“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
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Last January (2019), Janus Films announced a US theatrical release of a new restoration of Sergei Bondarchuk’s film War and Peace (1966-1967). For fans of the film, exciting news to be sure, but somewhat confusing to hear. An earlier, 2003, DVD release of the film, from the Russian company Ruscico (The Russian Cinema Council), had signaled a restoration, purportedly begun in 1999, by Russia’s Mosfilm. Janus’ 2019 release, we discovered last winter, was yet another restoration begun in 2006 again by Mosfilm that, unlike the earlier one, had been a digital, 2K frame-by-frame effort that took 10 years to accomplish.
Screen captures included in Janus’ pressbook, sporting vivid color and tight resolution, seemed to bear out that Mosfilm’s most recent treatment was indeed something remarkable. For those of us who never thought we’d live to see it, the release promised a powerful, final regeneration of Bondarchuk’s creation. Theatrical showings in March brought unanimous raves. Criterion’s release on disc, both Blu-ray and DVD, we knew was sure to follow, and it did, on June 25th.
Much more about the glories of Criterion’s release later on, but the question remains: Has it ever been a good idea to make a feature film out of Leo Tolstoy’s novel War and Peace?1 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 is the book’s huge quotient of major and minor characters; a timeline embracing, with an epilogue, over a decade; and a plot continually interrupted by lengthy discourses mostly given over to the author’s unique brand of philosophic history.
Hollywood tried just once, in 1956, with an undercooked spectacular directed by King Vidor. The Italian-American production reduced the novel to its barebones human story – the lives of a trio of characters caught in the vicissitudes of both a national calamity and a long-standing love triangle. But Vidor’s film captured little of the depth of the main characters’ drama, much less the massive cultural/historical zeitgeist of the novel. Neither was the production 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?
Oddly enough, Vidor’s film, exported to the USSR in 1959, proved popular with Soviet audiences, not because they enjoyed or even approved of the American adaptation of their national treasure, but because they adored Audrey Hepburn.
However, as reported by Denise Youngblood in her monograph on the film, some members of the proletariat resisted the film in spite of Ms. Hepburn, as did, with more consequence, segments of the cultural and military elite, who were miffed over its success in the motherland and became vocal about it.2 You can’t blame them, really: Hepburn’s cool beauty notwithstanding, how dare the Americans make a mess out Tolstoy’s epic and then score a hit in the country it celebrates? This Cold War fit of pique got the attention of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. At which point the minister of culture became involved, and “state ordered” the film.3
Premiering in Russia 10 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 six-hour, two-part version suffering badly from heavy cuts and grotesque English-language dubbing, it nonetheless made 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 abruptly issued its 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.
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, I felt at the time, this massive golem of a movie had finally gotten its dignity back. Now in 2019, with Janus’ theatrical run of the new restoration and Criterion’s issuance of it on disc, I’m wondering if the film had looked this good in the first place.
Mosfilm’s current 421-minute length is only an hour longer than the original US cut (360 min.), and there have always been rumors of much longer versions, such as a Soviet cut at 507 minutes, but it’s probably time to put such rumors to bed.
In its two restorations done within 10 years of each other, you have to believe that Mosfilm has done due diligence in its search for the best elements. Since no complete 70mm negative exists for War and Peace, the latest restoration was, according to Janus, “achieved by assembling parts of negatives from various archives, with the complete positive copy held by Sovexportfilm, which had distributed War and Peace abroad, used for reference.” Janus makes no mention of, or comparisons with, Mosfilm’s earlier restoration as seen on Ruscico’s DVD release in 2003.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 (Bondarchuk and co-writer Vasili Solovyov had begun writing the screenplay in spring 1961). 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 (above, 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.
As the 1969 “making of” documentary (included by both Ruscico and Criterion) 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 in the Ruscico release, it’s interesting to note the attitude of Mosfilm’s current director, Karen Shakhnazarov, who, while having been involved in the 1999 restoration (and the later as well), 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 the fates of not just individuals, but 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.
