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Consequences of the actions of men
A region 2 DVD review of the 5-disc collector's edition of WAR AND PEACE / VOYNA Y MIR by Slarek
 
"Man lives consciously for himself, but is an unconscious instrument
in the attainment of the historic, universal, aims of humanity. A deed
done is irrevocable, and its result coinciding in time with the actions
of millions of other men assumes an historic significance. The higher
a man stands on the social ladder, the more people he is connected
with and the more power he has over others, the more evident is the
predestination and inevitability of his every action."
Leo Tolstoy – War and Peace, book 9, chapter 1
"Oh, it's all done on computers nowadays."
Comment overheard by Camus on leaving the
cinema after a screening of Troy

 

One of my fondest memories involving Tolstoy's monumental masterpiece is not from the book itself or any of the many film adaptations of the same, but an episode of the US comedy series Cheers. Good-looking but none-too-smart Sam Malone has been desperately trying to impress self-styled intellectual Diane Chambers, and his latest ploy involves the Herculean task of reading War and Peace in its entirety. Finally he completes it and, shattered and unshaven, he reveals his achievement to Diane. She is impressed with his devotion and sacrifice but is nonetheless surprised. "I thought you'd have just watched the movie," she says. Sam's face contorts into an expression of enraged disbelief as he snarls, "There's a MOVIE!?" I can't help wondering how he would have reacted if the movie in question had been in Russian and six-and-a-half hours in length...

OK, Sam's probably not alone here, and I can think of several reasons that the average viewer might not give Sergei Bondarchuk's epic adaptation of Tolstoy's mammoth tome even a first glance, and I'm happy to dispute every one of them.

It's by Leo Tolstoy. He's a Russian writer, isn't he? Big beard. Serious. Oh God, I know it's supposed to be a classic and all that but can imagine what that reads like. All sombre and worthy and humourless and mind-numbingly boring.

If this is your reaction then the chances are you've never read any Tolstoy. There's a reason this man is regarded as one of the world's greatest authors and it's not the size of his beard. Tolstoy is magnificent writer whose attention to detail and character and his integration of philosophy into his narratives makes for compelling reading. If you want to give War and Peace a try then do a Google search and you'll find it on-line, or better still nip down to your local library and sit down with the book for a couple of hours and see how quickly you become hooked.

But it's all set in Russia way back in the past. Not really much for a contemporary western audience, is there?

You watched Doctor Zhivago didn't you and you liked that? And how about Anna Karenina? You liked that too, didn't you? And hey, guess who that was written by.

I hear that when it's not about war it's all about the lives of those from the privileged classes. Who wants to see a film about that?

A bit like Gone With the Wind, then. Oh, you liked that one...?

But this one's in Russian...

Well it IS set is Russia... oh, if this really is a problem there's an English language dub you can listen to.

Six-and-a-half hours long! How can anyone watch anything six and a half hours long?

And yet you watched the last series of 24 and that ran for over sixteen hours. Bondarchuk's War and Peace is broken up into four separate films with running times varying from 77 to 140 minutes – even the longest one is almost an hour shorter than Pearl Harbour. Oh God, and you sat through that?

But big battles, that's one thing Hollywood always does best.

Oh, do you bloody think so...

War and Peace, this version of War and Peace, was made in 1968 and it seems clear that the project was designed from the start as a partial fuck-you to Hollywood, a show-off that anything you can do, we can do bigger and better. The Russian government poured money into the project and to this day it remains the most expensive film ever made – adjusting for inflation, one estimate puts the budget at today's costs as something in the region of $560 million. It features more than 35,000 costumes and something in excess of 120,000 extras, including a sizeable proportion of the Russian armed forces. It is, at its grandest, the very essence of epic cinema. But this is not just a case of throwing megaroubles at the screen. No sir.

It gives an idea of the scale of Tolstoy's original that even with six-and-a-half hours to play with, the story has had to undergo some serious trimming. The five aristocratic families of the novel have effectively been whittled down to two, with most of the attention initially focussed on the cheerless Prince Andrei Bolkonsky and the beautiful young Countess Natasha Rostova, who as played by Lyudmila Savelyeva looks for all the world looks like a Russian Audrey Hepburn and is every bit as beguiling. Standing on the sidelines is Pierre Bezukhov, who is soon besotted by Natasha but knows she will never regard him as anything more than a friend. This doesn't stop him getting depressed every time someone else takes a shine to her, and it doesn't exactly help that he is the one who introduces her to Andrei, with whom she is soon smitten. Andrei has been through some rough times by this point and in Natasha sees hope for a brighter future. She instantly falls for him, but instead of quickly marrying her, he gives her a year to decide if her love is true and returns to the army.

