 (extras)." A mere pittance. More contemporary research put the final cost of the production at $9.2 million, or about $60 million in today's money.

That's a highly misleading figure, however, considering War and Peace was fully funded and supported by the Soviet government, which loaned troops, artifacts from museums used as props, vast swaths of land for location filming, etc. By way of comparison, George Stevens's 1965 film The Greatest Story Ever Told, filmed entirely in the U.S., cost $20 million, and even the 1963 55 Days at Peking, filmed in Spain where budgets could be stretched far, cost $9 million - yet even that gargantuan epic pales next to Bondarchuk's film. His later Waterloo (1970), filmed in Spain, cost nearly $40 million and, though, impressively huge scale, still can't match the spectacle of his earlier epic. Had it been shot in the U.S., War and Peace would have cost no less than $60 million, probably closer to that original, if technically incorrect, $100 million figure.

Because of its daunting running time and spotty distribution, War and Peace has only rarely been exhibited theatrically in the United States, initially only in an English-dubbed version cut by a full hour. The Russian video label RUSCICO released it to DVD some years ago, packed with extra features and with myriad subtitle and language options. However, the video transfer, while 16:9 enhanced, left a lot to be desired. War and Peace was shot on 70mm film, Sovscope 70, but the transfer was blotchy with wildly erratic color. Still, it was for years the best option for home viewing.

Criterion's new Blu-ray is an immense improvement. Apparently the 70mm negative is no longer useable. This is not a surprise as its cameramen struggled with the original negative during filming; it proved so sub-par it caused innumerable delays and added significantly to the film's final cost. But Criterion's release is still impressively sharp, and the color far more stable and vivid at once. Many of the RUSCICO extras have been ported over, with new, valuable supplements added.

As in Tolstoy's novel, the film is divided into four parts, originally released in the Soviet Union months apart between March 1966 and November 1967. The story, beginning in 1805 St. Petersburg and climaxing with the French occupation of Moscow in 1812, is primarily concerned with three characters, indeed three of the four sub-films are named after one. Pierre Bezukhov (Bondarchuk) is the illegitimate son of a rich nobleman who becomes the old count's single heir. A furtive, French-speaking playboy-intellectual at the beginning of the film, most of the story is composed of his observations of various characters and historical events, and is basically Tolstoy's voice in the novel. Andrei Bolkonsky (Vyacheslav Tikhonov), Pierre's friend, is an aide-de-camp during the Napoleonic Wars, the son of a Prince Nicolai (Anatoly Ktorov), a strict, emotionally aloof royal who can't comprehend Russia's existential crisis. Finally, there's Countess Natasha (Lyudmila Savelyeva), the impulsive, immature but mesmerizingly beautiful member of the Rostov clan, whom Pierre loves but who instead becomes engaged to Andrei.

Events beyond their control drive the story and ultimate fates. Andrei joins the staff of (real-life) General Mikhail Kutozov (Boris Zakhava, in a brilliant performance) in the War of the Third Coalition against Napoleon (Vladislav Strzhelchik), and is badly wounded during Russia's defeat at the Battle Austerlitz. In 1812, Napoleon's Army invades Russia, climaxing at the Battle of Borodino. Andrei is again badly wounded while Pierre witnesses and eventually becomes part of the battle himself, on the front lines. As Napoleon's troops invade Russia, Pierre disguises himself as a peasant and remains behind, initially determined to assassinate the Emperor of the French.

Criterion's Blu-ray, particularly when projected on big screens, is a vast improvement over RUSCICO's earlier DVD. The sharper image enabled me to keep much better track of the minor characters, and better appreciate the subtleties of the main performances. King Vidor's 1956 film of War and Peace, itself a massive, $6 million U.S.-Italian co-production, had starred Henry Fonda as Pierre and Audrey Hepburn as Natasha. Fonda, then about 50, was far too old and much too Nebraskan for the part. Bondarchuk, in his early 40s, was also a tad old (he wears a brown wig throughout), yet his grasp of the material and his character make it an unforgettable portrayal - his eyes are singularly expressive. Lyudmila Savelyeva, a former ballerina, manages to be as mesmerizingly beautiful as Hepburn and, despite even less acting experience than Hepburn did at the time, still manages to give the superior performance.

