Bald Hills, one of many landscape scenes, where the Bolkonskii family lives
Marya (Antonina Shuranova) submits to her father, Prince Bolskonsky’s (Anatoli Ktorov)’s instructions in geometry
During the few months a group of us on Trollope19thCStudies were reading Tolstoy’s novel, and those before when I was listening to the novel read aloud (Books-on-Tape now on CDs), I watched four War and Peace films: three “mini”-series (I put mini in quotations since Bondarchuk’s Russian epic is 507 minutes; Jack Pulman’s exquisite BBC mini-series in 1972, 900 minutes, with the “short” version by Andrew Davies in 2016 clocking in at 6 hours and 19 minutes) and one cinema feature (Vidor’s 1955 Hollywoodized W&P a mere 3 hours and 20 minutes). These are not the only War and Peace films to have been made, but they represent what is available today (plus a 2007 mini-series that turns the film into a romance about Natasha Rostov), what is seriously watchable.
I begin with the one most written about: Sergei Bondarchuk’s truly epic War and Peace, filmed as a profound reaction against the Hollywoodized and Italianate War and Peace, directed by King Vidor, script by Mario Soldati, as a trivializing debasement of a book Russians are deeply proud of, a part of their national heritage. The interaction between these two has been taken as an episode in the cold war. I found the American-Italian film tedious but those interested might like to know you can read the script on-line, and read a brief conversation I had with people who were just reaching adulthood in the 1950s and were entranced by Audrey Hepburn (Natasha) and Vittorio Gasmann (as transgressive rake-male seduces elusive archetype). I’m glad the first film was made, as it led to the Russian gov’t and many individual groups, to say nothing of some spectacular artists in Russia at the time give their all to bring Tolstoy’s novel to cinematic life.
Bondarchuk’s War and Peace is still the most written about of all these and I am aware I shall probably fail to convey the experience, but perhaps a concrete description of its four parts can function to encourage others to attempt this film and (standing warned, knowing what you need to do or be prepared for as you start) overcome obstacles to enjoyment. More than the other two mini-series, you must read the book first. The 1972 BBC Pulman War and Peace almost succeeds in doing without a pre-read (but if you have read the book then you appreciate how extraordinarily the film gets in so many kinds of discourse from the novel). A synopsis will not do. But if you read and then watch and then re-read, the film will enrichen and add much to the book (especially the voice-over which picks up on Tolstoy’s darkest utterances).
Each time I would start a new disk, I admit, I felt un-eager because in the new digitalized version (2003, which is the one you must buy or rent) the faults of the original are on display too (which you need to know about): keep clicking “English” on the first paratexts and you will experience three languages: first, a voice-over narrator (very well done, dubbed in English, keeping you alert to or understanding what part of Tolstoy’s story we are in, and explaining what is the situation you are watching). Then there are the characters “inside” the frame who speak in French (no subtitles but it’s simple short French) or Russian (with English subtitles, not dubbed). The actors at the time respect decorums and are not wildly virtuoso in performances, they are not close-up to one another and the percentage of close-ups is small. Film affects us most deeply through faces — so that is often lacking. But then I would find myself engulfed all over again. The visual and aural create meanings the book can’t get near; it functions as a shooting script.
But then within a few minutes I’d be engulfed again.
The problem all the essays on Bondarchuk I’ve read have is no single or sequence of stills/shots or clips or montages can come near to conveying what it feels like to experience this vast assemblage of seemingly superabundant ever-changed, controlled and appropriate camera work from moment to moment. Scenes of vast and minute maneuvers in battle and horrific carnage (with literary hundreds of people involved for each sequence, thousands over-all) predominate, and for which it is probably most famous:
But Bondarchuk and Vasili Solovev’s script dramatizes just as surely the intimate and varied story-scenes of Tolstoy’s book, in society and at war, indoors and outdoors, between two or a few people, at a table and in crowds and ritual ballrooms and battle line-ups. I love the many atmospheric moments where dissolving clouds over a forest or some landscape or time of day or season are captured — all Woolf-like luminous envelope as life. Here’s a snow-filled shot of the sky and wood in Russian winter:
And by contrast, where a character stands frozen, prompted to remember his past as a bomb near-by spins and spins about to go off and we get revolving montages of flashbacks of memory; or we are at a savage hunt and experience the terror of the wolf (the POV) before he is (I hope not for real) hacked to death; or characters weep as one lies dying:
Andrei (Viacheslav Tikhonov) dying and Natasha (Liudmila Saveleva) crying over him
or walk and talk about their philosophical differences, or chase after one another enclosed and amid beautiful plants. There are scenes of social life in vast drawing- and ball-rooms, war councils, the world of the Russian country house and its grounds and smaller houses around it are shown us; wild madness on a battlefield or besieged city:
Sergei Bondarchuk plays Pierre: here towards the end of the film he’s registering the irrationality and inhumanity of the world’s doings
On top of this, highly varied music from symphonies and classical compositions, original mid-20th century music, to folk music, to effective modern sound track accompanies many scenes. So I won’t try but instead tell how the film re-organizes the book into four coherent parts and makes the book’s themes and plot-designs more accessible (or simpler) than Tolstoy. Bondarchuk clarifies Tolstoy, like some neo-classical rewrite of Shakespeare. Bondarchuk has reconceived Tolstoy’s vast book sufficiently so the film carries a condensation and restructuring into four parts and yet seems to leave little out that counts.