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 that 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’ contention seems oddly combative and just plain wrong. Whatever sort of book Tolstoy meant War and Peace to be, the idea that its teeming with life makes it “accidental and arbitrary” hardly makes sense, at least nowadays when novels can take many forms and still be called novels. In disqualifying the work as a novel, James might’ve been on stronger ground pointing out that War and Peace can feel as much an essay as a fictive narrative.4
Yet who struggles with terminology in discussing Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (1862), which also interrupts its storyline with digressions and moral discourse? One lengthy chapter has the author conducting a contemporary walking tour of the site of the Battle of Waterloo. Although in style and intent Hugo’s authorship couldn’t be further from Tolstoy’s, Les Misérables, too, is a mid-nineteenth-century novel of ideas that found its own engine to drive forward its multidimensional text.
And once you make peace with Tolstoy the free-floating essayist, War and Peace is not a tough read. A friend of mine – not Henry James – once 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 worldview, the book is profoundly nationalist: it concerns itself with “Russian-ness”; it celebrates Russia’s uniqueness and strength, and its ability, through sheer patriotic willpower, to defeat the French.
Other than its aforementioned drive to undercut the popularity of Vidor’s film in the USSR, Mosfilm intended Bondarchuk’s War and Peace to be 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.5 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.
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, as described by the author, “of moderate height.” It took me another reading of the novel to realize that Bondarchuk was 20 years too old to play Pierre, but by then it was too late. His performance held all there was about Pierre, except that the actor, while gaining weight for the part, became more or less “stout” rather than out-and-out “fat,” which is how Tolstoy declares him multiple times; toward the middle of the book, when Pierre grows severely depressed, he gets even fatter. (In order to give Pierre a more sympathetic appearance, one can forgive Bondarchuk for slimming down his character.)
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. In the German documentary included by Criterion, the narrator quotes co-screenwriter Solovyov speaking of the adaptation: “Tolstoy and only Tolstoy. Nothing comes from us.”6
The film we see today bears this out – to a point. Bondarchuk attempts the same specificity as Tolstoy, and more often than not, it pays off. 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. A given scene can retain not only whole stretches of the author’s dialogue, but also follow Tolstoy’s finely detailed descriptions of a character’s behavior, including gestures, body language, and even facial expressions as they mutate and change.
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 have 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.7 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. Indeed, “war and peace” could label the interior struggles – conflict followed by resolution, chaos followed by calm – that each of the main characters experiences throughout the novel.
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. 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 – and 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 Nikolai 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 can fill in the blanks.8
Bondarchuk’s faithful, detailed approach reaches an 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.
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, 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 she 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.
Of the many remarkable performances in the film Lyudmila Savelyeva’s must be singled out. Cast with no acting experience, Savelyeva’s actual youth was germane to the realism of her portrayal, which, within the parameters of that youth, grows quite complex and modulated. Bondarchuk himself said that in the film she wasn’t so much acting as living the part, and, indeed, it’s her consistent authenticity throughout that allows her to be the pivot of the entire film.
For more than half of the novel, Tolstoy’s Natasha is an adolescent, but, more specifically, a pampered, sheltered, high-born one, who is surrounded by a loving family that constantly reminds her how special she is. And special she is, indeed, but along with her vivaciousness and charm – her “life force” – Tolstoy allows her to be a high-strung, self-involved teenager, who dreamily tells herself how well she dances, how well she sings. Therefore, she muses, doesn’t it follow that everyone must love her?
The actress manages it all: the charm, the life force, and the self-absorption. It’s quite a delicate balance, but it’s a necessary one if the film is to have the Natasha of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. A fully realistic adolescent Natasha is also needed if her break with Andrei, and her eventual reunion with him, is to make any dramatic sense.
When she enters the film as a 13-year-old, Savelyeva is – at perhaps 19 – playing young, but she’s quite convincing as a young girl when she asks Boris to kiss her doll, then leaping onto a stool, throwing her long hair back, and attempting to deliver the boy a real kiss herself. Taking place in a conservatory among a mass of hothouse plants, the scene has a mystical, hushed aura well expressive of Natasha’s pubescent sexual awakening.
Four years later, at her first ball on New Year’s Eve, 1809, Natasha is no older than 17 when she dances with Prince Andrei. Whatever her success at the ball, after which she fancies herself in love with the Prince, Natasha is still something of a child. When Andrei comes to ask for her hand and stands face to face with her, he suddenly realizes this fact. Any erotic feelings he’s been harboring for Natasha are rapidly supplanted with a protective concern for her immaturity – with all its blindnesses and vulnerabilities – forcing him to inwardly agree with his father’s demand, made on less compassionate grounds, that they wait a year for the nuptials.9 When he presents the delay to her, Natasha has no idea why this should be – which is all to the point. She’s in no way ready to take on a life with a complex, conflicted, emotionally scarred man like the 30-something Andrei.