The personal dramas do have their sombre stretches, but also sequences of thrilling exuberance and energy. Natasha's introduction sees her explode from the next room in a ball of light and jump-cut to vibrant close-up, and a short while later she is running around a dance floor applauding her father, whose measured dance moves are matched and overtaken by the energy of the filmmaking. If the social status of the characters initially places them at a slight distance, it's a gap soon closed by performance and storytelling, which prove compelling enough to allow the second film to focus almost entirely on personal dramas without losing its grip. Here the focus of attention shifts from Andrei to Natasha – only later does Pierre get to take centre stage. For my money he proves the most intriguing of all, whether winning a duel in the snow through luck and blind terror, having his admiration for Napoleon Bonaparte switched to plans for assassination, or stumbling between flaming buildings in search of a small child in the hope of saving just one life in the horror that has unfolded around him. It's a compelling and impressively pitched performance – I'd watched the whole film before I discovered that this fine actor was actually director Sergei Bondarchuk.

But it's when the film moves out of the stately homes and onto the battlefield that your jaw gets the chance to plunge through the floor. Never in cinema history have battles been staged on such a scale and with such an eye for the visually magnificent. I have no doubt that a younger audience raised on the CGI armies of recent Hollywood historical dramas will nod and shrug – filling a screen with soldiers nowadays is a comparatively straightforward affair, its realism down to the size of your effects budget and the ingenuity of the computer graphics team. But here it's all for real, and once you swallow that fact then the sheer size of the undertaking repeatedly beggars belief. And it's not just the gorgeously panoramic wide shots – there are dialogue close-ups that have hundreds of soldiers marching or fighting behind them. I couldn't help thinking that if an actor fluffed his lines here, the logistics of setting the shot up again must have driven the crew to distraction.

And it does make a difference. The quote at the top may not take into account the planning and work required to create a CG army, but does reflect an attitude that is the inevitable result both the frequency of such effects in recent years (how special would the scale of Cleopatra have been, for example, had there been twenty other such historical spectaculars released the same year?) and the still slightly artificial nature of the effects and their presentation. CG has allowed directors to view the action from just about any viewpoint, but most use this freedom to tread exactly where video game creators have been walking for some time. Thus a swooping aerial shot over the advancing army in Troy is by association robbed of its realism and spectacle through is similarity to the sometimes complex cut scenes you'll find on a big budget Playstation or X-Box game (the higher definition offered by the new Playstation 3 and X-Box 360 only compounds the problem). And the simple truth is that it's difficult to be as awe-struck by a computer game as we are by real world spectacle.

But spectacle alone simply would not cut it. How could it? No, what makes the battle scenes in War and Peace so astonishing is that they are staged and filmed by a man of vision, one who completely understood how to best utilise the massive resources placed at his disposal and the power that cinema has not just to tell a story, but to place us right in its centre and be part of it. A flavour of things to come is provided in Part 1, but it's in part 3, which is simply and seductively titled '1812', that Bondarchuk and his team really show what they're made of. It's difficult to talk about these scenes without slipping into a stream of superlatives, but I've watched and re-watched many of them and been stunned every time, the marriage of action, camerawork, sound and music creating a sometimes apocalyptic sense of the furious madness of battle. Time and again the camera placement and movement catches you by surprise and leaves you reeling at the technical ingenuity of Bondarchuk and his crew: as we assume the point-of-view of a cannonball that lands in the midst of marching troops; as a smooth tracking shot becomes an edgy hand-held shot and then swoops high above the action; as we drift across an impossibly complex series of engagements without a hint of a hidden edit; as the camera hurtles high over the battlefield and plummets into burning debris; as we suddenly find ourselves looking down on the entire, enormous enterprise from what feels like a mile in the air... I could go on for hours. The thing is, what could cynically be dismissed as technical show-off is used with such purpose and to such a cumulatively overpowering effect that such criticism is redundant. That some of the extraordinary 70mm compositions resemble complex Renaissance paintings just adds to the sense of wonder these scenes have in abundance.

Away from the battlefield, post-production techniques such as superimposition and split screen are used with similar care and intent – the ghosted image of a couple kissing reflects Natasha's fascination with what she has secretly witnessed, while dividing the screen is used to emotionally connect two characters as they prepare to meet, and later to emphasise the disappointment and loneliness of one of them due to the absence of the other. And I couldn't help but think that the three-way split for the signing of the treaty with Napoleon was a little nod to Abel Gance and his pioneering use of this very technique in own 1927 historical epic.

The staging of large scale scenes is not restricted to the battlefield. The ball at which Natasha is introduced to Andrei is a sequence of awe-inspiring ambition, one that utilises many of the camera techniques used in the later action scenes to equally impressive effect. At one point the camera snakes through the dancers and then rises to the chandeliers above, while long and complex tracking shots drift down corridors and into the ballroom in a sequence that directly prefigures (and I have little doubt influenced) a similar scene in Aleksandr Sokurov's 2002 Russian Ark.

The integration of personal dramas into epic scale action is most perfectly realised in Part 4, as Moscow is overrun by Napoleon's army and Pierre loses everything in a twist that will destroy his aristocratic status and take him to the brink of madness. This is vividly externalised in an extraordinary, Dante-like vision in which citizens and soldiers alike stumble between ferociously burning buildings, and we once again marvel at the courage (or perhaps borderline insanity) of a cast and crew prepared to work in such perilous conditions. In keeping with Bondarchuk's technique of highlighting small moments in the heat of large scale action, it is the simple, almost silent execution of a boy, shot in slow motion and the killing bullet marked by a tolling bell, that proves the most haunting image of all.

