Bright Lights Film Journal

Large, Loose, and Baggy: Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace (1966-67)

Sergei Bondarchuk and actress Lyudmila Savelyeva

“What do such large loose baggy monsters, with their queer elements of the accidental and the arbitrary, artistically mean?” – Henry James, from the preface of his novel The Tragic Muse, in reference to War and Peace, Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, and Thackeray’s The Newcomes.

“Our duty is to introduce the future viewer to the origins of sublime art, to make the innermost mysteries of the novel, War and Peace, visually tangible, to inform a feeling of fullness of life, of the joy of human experience.” – Sergei Bondarchuk

The question remains: Has it ever been a good idea to make a feature film out of Leo Tolstoy’s novel War and Peace? For one thing, it’s a very long book that’s actually, for anyone who hasn’t read it, the underserving archetype of a long and thereby unreadable book. Even worse for a film adaptation, it contains a huge quotient of major and minor characters, a timeline embracing, with an epilogue, over a decade, and a plot bulging with event, history, and philosophical musings. Hollywood tried just once, in 1956, with an undercooked spectacular directed by King Vidor, which was not redeemed by its luxury casting. Henry Fonda as the rotund, schlemiel-like Pierre Bezukhov? The elegant, 26- or 27-year-old Audrey Hepburn as Natasha Rostova, a character who enters the novel’s storyline as a girl of 13?

Premiering in Russia ten years after Vidor’s effort, the Soviet Union-financed production of War and Peace was directed and co-written by actor/director Sergei Bondarchuk (1920-1994). Although consuming a gargantuan budget and photographed in 70mm, the film originally resembled a TV mini-series in its four-part, strictly linear structure. For the Russian public, it was, in fact, shown as four films, each with distinctive titles, during the years 1966 and 1967. Imported to the US in 1968 in a two-part version suffering badly from heavy cuts and grotesque English-language dubbing, it nonetheless was capable of making a huge impression on those able to take advantage of its fleeting theatrical run. In 1969, I managed to see it twice and never forgot the experience.

It wasn’t until 2003 that I or anyone else obsessed with memories of Bondarchuk’s film finally got to see a home video version that represented something close to what Russian audiences saw in ’66 and ’67. With no fanfare whatsoever, Ruscico (The Russian Cinema Council) abruptly issued a five-disc DVD edition, available in either NTSC or PAL format, presenting the film in its original four-part form. A restoration was trumpeted by the release, but, judging from its often compromised appearance, one wondered if it was less a restoration than a rescue of scattered elements from the brink of oblivion.

Poster for first film in the series released in Soviet Union in 1966, entitled Andrei Bolkonksy

Since its export in 1968, this film has had a rocky time of it here in the US, with its badly cut and dubbed theatrical presentations to begin with, followed by a few PBS TV showings of the same in the ’70s, until finally hitting the wall in the ’80s with abysmal pan-and-scan VHS video editions made from inferior prints. Over the years, the Soviets themselves had allowed the film to deteriorate and nearly lost it altogether. In 2003, the results of Ruscico’s transfer and stereo mix did not seem optimal, but at the very least, this massive golem of a movie had finally gotten its dignity back.

The DVD release’s 403-minute length is probably less than an hour longer than the original US cut, and there have always been rumors of much longer versions, such as a Soviet cut at 507 minutes. More than one major reference source, Halliwell’s 2003 Film and Video Guide among them, cites the 507-minute cut. Ruscico, however, has claimed that this version is the longest extant, which is shorter yet than the 431 minutes they had initially promised.1 If more footage lies hidden somewhere in Putin’s Russia, we enthusiasts best say a prayer for it and move on.

Photography began for War and Peace in September 1962; one month later, the Cuban Missile Crisis began with Mosfilm already waist-deep in the project. The Soviet public didn’t see the completed film, or, rather, the four films that make it up, until 1966 and 1967. Over the length of the production, the actress playing Natasha, Lyudmila Savelyeva (below, as she first appears in the film), grew from 19 to her mid-20s, with time itself codeveloping the character’s physical and emotional maturation.