Voice-overs carry each character’s thoughts, but you need only the actors’ faces – Savelyeva’s blooming with unguarded youth, Tikhonov’s lined with 20 more years of experience – to see the distances abruptly opening up between the lovers.
During the yearlong hiatus, it’s this same immaturity that leads Natasha to the attempted abduction by Anatole Kuragin (Vasily Lanovoy) and the emotional catastrophe that follows. Savelyeva is especially, rather scarily, effective in the scene where the dowager Marya Dmitrievna (Yelena Tyapkina) scolds her for her botched elopement with Kuragin. Here Natasha’s anguish rises to such intensity that it startles Dmitrievna into near silence and sudden concern for her charge’s sanity; the young actress looks authentically demented, truly a teenager on the way to what the mid-twentieth century would call a nervous breakdown.
All of this – the unknown Savelyeva’s youth and her skill at using it – is the reason the casting of an actress like Audrey Hepburn as Natasha had been so maladroit. Hepburn was simply too much of a grown-up, not to mention, by 1956, an established Hollywood star rapidly acquiring a burnished, sleekly contained image. Bondarchuk must have known what he needed for Natasha: a non-actor fresh enough from the turmoil of adolescence to be able to source it in a performance. And what luck he had in Savelyeva!
But what we read in the novel and see in the film are not merely stages in Natasha’s struggle to grow up, but, also, when reunited with the actively dying Andrei, her crossing of a spiritual threshold – which includes a new ability to act with selflessness in times of crisis. From Andrei’s death she emerges as a woman able to meet Pierre on common psychic and moral ground. Of all the film’s characters, Savelyeva’s Natasha, with her beginnings as a young girl, is the one most expressive of Forster’s concept of people struggling and suffering over time and space.
Bondarchuk ends his 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 without 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 World War II 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 World War II were less than 20 years old when the film went into production.10 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 ’60s, Bondarchuk’s War and Peace is cautionary toward aggression, just as Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky had bluntly been in the ’30s.
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. Petersburg. These are the musings of an idealist and, more importantly, a Freemason, not those of the author himself. Bondarchuk’s voice-over makes them sound like a naive pacifist banner for the work as a whole. Needing straightforward melodramatic devices for its narrative drive and boy-gets-girl finish, the film has little room for Tolstoy’s actual philosophical subtexts and none at all for his historical theorizing.
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 the author’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, and it has no place in this film.
And yet, the film wants to be as big as the book. Massive sets are built – a three-dimensional mockup of Moscow, palace ballrooms, an opera house auditorium – and battles are waged deploying 12,000 Soviet troops. Has any film director in history had as many willing bodies at his disposal, and the ability, while controlling them with such skill, to film them with such beauty?11
The depiction of the Battle of Schöngrabern presents us with 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.
As Bondarchuk conducts his war with the French in Austerlitz then Borodino, he shoots three colossal groupings, using cranes or helicopters, and inserts them purposely at key moments during the conflicts. Massive and extravagant as they may be, these three sequences are not gratuitous spectacle; they are visuals with deeply felt, expressive content.
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 venerate the Smolensk icon, which is held by a gathering of priests on a hill. The third, another crane shot, is a 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.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. But Eisenstein’s framing is more painterly and even witty: the arabesque of the massed crowd is continued by Ivan’s beard in the foreground. Lacking Eisenstein’s wry undertone, Bondarchuk’s visuals are more fundamentally unsettling.
Yet all three of these implausibly spectacular images seem to express, wordlessly, Tolstoy’s “swarm of life” philosophy. Shot aerially or with a crane, each image shows a grouping, which you could interpret as a visual equivalent 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.”
The bonfire image (above) caps the film’s penultimate wartime sequence, which begins with an isolated company of Russian soldiers out in the barren winter landscape. When a few of the starving French emerge from the woods, the Russians generously share their food and campfires, and the victors prove their humanity. Two of the French soldiers are Captain Ramballe and his orderly, both of whom the viewer has seen earlier in the film’s sequences set in the abandoned Moscow.