Part 1: Andrei Bolkonskii (140 minutes)
Anatole Kuragin (Vasilii Lanovoi) and Andrei Bolkonskii (Viascheslave Tikhonov) —
In his study of the drafts of W&P R.F. Christian says Tolstoy began with a low-life vicious aristocratic male, i.e., Anatole, for his hero, and gradually substitutes the intelligent ethical Pierre; in the book as we have it, Anatole seduces Natasha and ruins the secondary hero, Andreii’s life and dies next to him in a war hospital, so it’s fitting the first shot of both should be together as they enter the hollow party of Anna Pavlovna Scherer (Angelina Stepanova)
The story line takes us from when we meet Andrei who is weary of his wife, finds no meaning in the landowning and socializing roles he is given, leaves his wife with his family, and goes off to war only to discover its meaningless cruelties and hierarchical corruption. Within that story we meet Pierre Bezukhov at Anna Pavlovna’s drawing room, and take him past his father’s death, inheritance of vast property, and succumbing to Prince Vassily’s manipulations to the point he marries Vassily’s daughter, Helene, a woman whose amorality and promiscuous sexuality he cannot stand. This is punctuated (so to speak) by the Rostov world: the innocent Natasha, the repressed hurt Sonya, her dependent cousin, the two naive young men, Nikolai (not so naive he doesn’t go after Sonya) and Petya, the corrupt Boris and his sycophant mother, wild dancing on the part of the count, coarse worldliness in the countess. POV is Andrei’s much more often than Pierre’s; and is impersonal in the Rostov and Bolskonskii worlds.
Andreii’s father, old Prince Bolkonskii (Anatoli Ktorov) first seen walking through golden autumn woods, and to his side an unexplained string quartet plays music
It seemed to me after a while a deeply poetic part. The emphasis towards the end are these horrific visionary battles but before that, the countryside, the mansions, the sky, water, landscapes of stunning beauty — be it in the snow or in spring, or just aspects of color on the screen. They are there to express a vision of Bondarchuk’s own about Russian which he thinks undergirds Tolstoy’s own more socially-driven matter (and is reinforced by the conversations of Andreii and Pierre). There is some realistic psychology, though the playing is expressive rather than subtle. It’s intensely serious: it seems to trace Andrei’s disillusion and does end on a close-up of his face on the battlefield of Austerlitz where he is left for dead.
Part 2: Natasha (93 minutes)
Natasha Rostov (Liudmila Saveleva, not a star, but new presence) —
Most people pick the stills of her at her first ball, or enthralled either with Andrei or Anatole; here she is walking in a wood, the bright face of hope for which Andreii falls in love with her
The second part is like an inset novella, a domestic fiction, it is quiet. As Part One focused on Andrei’s story so Part Two centers on Natasha, taking her story from her child-like sexuality with the live-in Boris Smirnov in the garden,and her ecstacy for Sonia (Irina Gubanova) in love with Nikolai, Natasha’s brother (Oleg Tabakov, his role much shrunk). We see her with the Countess her mother (Kira Golovko) in the bed, preparing for her ball, how she fears no one will ask her to dance. We also have the story of Pierre carried on as substory once again: his despair with his wife, her adultery, Dolokhov’s mockery of him, the duel, his returning to his land and finally going to Andreii on his. How Andrei (returned to life, now a widower), is so taken with her that he loves her at first sight and asks her to marry him. Her mother has already brushed off Boris not from reasons of character, but his lack of rank and money.