Savelyeva as she first appears as Natasha

As the vintage – late sixties probably – “making of” documentary (included by Ruscico) makes clear, the Russian public wasn’t unanimous in its praise for Bondarchuk’s adaptation. Some applauded it for its faithfulness to the novel; others saw it as a desecration of a cultural icon. Watching the interviews also included as bonus material, it’s interesting to note the attitude of Mosfilm’s current director, Karen Shakhnazarov, who while having been involved in the restoration, also has conflicting opinions about the success of the film and the wisdom of attempting it in the first place. (He has complex feelings about Bondarchuk, too, but we’ll speak of these later.)

It’s probably impossible for a Westerner to understand or feel a Russian’s identification with Tolstoy’s novel. You can’t call it their Gone With the Wind, which is a glorified potboiler and a regionalist and racist one at that, and one that will live on most likely in the form of the 1939 blockbuster movie. In spite of its dissonant retention of the novel’s fairy-tale version of the antebellum South, Gone With the Wind fits well into that old adage that the best films based on literature come from second- (or third-) rate literary sources.

As fiction, War and Peace is certainly first rate – maybe peerless. Rosemary Edmonds, the late translator of the 1963 Penguin edition, calls War and Peace the Iliad and Odyssey of Russia. Other literary commentators have said it can’t be called a novel because it attempts too much. With its inclusion of not just the fates of individuals, but of entire societies, nations – even the planet – Tolstoy views the Russian cataclysm as through the eye of God, with the understanding that God (Tolstoy) sees to all the nuance of detail as well as to the sweep of national destiny.

Leo Tolstoy

If you want to take it in, there is as much philosophy and spiritual rumination as character-driven event in the book. Although not a “young man’s book,” Tolstoy began War and Peace in his mid-thirties when he had a lot on his mind, all of which seems to have found its way into the novel. Novelist Henry James, in his notorious, catty pronouncements on War and Peace in the preface to his own novel The Tragic Muse (1890), attempted to disqualify Tolstoy’s opus as a novel on the grounds of its insertion of so much philosophy and theories on history, but, more importantly, on how the book’s form broke with established fictional ways and means. James felt that a novel should behave like a pleasingly composed painting that promised health and safety for its reader. War and Peace, he held, contained too much “life” and not enough “art.”

James, of course, was wrong. Tolstoy’s novel is fully written and structured as a work of art, but it also teems with life. The latter quality, which James shortsightedly saw as “accidental and arbitrary,” doesn’t make War and Peace an anti-novel. And it’s not a tough read. A friend of mine – not Henry James – has commented that War and Peace, in its domestic dramas, can seem like soap opera. For what it’s worth, superficially, it’s true: Tolstoy sets up a powerful love triangle to propel us through the book, with a myriad of secondary and tertiary characters caught in the emotional mesh of the three principals, yet, as we’ll explore later on, the consequential depth of these emotional lives goes way past the confines of a conventional love story. And despite its cosmic worldview, the book is profoundly nationalist: it concerns itself with “Russian-ness,” it celebrates Russia’s uniqueness and strength, and its ability, through sheer stubbornness, to defeat the French.

Mosfilm’s export of its film in 1968 was the Soviet bid for international cinematic respectability, which meant in those days producing a widescreen epic like Wyler’s 1959 Ben Hur. Shooting in 70mm was a new prospect for Mosfilm; they barely had the equipment or the film stock for Bondarchuk’s visual conceptions. But as a film, War and Peace works on a scale and with a depth of intent not demanded or expected of William Wyler’s Ben Hur, a confident, well-made, and stunningly successful adaptation of a stodgy Biblical novel written by a former Civil War general. Eschewing his own experiences, Lew Wallace chose to write a “Tale of the Christ” instead of a tale of the Civil War, a period just as traumatic and defining for the US as the year 1812 had been for Russia.