Ramballe’s presence in the film, both earlier and here, is important in how it individualizes and humanizes the French, who are, in Tolstoy’s theory of history, acting only as part of huge forces beyond their control or ken.
Consistent as ever, Bondarchuk begins the sequence with minute faithfulness to the text, but the effect of seeing, however briefly, the formerly overweening Ramballe now humbled and grateful is perhaps more poignant here than in the novel, in which Ramballe’s sudden appearance feels more ironic than piteous. As he rather dryly relates them, the author doesn’t underline these events with any emotive subtext; they are, in the context of the book’s massive sweep, even somewhat incidental. At times, and with full intent, the omniscient Tolstoy keeps us at a wry, sage distance. Not so Bondarchuk, who begins to raise the emotional temperature significantly in this brief campfire sequence.
With his depiction of the Russians engaging charitably with the defeated French, Bondarchuk may implicitly retain Tolstoy’s vision of individual lives swept into historic event, but, unlike the author, doesn’t hesitate to put his film’s heart on its sleeve, fleshing out, with a surge of feeling, this sudden camaraderie between the warring cultures.
As in the novel, Ramballe’s orderly, Morel, strives to teach his Russian captors an old French song, “Vive Henri Quatre,” which the film dutifully supplies along with the Russians’ faltering, then successful, attempts at the lyrics. But then, unlike Tolstoy, Bondarchuk has the entire Russian company take up the song, which we hear sung heartily by, who knows, the Russian Army Chorus?
As the many voices lift on the soundtrack, a long shot takes in the winter landscape, the forest, and the campfires. Then, with the chorus still filling the soundtrack, the film cuts to the astonishing crane shot of thousands of the starving French gravitating about that huge bonfire – one of its finest images. Bondarchuk has here created a supreme cinematic moment – we go to the movies for just this kind visual/aural uplift – and the director/screenwriter was absolutely right to conflate Tolstoy’s sequence and crown it with an unforgettable, widescreen image.
With his more gut-felt, grandiose sequence, the filmmaker may betray the sober, clear-eyed tone of Tolstoy’s prose, and perhaps also Bondarchuk was pandering to Cold War messaging – the Russian people are at heart peace-loving and extend their arms to the West – but at our distance from that era12 and without the novel on our laps – these scenes play simply as great filmmaking.
As spectacle these sequences have no cinematic precedent, and whatever CGI can accomplish these days can’t touch the tangible immediacy Bondarchuk was able to produce, in real space, with real live human beings.
Thus limited to flesh and blood and plaster and wood, 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’s adaptation proves itself “big,” all right: massive in its scale and weight of physical reality, dramatically adept in its sweep and depth of character development over time and space, and awe-inspiring in its expressive use of spectacle.
Yet, there are limits to making “the innermost mysteries of the novel . . . visually tangible.” Bondarchuk’s stated goal reveals a central challenge to his adaptation: that is, while holding fast to that essential, one-to-one relationship with the somewhat consecrated text, how much of the Tolstoy thought process can make a safe transition from page to screen? After all, that’s where a lot of that “mystery” resides.
If Bondarchuk had intuited that faithfully detailed transfers of Tolstoy’s central, human narrative could play smoothly and authentically on the screen, it must have been clear from the project’s inception that the author’s complex – and sometimes peculiar, even questionable – views on the causes and meanings of human event, mostly would not. But Bondarchuk tried anyway. While he needed to avoid Tolstoy’s extensive revisionist views on history, some of the author’s philosophic ruminations did make it into the film – with varying degrees of authenticity.
When Andrei and Pierre discuss matters of life and death, for example, these ideas take place in dialogue, as they do in the novel. Thoughts on what it means to be human can also be inserted into voice-overs; thus, Andrei, on the eve of Borodino, ponders his mortality. What’s tricky here, though, is that those ideas presented in dialogue and voice-over (when denoting thought) are not necessarily those of the author, but those of the characters. And in Bondarchuk’s film, as discussed above, even a voice-over by the director and meant to be coming from the mind of Tolstoy may be uttered out of its context in the novel. Thereby the film becomes an unreliable disseminator of the author’s ideas.