Unlike the book and unlike the two BBC films or Vidor’s, Bondarchuk’s Andreii quickly realizes he was under a delusion, she is a symbol to him, and not a mature woman (as his wife was not mature and bored him), so his decision to wait in this film for a year is a holding tactic. This helps justify her turning to Anatole in this film. Bondarchuk is stepping back from this male patriarchal vision of the nubile, readily erotically enthralled, yet holding to it. We have her joining in intensely at the hunt, dancing wildly to folk music at Christmas (the uncle playing the violin), and then as the year passes, restless, feeling deserted, wasted, and riveted by a spell the libertine, Anatole, can perform on young women (so Bondarchuk seems to assume). Natasha comes near eloping; stopped with the help of Sonia and Pierre, this second part ends on her humiliation, remorse, begging pardon from everyone, including Pierre (showing up as the ever present kind brother) to ask him to ask Andrei to forgive her and he cannot — he is too rigid a man. Her face dissolves into the sky, and then a vast landscape with “1812” in large letters, and the voice-over narrator comes on to tell us of the irrational stupid waste of what is to come, and the huge armies cross into Russia (if you didn’t watch it, go back to the first YouTube).
Natasha having bad dreams
The second part contrasts to the other three: it is mostly very quiet, the acting is stylized. A young girl’s life and (temporary) downfall. The narrator functions more centrally here than the other three parts: he repeats his phrases, explicates, provides a depth of feeling; the English dubbed voice is very good; the subtitles too. This is accompanied by beautiful shots; it’s like being in a painting of Moscow, the countryside, especially the long Christmas sequence is appealing. A celebration of Russia, which for me is undermined by the misogyny of making women into sex objects, easily roused unthinking subject creatures.
Part 3: 1812 (78 minutes)
Pierre and Tushin (Nikolai Trofimov) brave soldier in the book
Our focuses slowly become Andrei and Pierre, one as conventional but disillusioned bitter military officer, the other increasingly shocked civilian. Andreii delivers sonorous meditative despair soliloquies; there are some quiet scenes of him now and again, first framing the phases and then inside them. Pierre is on the battle field like some deer in a headlights,continually more traumatized. The part begins quietly at the Bokonskii home — the scene of the old man refusing to believe Maria and the governess that the French are about to entry their territory, then forced to, and finally dying.
He does ask Maria to forgive him as he does not in the other two films. These are interwoven with a vast scene of a ball at which the emperor Alexander I appears, and the coming battle is announced. We are at the Rostov home too where the young boy, Petya insists on going out to fight and the countess, his mother is devastated. During the battle we move back and forth from the famous General Kutusov (Boris Zakhava) on one hill and Napoleon (Vladisla Strzhelchik) on another.
Napoleon is presented as a grim fate (how he sees himself) without conscience or feeling. (Pulman’s 1972 is much more nuanced while blaming him; Davies’s 2016 has him as originally a revolutionary and refuses to forget that; Bondarchuk is closest to Tolstoy). Kutusov cannot at first accept that the Russians have been defeated; he did not want to do this battle and he is crushed to realize they have lost. but then draws victory out of this defeat by realizing in front of us that winning a war is not the same as winning a battle. His business is to save lives and his heroism is to refuse another battle.
At the close of this third part as in the close of the first, Andrei has been badly wounded — worse we eventually realize, and this time he will die, slowly. Nearby a man is moaning fearfully in his death agon as his leg is amputated; this turns out to be Anatole. And across the way Andrei sees Dolohov who seduced Natasha near death. Perhaps this second pairing is too neat parallel — Bondarchuk offers us patterned visuals like this throughout his film (like Shakespeare in his Henry VI plays).
This is a more stunning depiction of war than I’ve never seen before quite. I have seen effective anti-war films, and late last October Kilo Two Bravo — but it was implicit, focused on incidents, much more narrow. What is terrific about this is the size and scope of the scenes, and the relentless ruthless condemnation of war as horrific, senseless, cruel, utterly irrational at the same time as vast, wildly heroic, chosen. All these people (as Tolstoy says) are not forced. They choose to do this. The final focus scene is the battle of Borodino not far from Smolensk, which led to the scorched earth policy, the fleeing of all middle and upper class people from Moscow, and Napoleon’s defeat because there is no one for him to negotiate with as his army falls apart into marauding. I knew exactly where everything was, what was happening. This is due to the over-voice impersonal narration — invaluable. We meet the great famous Kutusov in his councils, falling asleep at the same time as ever vigilant; he contrasts to Napoleon on the other, at first all square-faced steely-firmness, stoutly glad, but when in Moscow shown up for the petty egoist (this is Tolstoy’s interpretation) he is.