No such sword-and-sandal option existed for the Russian author, or the filmmaker, or for the Soviet government, who financed this project. In addition to directing the film and starring in it, Bondarchuk’s intense identification with nearly every aspect of Tolstoy’s novel – and his ambition to find cinematic equivalents for them – pump this eccentric, personal, and one-of-a-kind work full of juice. Where it doesn’t succeed, there is such a passionate sincerity at the core of it that, at whatever time of my life I view it, I forgive it its shortcomings. War and Peace overreaches, becomes a glorious failure, in a way that few films have since Griffith’s 1916 film Intolerance.

Lyudmila Savelyeva

As an art student in Kansas City, Missouri, and primed by Penelope Gilliatt’s rave New Yorker review of it a year earlier, I saw the film in 1969. Like Gilliatt, I was dismayed by the dubbing, especially in the case of Natasha, who was so vividly realized by the young Savelyeva that the obnoxious sounds that proceeded from her mouth seemed like some kind of joke, a prank out of Woody Allen’s What’s Up, Tiger Lily? In the somewhat choppy narrative flow, I sensed the cuts, and I hated the patronizing sequences that fronted each part, introducing the necessarily confused American audience to the characters and the various families.

The film didn’t look all that good, either. Much of the color appeared odd, undernourished, and the soundtrack – what hadn’t been overlaid with dubbing, that is – seemed primitive. Yet in the face of what Bondarchuk had accomplished, none of this mattered. On first viewing I was astonished by the epic magnitude – and carnage – of the battle scenes, yet was more nearly undone by the startling exactitude of the casting. Where did they find these people, these implausible equivalents to Tolstoy’s numinous set of characters? In physical stature, Vyacheslav Tikhonov’s Andrei (below) was even short enough. It took me another reading of the novel to realize that Bondarchuk was twenty years too old to play Pierre, but by then it was too late. His performance held all there was about Pierre, except maybe the considerable weight gain the character takes on toward the middle of the book.

Vyacheslav Tikhonov as Andrei

It’s overstatement to say that Bondarchuk uses the novel as his shooting script, but it’s not far off. Events are necessarily telescoped but most scenes – apart from what takes place on the battlefields – are lifted intact with Tolstoy’s dialogue often retained verbatim or carefully parallel to it. Bondarchuk attempts the same specificity as Tolstoy, and more often than not, it pays off. What’s unusual about this dedicated, almost fundamentalist attitude to the text is how alive the scenes play on the screen. Instead of adapting the novel with the idea of fashioning a movie version that would play as something new and independent of its source, Bondarchuk constructs precise, one-to-one correlations to the text.

When Pierre, in his “if I were not me but the best man, the most handsome, the most intelligent…” speech, declares his love for Natasha, everything is as Tolstoy has written it, including the very words of Pierre’s spontaneous burst of feeling. If only the author had supplied it, I’m sure Bondarchuk would’ve matched the color of Natasha’s frock, too. Yet the scene is so well staged and played that the feeling and chemistry between the two characters is palpable.

The director wasn’t content with reducing his adaptation to a war-torn love triangle consisting of Pierre, Andrei, and Natasha, as Vidor’s production had done. Mostly wrenched apart from each other during the length of the story, Tolstoy’s characters struggle and suffer, as E. M. Forster noted, over time and space; this is one reason for the book’s length and cumulative power.2 Remarkably, in his nearly seven-hour film, Bondarchuk achieved something equivalent to Tolstoy’s depiction of people evolving as they are buffeted about in their passages through war, death, and regenerative experience. Within the film’s carefully maintained pulse, in response to all that happens around and to them, the inner lives of Pierre, Andrei, and Natasha expand toward epiphanic climaxes.