Further, 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’s eyes brim with tears, sometimes so will the lens. There is too much superimposition 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, beginning the monologue in voice-over, continues it by shouting the remainder directly into the camera, 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, 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 his 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.
Bondarchuk is nearly infallible when he relies on his actors. Lyudmila 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 Mosfilm’s restorations have 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 (à la 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.” The revamped soundtrack even makes Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov’s sometimes overbearing score sound better, especially in its quieter moments.
Janus and Criterion offer a few details about the studio’s 2006 resuscitation of the film, but, concerning the earlier, 1999 effort, some of the interviewees on Ruscico’s special features also drop hints. Here Mosfilm’s director, Karen Shakhnazarov, briefly relates the crises encountered when the restoration was mounted in the ’90s. 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. Shakhnazarov also helmed the 2006 restoration, but no interview with him appears on the Criterion release.The best reality check comes from the chief cameraman, Anatoly Petritsky. In his Ruscico interview – and in Criterion’s largely repetitive one filmed in 2017 – 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 in the Ruscico interview; 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. Composer Ovchinnikov, in his Ruscico interview, remembers that funding the project was a problem: Khrushchev was in favor of it; Alexei Kosygin, his successor, was less so. 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 the 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, included by both Ruscico and Criterion, it’s unclear whether the Russian audience ever really took this film collectively to heart. Maybe few Russians have ever seen the complete series. After large numbers of the Soviet public showed up for parts one and two; attendance dropped off sharply for three and four. For those who did take in all of it, maybe in the end it was too much Bondarchuk’s film: too personal, too eccentric.
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.
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Criterion’s Blu-ray of War and Peace presents us, essentially, with a new film. Once past the still murky titles and the somewhat puzzling opening sequence, we find ourselves, as always, in Anna Scherer’s soirée, and here we immediately witness what Mosfilm’s newest restoration has accomplished. In the US anyway, I’m confident that, visually and in its (supposedly) uncut form, no one has ever seen the film like this. After having heard from the cinematographer how suspect and substandard the film stock and equipment had been, it’s a shock to finally see how magnificently Anatoly Petritsky managed the photography.
What you might have only intimated – or wished for – from the visuals in previous home video releases is now on full display. Fine detail and luminous but balanced colors are consistent nearly throughout; only occasionally do you see color values fluctuate as they did more aggressively in earlier releases. Bondarchuk’s frequent use of long shots in intimate interior scenes now makes expressive sense. Some sequences shot in difficult light – such as the scene in which Natasha, Nikolai, and Sonya discuss spirituality in a darkened room – had been nearly indecipherable; now they read perfectly and reveal beautifully nuanced details.
In the crowd-massed visuals discussed above, the new clarity allows the imagery to speak with added potency. In the shot below, Petritsky aimed the 70mm camera directly into the sun, with only wisps of smoke masking the glare:
The cinematographer certainly took his chances here, but this unusual capture of late-day sun, smoke, darkened sky – the beauty of which seems to subsume, like a divinity, the vast single mindset of the gathering worshippers – places the viewer in the midst of something approaching the supra-human. It’s a quality quite unlike the bland pictorials accompanying, say, the captive Pierre’s self-divination.
The deep resonance of the restored color and the never-before-seen crispness of the resolution brings the finest of the film’s image-making to, perhaps, a final realization.
As you’d expect for a film of this magnitude, Criterion’s supplements are many and varied, but anyone still possessing the Ruscico set should hold on to disc five of it, which contains features not found on Criterion’s, such as interviews with Karen Shakhnazarov, Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov, and two of the cast members. Ovchinnikov, who died in February 2019, is especially chatty, sometimes backbiting, and yet, if we can believe everything he says, informative. For instance, he remembers the composer Kabalevsky proposing that for the film’s underscore, he arranged music from Prokofiev’s War and Peace opera – a stunningly bad idea!
The all-important Soviet making-of doc from 1969 is Criterion’s only duplication with any of Ruscico’s supplements, and it remains quite an eye-opener, especially, as discussed above, in what it reveals of the filming of the burning of Moscow. Amazing, too, is its capture of the filming of the battle sequences, showing just how those elaborate tracking shots worked and giving insights into the creative, troubleshooting use of cranes and cameras rigged up on cables.
