Sergei Bondarchuk (director/co-writer along with Vasili Solovyov), like Napoléon, has marshalled all of the cinematic troops at his disposal and rendered a broad-brushed realization of Tolstoy’s masterpiece that is as stunning and satisfying today as when it was released in 1968.
At nearly seven hours in length, there could have been an attempt to present the gripping tale of relationship foibles and unbelievable brutality in a collage of short scenes that were “faithful” to the text. Fortunately, Bondarchuk opted for a deceptively leisurely pace (the time vanishes), filled with an incredible amount of detail that dresses up the storytelling, allowing the feelings of Tolstoy’s characters to dominate the proceedings and the savagery of war and “sport” hunting to speak for themselves.
The cinematography (Yu-Lan Chen, Anatoli Pertritsky, Aleksandr Shelenkov) must be seen and studied by all of those who love film or have hopes of a career behind the lens. The vastness of both subject matter and geography are reinforced by many up-angle (the old oak tree and the 1811 comet), downward-pans (spring arrives in spectacular fashion, “dashing through the snow” was never so grand) and overhead shots (with such spectacular palaces to shoot in, who could resist?) that leave the viewer in awe of a privileged world that few actually enjoy. These moments of distance are expertly balanced by the camera becoming one of the crowd: much of the full-dress ball is shot a waist level, giving a perspective of the dance (from both participants and wallflowers) that will never be captured on today’s reality shows where the dividing line between those who do and those who judge or watch is like a moat.
Rather than pepper the action with copious amounts of dialogue, a healthy usage of extreme close-ups (many head-turns and telling expressions), says it all wordlessly (this technique is aided and abetted by the unseen narrator who fills in some of the back-story, letting the actors show more than tell—given the international market, this choice was also wise). Finally, the effective use of darkness (the magical moonlit night will inspire anyone to wish upon their star or fantasize about flying above the earth like Peter Pan; family discussions are often more seen than heard) only serves to make the sudden bursts of light (the arrival of the masqueraders will make anyone jump) add another layer of visual interest that speeds the philosophical tale forward with illuminating thrust and parry.
The cast members acquit themselves well, letting both director and novelist make their points at will. Bondarchuk has cast himself in the central role of Pierre Bezuhkov. He utilizes his ideal physique and visage to pull the illegitimate child out of the slump of rejection (“trapped by society”; “At least Napoléon has his goal”) and into the sudden realization that even he can love. The object of his slow-to-kindle desire (and quite a few others) is Natasha Rostov (Lyudmila Savelyeva brings a compelling Audrey Hepburn presence that is picture perfect). She’s temporarily engaged to the brooding Prince Andrei Bolkonsky. “Be content with doing no harm,” says the troubled soldier who survives a bloody battle only to arrive home just in time to face the simultaneous death of his wife (Anastasiya Vertinskaya) and birth of his son (Anatoli Ktorov). Vyacheslav Tikhonov plays the increasingly empty aristocrat with more cool than fire. Yet, like everyone in the ensemble, his lines are at times heard in English (direct or dubbed) or seen as subtitles while another “voice” speaks fluent Russian. While an editor’s nightmare to prepare this film for wider distribution, the inconsistent solution to the language barrier is a serious flaw.
Similar to Wagner operas, music is a character all to itself. Without going to the extreme of leitmotifs, the tracks—whether specially created (Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov, composer) or from the standard repertoire (an early Haydn symphony is apparently performed in the field; Monteverdi’s L'incoronazione di Poppea is the featured work at the opera)—the production wouldn’t be half as successful without the generous supply of our most universal art. Worth a special mention is the bass section of the early-scene a capella chorus whose low Cs were magnificent; also notable was the “dueling banjo” (in sharp contrast to the real duel that, like most wars, settled nothing) moments (balalaika and guitar in this instance) as Natasha reveals through dance that despite her upbringing by a French nanny, she is no stranger to the traditional folk music of her land. As the servants watch admiringly, she single-handedly bridges the gap between classes with moves that most certainly would have delighted Tolstoy.
While the battles in all of their gruesome glory had to have taken place for War and Peace to have been written, it is the personal conflicts raging silently in the hearts and consciences of the principal players that have earned both this film and Tolstoy’s insight a second look or first read. JWR