Far from streamlining Tolstoy’s minute yet sweeping depiction of this process, Bondarchuk gleans from the text as much granular emotional detail as his scenes can muster, and it’s his skill at amassing and controlling these details within scenes, and these scenes within the film’s larger, inclusive, and very complex drama, that should, critically, be given as much weight as – indeed, more than –his skill at controlling the roiling mass of extras in the battle scenes.

If it’s clear that Bondarchuk wanted to make some kind of art film, what he completed in 1967 comes to us now as a strange entity, extremely powerful in what it can deliver, but not able to stand fully on its own apart from the novel. The film is, in Henry James’ words, “large, loose and baggy,” and, unlike the novel at which these words were aimed, Bondarchuk’s War and Peace fails to fully satisfy us aesthetically, as many films with lesser ambitions have done. What, then, does Bondarchuk’s film “artistically mean?” A question no more deserving of an answer than when James put it to Tolstoy’s novel, perhaps, but it’s easy to say there is craft to the film, that the director knows how to make a movie. But there is much in it that is more than merely artful.

In Mosfilm’s current cut, there’s an accomplished narrative flow to the picture, so that it is not in any way just “scenes from the novel” (in the way that Prokofiev’s opera is “13 tableaux from War and Peace”), but Bondarchuk, like Prokofiev, needs the audience to know the book intimately. Any given sequence can contain details and characters that are fully explored and developed in the novel but in the film remain isolated or unexplained, as if what you’re seeing are excerpts from a much longer film that takes up all the threads and subplots of the novel – this all-inclusive film being, perhaps, 30 hours long.

Although the novel, for example, spends a lot of time with Nicholai Rostov and his army buddy Denisov, the film nearly does away with Denisov. Yet he is conspicuously present when the film depicts Nikolai’s joyous post-Austerlitz homecoming, and even though we don’t see Denisov go through his period of infatuation with Natasha, we feel that we can imagine the character developing his crush, especially when we see Natasha, upon meeting him, impulsively leaping up to give him a big kiss on the cheek. For his part, Prince Andrei does not fall for Natasha in a single night after the ball, as it seems in the film with its split-screen treatment of the parallel love-inflamed declarations of Natasha to her mother and Andrei to Pierre. If we know the book sufficiently well, we just have to fill in the blanks.3

Bondarchuk’s faithful, detailed approach reaches a kind of expressive zenith near the middle of the second film, Natasha Rostova, which offers a dazzling re-creation of the novel’s wolf-hunting sequence, an example of a kind of Tolstoyan set piece, like Vronsky’s horse race in Anna Karenina, that may not propel the plot but sets a profound background for character and mood. The autumn landscape, the mist rising from it just as Tolstoy describes it, Natasha’s horsemanship, the old count’s embarrassment, Nikolai’s pride and arrogance, even the buffoon’s antics – it’s all there.

Savelyeva as Natasha in wolf-hunt scene

This sequence and the subsequent one, where Nikolai, Natasha, and Petya spend a relaxed evening at “Uncle’s” country home, are high points of the “Peace,” or the domestic, scenes of the novel. For the film, too, they are glorious breathing spaces and, more to the point, poignant depictions of Natasha’s waning girlhood. Natasha’s spontaneous folk dance at Uncle’s is my favorite moment in the film and an example of what the film does supremely well, that is, matching, not merely illustrating, Tolstoy’s description, and in this case surpassing it. Savelyeva had been trained in ballet, and it shows throughout the film: in the ball sequence, of course, she knows how to waltz, but it’s also there just in the way she carries herself or the way she runs across a room.

Her folk dance, backed by Uncle’s guitar, may or may not be authentic, but it’s an exquisite projection of this character’s inner life, her Russian-ness, and how profoundly her life force affects those around her. And it’s by seeing the dance – and hearing the guitar and balalaika accompanying it – that we are so moved; it’s just something film can do better than the written word. Tolstoy can only describe the reaction of the spectators; in the movie we can join them and then wipe our tears away, too.