Vast scenes of carnage of all types, sometimes close up, sometimes aerial, sometimes from the side, sometimes full face. Close up of men suffering in so many ways while at the same time they fight on determined like some crazed machines started who can’t stop (the narrator says something like this). The suffering horses, the animals. Canons, bombs, grapeshot, lines of men shooting, the guerillas, bombs blow up everywhere: this is not fakery, they are doing controlled versions; real live generals were consulted, all the Russian hierarchies involved it seems.
The part has to be watched. It outdoes the battle scenes in Part 1 — so vast and thorough and believable they manage to make it. It is a deep contrast to Part 2 an inset domestic novel.
Part 4: Pierre Bezukov (92 minutes)
Kutusov quietly grieving after he has had the courage to tell the council they will not try to stop the French from entering Moscow (nor will he try to cut them off as they leave) …
Pierre during the trek starving frozen from Moscow
So now finally Bondarchuk (he gave himself the hero’s part though he’s not handsome) comes forth as primary story; as in Pulman’s 1972 BBC W&P there is a parallel between him and Kutusov at times. It’s about the horrors of war (yet more), another phase. We see panicked people, fleeing, and go through the scenes of the Rostov’s reluctant and utterly disorganized withdrawal from Moscow, with Pierre’s mad choice to stay in order to find and kill Napoleon. The place catches on fire, he becomes distraught, saves a baby, is captured as a dangerous incendiary, and imprisoned, then almost killed by a firing squad with our viewing the others murdered in pairs so senselessly.
Moscow on fire — we should remember how this would resonate in 1966 for a Russian audience
From the execution scenes
The over-voice is frequent: the words come from the beginning chapers where Tolstoy’s words in effect damn these apparently helpless people. Why are they doing this? Why are they slaughtering one another? slaughtering horses? senselessly killing killing killing. Why do they obey the Napoleons of the world? Napoleon admits he must return, is humiliated, and we experience that long trek with Pierre and his new found guru, Platon (the idealistic peasan, Mikhail Khrabov) gradually distancing from one another as Platon begins to die, and ends up shot because he can’t keep up, the pathetic dog howling. The words of the overvoice are grateful that Platon is out of this (Bondarchuk does not use Platon as a mouthpiece for optimism or God’s presence as Tolstoy does). Kutusov seen carrying a weight of immense concern and pity.
Platon falling behind, the soldiers go to shoot him
The episode concludes towards the end by juxtaposing the long drawn out death of Andreii who the Rostovs unknowingly took with them from Moscow in a wagon, but not naturalistic (as in Davies’ 2016 where we see this), the experience is visionary, intendedly religious. The camera moves up to Andrey’s face and he dreams: he remember his scenes with his father, the land, terrible killing, and we see Natasha there telling him he’s not dying. But he tells her he loves her, he forgives her (the sense of there is nothing to forgive). Visionary sequences of land and sky signalling some powerful God-like presence. It does end quickly after that. After the rescue of Pierre, quickly done, Petya even quickly gotten out of the way in his senseless death (the point here is the mother’s grief and father’s loss, which is too quick, like a caricature). We see Pierre riding through a Moscow being rebuilt and arrives at a house where we find sitting Natasha and Marya (both in black) with little Nikolai (Andreii’s son by his first now long dead wife) by their side. Marya shows Pierre the new boy, and Natasha is there at last grown up in black and we hear the lines how if he were free and a better man, he’d marry her. (Nikolai and Sonia have long been lost from view.) Then Bondarchuk concentrates on visions of the sky and universe as places of oblivion and peace at the close.
What jarred me at the close is the over-voice suddenly insists life is good, the world is beautiful.
Still an extraordinary film. Like many others who have seen it, I think it is a filmic realization by one genius accompanied by thousands of willing people of a great book.
A solid ethical perspective, beautifully filmic art, an important masterpiece of film.
This new DVD has a fifth part, features with interviews of some of the original film-makers and actors. You can see the extraordinary seriousness with which the film-makers, production designers, actors, everyone set about their task together.
“One truth discovered, one pang of regret at not being able to express it, is better than all the fluency and flippancy in the world.” –William Hazlitt
NB. Blogs on War and Peace to come: the 1972 BBC War and Peace, scripted by Jack Pulman, starring Anthony Hopkins as Pierre, a masterpiece, follows and is inspired by Bondarchuk; then Andrew Davies’ 2016 W&P follows and is inspired by Pulman and Bondarchuk. Pulman chose some of the same central scenes, Davies some of the same visionary moments.