The sharpness of the Blu-ray also subtly reveals how this ultimate "analog" film (as many call such movies now) was accomplished, with subtle matte paintings, composite shots, and models accentuating the already huge throngs of costumed extras filling War and Peace's painterly frames. Scenes I'd long assumed were shot in real mansions and museums were, apparently, for the most part soundstage sets. While the battle scenes get all the attention, the ballroom scene from the second film, with 500 extravagantly costumed participants, is no less staggering. Early scenes along long Moscow streets one assumes were shot on location there are later revealed to be vast, Samuel Bronston-scale sets when Napoleon's Army burns most of it to the ground. Those scenes, the air thick with flying black ash, are genuinely harrowing as even the principal cast members seem to be risking their lives running through wind-whipped flames.

But beyond the movie's sheer enormity, Bondarchuk's epic looks less like ‘60s Hollywood epics than other Russian films and, especially, Abel Gance's silent masterpiece Napoleon (1927), an obvious major influence with visual concepts Bondarchuk reprises here, including even triptych shots. But Bondarchuk's and his cinematographers' visual style either draws on Gance's masterpiece or expands or invents new storytelling innovations: the extensive use of hand-held cameras and subjective camera angles; long multiple exposures during the battles and other scenes; the use of roller-skates (!) to intimately follow dancers during the ball; the use of long cables to slide the camera through the battle sequences; extreme, God-like aerial views. The first part especially opens with the use of lots of mist and gauzes, as if the camera were literally stepping back into time. Some scenes are starkly realistic but others are emphatically expressionistic, with experimental cutting and deliberate discontinuity.

All this is all the more remarkable when one learns that Bondarchuk was an unpopular choice within the Soviet film community to direct, not to mention star, in War and Peace, and that the production was problem-plagued with disgruntled cast and crew who clashed frequently with the director, and that the final result was, within the Soviet Union, not initially recognized as the one-of-a-kind achievement it was.

Video & Audio

See above for more detailed comments about the film transfer. To summarize, Criterion's War and Peace looks great if not perfect on Blu-ray, its deficiencies inherit to the original production (fundamental problems with the Soviet 70mm film stock) and, perhaps, the conditions under which these elements were kept for the last half-century. According to Criterion, "This new 2K restoration was undertaken by Mosfilm from multiple partial 35mm negatives from various archives, using a complete 35mm positive print as a reference." In other words, the 70mm camera negative was no longer usable. (And, it should be noted, as 35mm was used, the aspect ratio here is 2.35:1.) Nonetheless, even on my 10-foot projection screen, most of War and Peace looked awfully impressive, if not quite at the level of the best 65mm native titles on Blu-ray.

The big difference, besides the added clarity of the image, is the vastly improved color. While some of the actors, particularly Bondarchuk, still look a bit pasty-face gray, the primary reds and blues and yellows really pop, especially in the big ballroom scenes. The audio, already impressive on RUSCICO's DVD version, is further improved here, with the 5.1 surround mixed adapted from the original 6-track stems. The film is divided onto two two discs, each with extra features. The English subtitles are an improvement over the DVD version, and the discs are region "A" encoded.

Extra Features

Supplements abound. Many seem to repurpose those found the RUSCICO release, but Criterion has added many new extra features also. These include: new interviews with cinematographer Anatoly Petritsky and filmmaker Fedor Bondarchuk (son of Sergei); a long, worthwhile overview/visual essay by historian Denise J. Youngblood "detailing the cultural and historical contexts for the film; and a fold-out text essay by Ella Taylor. Also included is a fascinating French television portrait of actress Ludmilla Savelyeva, which includes her visiting a Soviet theater exhibiting the film during its run, and her recording with Bondarchuk the final bits of postproduction dubbing their last day of work on the film. Two other period documentaries, from 1966 and 1969, seem identical to material that appeared on the earlier DVD set.

Parting Thoughts

One of the biggest releases of this or any other year, Criterion's release of Sergei Bondarchuk's War and Peace is a must-own, DVD Talk Collector's Series title.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian currently restoring a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.

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