Bondarchuk ends this second film and begins his third, The Year 1812, with a voice-over quote, from the beginning of Tolstoy’s book three: “in other words, an event took place counter to all the laws of human reason and nature.”

The event is Napoleon’s crossing of the Niemen River into Russian territory, which initiates the cataclysm of 1812. The quote is Tolstoy and nearly verbatim, but it is Tolstoy out of context. The novel’s statement sets up a question, which is essentially this: how could such an irrational event – the wholesale invasion of mother Russia – actually have taken place? Tolstoy’s answer, several pages coming, is that the inhuman events of 1812 are fulfilled by “the coincidence of countless circumstances” enabled by the cumulative actions of millions of men – from peasant to soldier to emperor on either side of the conflict.

Heard for the second time as we watch French troops swarm into Russia (while the Antichrist watches them from on high), the placement of Bondarchuk’s quote sets Napoleon up as a free-willed villain who will later get his comeuppance from the intuitive machinations of Russia’s free-willed hero General Kutuzov.

Tolstoy envisions neither villain nor hero: “In historical events great men – so called – are but labels serving to give a name to the event, and like labels they have the least possible connexion with the event itself.”

You can’t fault Bondarchuk or the Soviets for going with the villain/hero concept. Prokofiev went the same direction in his opera, which was a product of WWII and thereby contains elements of Soviet propaganda equating Napoleon with Hitler, the French invasion with the then-current German one. And memories of the horrors enacted upon, say, Leningrad, during War II were less than 20 years old when the film went into production.4 The devastations of the Nazi invasion likely left the Russians more afraid than Americans of imminent nuclear holocaust. With the cold war at its chilliest in the early sixties, Bondarchuk’s War and Peace is cautionary toward aggression, just as Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky had bluntly been in the thirties.

In a voice-over at both the beginning and end of the movie, Bondarchuk also includes an explicit call for peace when he paraphrases a sentiment in the book, that “all ideas which have great results are always simple. My idea is just that if vicious people unite together into a power then honest folk must do the same.” But once again it’s Tolstoy out of context; the words come from some remarks Pierre makes to Natasha in the epilogue, speaking of the dissent fomenting in the political climate of 1820s St. Petersberg. These are the musings of an idealist (and one who’s dabbled in Freemasonry), not those of the author himself. Bondarchuk’s voice-over makes them sound like a naïve pacifist banner for the work as a whole. Needing straightforward melodramatic devices for its narrative drive and boy-gets-girl finish, the film has no room for Tolstoy’s actual philosophical subtexts and historical theorizing, nor could it effectively expound them anyway.

No one would expect Bondarchuk to film the epilogue, either. The epilogue takes place eight years after 1812 and ties up a number of things, the most important being Pierre’s marriage to Natasha, who puts on some weight – and loses much of her vivacious seductiveness – after producing four children.

Here, Tolstoy gets in some moralizing on the subject of marriage, and it’s a bit of a downer. But the epilogue is important in that it gets across Tolstoy’s big concept about the cyclical nature of human events; so, it doesn’t just tie things up – like a traditional novel would – it leaves them open, too. Implicit in Pierre’s political involvement in St. Petersburg is his being swept up in the Decembrist uprising of 1825 – a turn in the Bezukhovs’ destiny toward “war” once again. (It was a novel about the Decembrists that Tolstoy had initially conceived. His research took him backwards to 1812 and beyond, and thus he wrote War and Peace instead.) Part two of the epilogue is taken up by a lengthy holding-forth on certain imponderables. It’s an exhausting read, this lecture; we wouldn’t want to hear it in a movie.