A German documentary, The Making of the Epic War and Peace (1966), centers on preparations to film the opera house scene in which Natasha first encounters Anatole Kuragin. We see glimpses of Bondarchuk being too busy with matters at hand to give the doc more than a few seconds of a so-called interview. But the 48-minute film delivers one fascinating tidbit, concerning what I’ve always thought a non-Tolstoyan image in the film. When we first see Andrei’s father, Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky (Anatoly Ktorov), in the film, he’s strolling in his estate past a small clutch of musicians clustered off to a niche in the landscape playing what sounds to be Mozart. According to the doc, Bondarchuk got the idea from a bit in an earlier draft of the novel that the author discarded. If a Tolstoy scholar out there can confirm this, I’d appreciate it.
A French film made for television, Les Soviétiques (1969), apparently shot after filming for the fourth part had recently finished, is a curious PR-like treatment of the star, Lyudmila Savelyeva, that follows the apparently self-effacing actress around her Moscow home base. Throughout, Lyudmila mostly hangs with her boyfriend as she maneuvers her cramped apartment, wafts her way unrecognized through miscellaneous Soviet streets, and, in a depressing Moscow dance club, makes out with her well-mannered young man. The film’s most rewarding moment comes when it captures a post-production dubbing session with Bondarchuk. Here we see him not only dubbing his own lines as Pierre, but devotedly coaching Savelyeva with hers, detailing precisely what he wants in her inflection, word emphasis, and the raising and lowering of her voice’s volume. The few-minute segment is a valuable window into Bondarchuk’s directing style, which certainly appears to leave nothing to chance or improvisation.
More about Sergei Bondarchuk, on a personal level, comes to light in an interview with his son, filmmaker Fedor Bondarchuk, who speaks of the director’s deep commitment to the project and to his portrayal of Pierre. In the midst of the production in 1964, Bondarchuk suffered a major heart attack and nearly died; his son connects his near-death to the treatment of mortality in the film.
Rounding out Criterion’s supplements is a recently filmed video program with Denise Youngblood, author of Bondarchuk’s War and Peace, which offers an excellent political and historical backgrounding of the film, as does her 2014 monograph in much finer detail. Youngblood is a historian herself, and her scholarship is particularly valuable in its facing down of Tolstoy’s reassessment of the Russian events of 1812 and the years preceding it – a brave task! In her book she writes that Tolstoy’s novel “is widely accepted as the single most important mythmaker of Russia’s Napoleonic Wars, and historians have disputed his views.”13 Also generally debunked, she reports, is Tolstoy’s overarching vision of how Napoleon was finally defeated, that is, “by the spirit of the Russian people.”14
Youngblood’s points here aren’t meant to demean Tolstoy’s achievement, nor do they. But they have led me to putting the novel – and the film – once again in the context of their times and, just as importantly, in the light of the individual creative energies of both writer and filmmaker, whatever their faults or idiosyncrasies.
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All images are screenshots from the film’s DVD and Blu-ray, reproduced in compliance with the fair use provisions of copyright law.
- Cited references in this article to Tolstoy’s novel will refer to the edition of War and Peace translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York, in 2007. [↩]
- Youngblood, Denise. Bondarchuk’s War and Peace. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2014, pp. 10-11. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- A couple of decades before James’ critique appeared, Tolstoy himself, in a journal article published in 1868, declared that “War and Peace is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle … [it] is what the author wanted, and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed.” (translation, Pevear and Volokhonsky, 2007) Tolstoy then declines to give his work a better label, but for my purposes I will continue to call it a novel. [↩]
- Youngblood (p. 14) reports that “estimates of War and Peace’s costs range from $29 million to a high of a $100 million, the equivalent of $700 million today. [↩]
- Statement attributed to Vasily Solovyov, the co-screenwriter of War and Peace, in the German documentary The Making of the Epic War and Peace (1966), included as a supplement in Criterion’s edition of the film. [↩]
- Forster, E. M. Aspects of the Novel. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World. p. 63. [↩]
- 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 Criterion’s release. Read the book, then watch the film, would be my advice. [↩]
- The film doesn’t include Andrei’s father’s demand for a year’s delay to the marriage. [↩]
- Lyudmila Savelyeva was in fact born in Leningrad in 1942, at the height of the city’s siege. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- Although the Cold War seems to have returned. [↩]
- Youngblood, p. 74. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]