Soldiers grouping in celebration of the Smolensk icon

Yet, at times, the film seems able to express, wordlessly, Tolstoy’s “swarm of life” philosophy. It’s the Eye of God point of view. From above, Bondarchuk makes as good use of his tens of thousands of extras as he does on ground level. Has any film director in history had as many willing bodies at his disposal?5 Several key war scenes involve massive numbers of people grouping purposefully, and when he shoots these groupings aerially or with a crane, they can become profound visual equivalents of Tolstoy’s words, that an individual’s elemental life is “a unit in the human swarm, in which he must inevitably obey the laws laid down for him.” Three examples stand out in which the spectacle is not meant to merely “wow” us, although they certainly do that, too.

In the first, which is a continuation of the wounded Andrei’s skyward meditation at Austerlitz, we see from a vast height (as if Andrei’s soul had left his body and was up there watching) giant movements of troops wheeling round each other in contrary motion. In the second, a crane shot lifts to show Kutuzov and his army, on the eve of Borodino, grouping to celebrate the Smolensk icon, which is held by a gathering of priests on a hill. The third, another crane shot, is the massing of French prisoners of war around a huge bonfire in the snow, their numbers splayed out in long columns nearly to the horizon like spokes of a giant wagon wheel (below).

Defeated French soldiers massing around bonfire

A close precedent to such visualization is the final image of Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, Pt.1 (1944), where the Tsar watches a spectacularly long line of penitents arriving from Moscow to plead for his return. Eisenstein’s framing is more painterly and even witty: the arabesque of the massed crowd is continued by Ivan’s beard in the foreground. Bondarchuk’s goal is to be more fundamentally unsettling, especially in the battle scenes, which have their own variegated beauty.

An entire hillside checkered with the French army marching in formation, glimpsed through billows of smoke; seconds later the sun flashes through the legs of horses ridden by hussars, their sabers drawn. When the dust parts like a curtain, we see swathes of brilliant blue morning sky. Bondarchuk and his cameraman seem to know just how to control the vagaries of smoke and dust to capture gorgeous light effects, just as they did with the mist rising on the steppe during the wolf-hunt sequence.

We see the battle of Borodino through the eyes of Pierre, who allows us to get in the thick of it, close to the action and the gore, the filming of which necessarily lacks some of the sublimity and exhilaration of the long shots. At one point Pierre engages in a clumsy hand-to-hand struggle with a French soldier; at another he watches a Russian artillery man stare down his newly severed leg. As Gilliatt pointed out in ’68, the awkward, sometimes strangely comedic, happenstance of war is pictured very much in a Goya-esque manner.

Bondarchuk is a master at portraying confusion and at setting behemoth, picturesque fires, in and about which he films fearlessly, with seeming disregard for the safety of himself, his actors, and the crew. In the making-of documentary, there are glimpses of the camera crew, draped in asbestos tarps, wheeling through the burning of Moscow, a huge three-dimensional set that the production systematically burned down. Flying shards of black ash figure prominently in these chaotic yet skillfully controlled scenes; the documentary shows the ash being blown in purposefully by huge wind fans. Bondarchuk’s detailing of despair and fright makes Selznick’s burning of Atlanta look like a barbecue at a plantation picnic. As described by Tolstoy, a crescent moon appears over the screams and the smoke at Smolensk; it’s a haunting icon of nature’s indifferent witness to human calamity.

Bondarchuk as Pierre Bezukhov rescuing a child during the burning of Moscow

But there are limits to making “the mysteries of the novel . . . visually tangible.” When attempting to express, in imagery, the interior, spiritual/emotional strivings of the characters, Bondarchuk strains mightily within the grammar and gesture of film language. Too many times the camera will sweep over a landscape only to go swinging upwards into the sky where the film seems to hope the viewer will find an equivalent to Tolstoyan profundities. But the sky-cloud-landscape motifs aren’t even visually compelling.

Heightened states of consciousness (such as Natasha’s wish to fly into the nighttime sky or Petya’s dream near the end of the film) elude the director. A few in-camera effects are oddly literal. When a character eyes brim with tears, sometimes, so will the lens. There is too much double-exposure imaging; he experiments too much with split screens.

Likewise, when Pierre’s flash of spiritual truth happens during his captivity by the retreating French, Bondarchuk stumbles in fashioning corresponding visuals to Pierre’s spiritual elation, which Tolstoy connects to the landscape and the stars above. “And all this is mine,” the book’s Pierre exalts inwardly, “and all this is in me, and all of this is me!” Bondarchuk’s Pierre shouts the equivalent in voice-over, and, thus amplified, the tone of this self-realized divination comes off as overwrought and unconvincing. It’s not the first time, in the book and in the film, that we encounter Pierre’s brand of ecstatic pantheism, and Bondarchuk’s pictorials of rivers, sky, and meadows fall short of conjuring the character’s soul as it unites with the cosmos.

Yet, how poignantly effective is Bondarchuk’s handling of Pierre’s ordeal as a captive, especially in his witnessing of executions in the abandoned Moscow – lots of Goya influence here – and his friendship with the peasant Karataev, who, dispensing folk wisdom and courage to Pierre, becomes a life force that gives Pierre the strength to survive. On the forced march with the French, Karataev becomes too ill to continue, and, as he sits under a birch tree, a French soldier is dispatched to finish him off.

The film’s treatment of the episode is devastatingly exact. As the soldier returns from the killing, Bondarchuk retains the soldier’s timid glance at Pierre, and in this quick, second-long glance, we, along with Pierre, bear witness to the enemy soldier as a human being repulsed and saddened by what he’s just done. Here, too, is the stray dog howling over Karataev’s corpse in the bleak winter landscape, an image of utter despair that’s rarely been transferred so vividly from a literary source.

Savelyeva as Natasha in her waltz with Andrei

Bondarchuk is nearly infallible when he relies on his actors. Ludmila Savelyeva’s face says all that needs to be said when the waltz begins and Natasha looks to Prince Andrei with that mixture of gratitude and awe. Near the end of the film, when Andrei and Natasha come together over his deathbed, each of them face the mystery of death within their renewed – and quite altered – love for each other. Here, photographing the lovers’ final catharsis in an empty, light-filled room, the director is at his absolute best and so are his actors.

It’s important to hear the actors’ voices, too, and Ruscico’s transfer has virtually given them back. Filling in for Tolstoy himself, Bondarchuk’s voice-overs are resonate and soulful. As she listlessly floats along an empty corridor in the palace, Savelyeva’s pronunciation of “Mad-a-gas-car” (her precise, schoolgirl intonation now so clear) perfectly expresses Natasha’s anguished boredom during her separation from Andrei. The new stereo mix also restores the hitherto (at least to my ears) unrealized sonic conceptions of Bondarchuk, some of which are subtle and telling.

The director’s use of ambient sound comes clear and directional from the speakers, for example, the sounds of nature like birdsong and crickets during the countryside segments, or bullets whizzing by in a battle scene (ala 1998’s Saving Private Ryan). A clock ticking or a fountain dripping can express the spacious quietude of a manor, the ennui and emptiness of “peace.” When Andrei comes to propose to Natasha, the distant sounds of children playing somewhere in the large house underscore her suspense and further articulate the emotional space between the lovers. The revamped soundtrack even makes Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov’s sometimes overbearing score sound better, especially in its quieter moments.

But the film’s years of neglect have not been as kind to Bondarchuk’s image making. Most likely there were limits as to what Mosfilm’s restoration could accomplish due to the dilapidated condition of the elements. Nothing like what Robert Harris achieved, with original elements, in his high-definition restoration of Lawrence of Arabia (1962) was possible here, even if Mr. Harris and plenty of funding had been on board.6 Ruscico’s extra features on disc 5 offer few details about the studio’s resuscitation of the film, but some of the interviewees drop hints. Mosfilm’s director, Karen Shakhnazarov, briefly relates the crises encountered when the restoration was mounted in the nineties. Because Mosfilm itself had lost the original negative, elements had to be gathered from various sources, which he never names. He sounds slightly peeved about the whole venture.

Execution of falsely identified Russian partisans by the French in Moscow

The best reality check comes from the chief cameraman, Anatoly Petritsky. In his interview, the humble and self-effacing Petritsky recalls the inadequate state of the film stock (even the sprocket holes were non-standard, he says) and the near primitive status of the equipment when he began shooting the film. In spite of these shortcomings – or perhaps because of them, since he obviously takes pride in having overcome them – he says, “these were the best years of my life.” As for the restoration, in which he apparently participated, he shakes his head sadly. The restoration is all for television (i.e., DVD), he says; the film should be seen in the theaters. Then he points out the rueful fact that there are no theaters in Russia today (circa 2000?) equipped to show a 70mm film.

Between the lines you can read that the film had been left to rot because of Soviet priorities or because some bureaucrats never wanted it made in the first place. Someone says in an interview, the composer I think, that funding the project was a problem: Khrushchev was in favor of it; Brezhnev was not. The other impression I got was ambivalence, especially in the case of Shakhnazarov, as to the classic status of the film. In reminiscing about Bondarchuk, he reveals a certain backhanded attitude toward the director that could be construed as resentment. Shakhnazarov himself is a director, and as a youth a kind of assistant to Bondarchuk. When he praises Bondarchuk for his “organizing” gift (this in context of directing the battle sequences), he adds that, if such a film could ever be mounted today, that, yes, he too could do it. His jaundiced view of Bondarchuk as a lionized auteur seems to color his attitude toward War and Peace; perhaps the novel should have been left alone, he seems to be implying.

Elsewhere, in the “making of” documentary, it’s unclear whether the Russian audience ever really took this film collectively to heart. Maybe few Russians have ever seen it. For those who did, maybe in the end it was too much Bondarchuk’s film: too personal, too eccentric.

Savelyeva and Tikhonov as Natasha and Andrei in scene at his deathbed

If Bondarchuk fell short of his goal to transubstantiate Tolstoy’s vision into image and sound, a major accomplishment remains in his film’s ability to forcefully express the emotional/spiritual arcs of Pierre, Natasha, and Andrei – even as he often falters. As the movie ages, and I along with it, any viewing of it inevitably brings the novel down from the shelf. For this American, English-language reader, what the film does best perhaps is set up a communication with memories or new readings of the text – a series of charged recognitions.

  1. In 2002, Kultur, the company responsible for the pan-and-scan VHS edition, released a 3-disc pan-and-scan DVD version. The UK company Artificial Eye issued a Region 2, 5-disc set of Mosfilm’s transfer in 2006, which they then reissued in 2011, but this edition, which reportedly played better than Ruscico’s, is apparently out of print. As of this writing, both Kultur and Ruscico releases are still available. In 2008, Kino International announced their own pending release of the film late that year, but the project fell through, possibly because of licensing issues. Rumors of a new restoration had circulated, but that same year, scattered screenings (I saw it at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston) revealed a print (or prints) no better than the one provided by Mosfilm to Ruscico. []
  2. Forster, E. M. Aspects of the Novel. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World. p. 63. []
  3. Bondarchuk’s structure works well enough if you haven’t read the book, but with the constant lack of setups for characters and events, confusion will reign in your viewing without some kind of guide, not provided in this DVD release. Read the book, then watch the film, would be my advice. []
  4. Lyudmila Savelyeva was in fact born in Leningrad in 1942, at the height of the city’s siege. []
  5. At the time of the US release, publicity material reported that Bondarchuk had 120,000 Soviet soldiers in his re-creation of the battle of Borodino, but in an interview for National Geographic in 1986, Bondarchuk dismissed this figure as an exaggeration, saying that he only really had 12,000. []
  6. Although a high-def treatment of Mosfilm’s restoration would conceivably improve our experience of it. Anybody? Please? []