Sergei Bondarchuk's adaptation of War and Peace may well still have problems for the purists, but it's hard to imagine any cinematic interpretation that does not pick and choose from a novel of this size, and if you want a truly faithful version then you really have to go with the book. There can be little argument that as film adaptations of this particular novel go, this one is as good as we've seen or are ever likely to see. War and Peace is magnificent cinema that brilliantly combines the epic with the intimate and tells its story with the sort of cinematic verve and invention that although much imitated, has rarely, if ever, been equalled.

sound and vision

Russia's Mosfilm studio have recently embarked on a program of film restoration, and War and Peace was their first project. It is a genuine tragedy that this extraordinary work, shot on 70mm stock, was allowed to fall into such a shabby state – even finding a complete film print to work from was a challenge, and restoring it to its original pristine 70mm glory proved an impossible task. What could be done was done, and while the resulting restoration has rescued what could have been lost forever, the damage suffered by the prints used is clearly evident throughout in the form of very visible flickering, the sort that suggests the print was found in a pond whose stains have been impossible to completely remove. Colour and detail are also not what they must once have been (anyone who has seen 70mm projected will tell you just how stunning it can look), and there are occasional compression issues with the digital transfer, resulting in some very visible banding on a couple of night shots, although these are mercifully rare. But in all other respects Mosfilm have done an admirable job, and once you get used to the imperfections (it happens quickly) then you can appreciate just how much they were able to preserve. When the colour is good it is very good, and contrast is largely impressive, though a couple of scenes are dark enough to momentarily lose sight of the characters within. The sense that you are watching moving paintings during the battle preparations is vividly captured. The framing is approximately 2.32:1 and the picture is anamorphically enhanced.

If a complete restoration of the picture was beyond Mosfilm's reach, they have done wonders with the soundtrack. The original mono track has been included, but there is also a 5.1 remix and it's a stunner. Unlike many recent DVD releases of Hollywood and UK films from the 1970s and 80s, this is no simple AC3 re-encoding – here all of the original sound elements have been meticulously worked with and remixed, resulting in probably the most inclusive surround mix I've heard all year. Voices and sound effects are very specifically placed and all five main speakers are used with sometimes disarming precision – if a character looks past the camera to address another, the reply comes from behind you, and if they walk forward onto screen their voice and footsteps travel forward with them. Where this really pays dividends is in the battle sequences, where you are placed in the centre of the action, as shells fall, bullets fly and soldiers shout at you from every direction. Some effective LFE bass adds considerably to this.

English and French dubs are also included and are similarly remixed for 5.1, though both have the odd trait of slipping back into Russian every now and again (these moments are always subtitled). An impressive range of subtitles for the feature are included.

extra features

Although an Artificial Eye release in the UK, this is essentially a port of the Russian Film Council 5-disc release, boasting the same transfer, extra features and subtitle options. The film is spread over the first four discs, each of which also contains a few largely textual features – the bulk of the extras are on disc 5.

Disc 1

There are detailed Filmographies for director, writer and actor Sergei Bondarchuk, scriptwriter Vassily Solovyov, director of photography Anatoly Petritsky and production designers Gennady Myasnikov, Said Menyalshchikov, Alexander Dikhtya and Mikhail Bogdanov. As with many of the textual features on the first four discs, these can often consist of more than one page – look for a small fleuron at the bottom left, and if present press the Right directional button on your controller to access the next page.

Alexander I is a biography of the Russian Emperor.

Russian Manor-Houses in the Early 19th Century is an essay on just the subject of the title.

Disc 2

Filmographies for actors Irina Skobtseva, Ludmila Ktorov, Anatoly Ktorov, Antonina Shuranova and Vyasheslav Tikhonov.

National Liberation Movement in Russia is a textual feature that explains the evolution of this movement.

The Set Sketches – part 1 consists of nine thumbnails of original production sketches that can be expanded to almost fill the 16:9 screen by individually selecting them.

Disc 3

Filmographies for actors Oleg Tabakov, Vladislav Strzhelchik, Anastasia Vertinskaya and composer Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov.

Amusements and celebrations in the country is a detailed textual feature that covers the sort of passtimes and celebrations that took place in 18th and 19th century Russia.

The Set Sketches – part 2 is similar to the feature on disc 2.

Mikhail Kutuzov is a biography of the Russian military commander.

Russian Classicism provides a detailed overview of this artistic style.

Disc 4

Filmographies for actors Oleg Yefremov, Angelina Stepanova, Boris Smirnov, Nikolai Rybnikov, Eduard Martsevich, Alexander Lebedev and Vassily Lanovoy.

The Set Sketches – part 3 is as before.

Empire Style is a textual explanation of the this style of art and architecture.

Disc 5

There are four Interviews with Filmmakers, kicking off with Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov (33:21), who composed the sublime score and also worked with Andrei Tarkovsky on Ivan's Childhood, Andrei Rublev and Solaris. He talks about working on War and Peace and with Tarkovsky and Andrei Konchalovsk, both of whom he offers some friendly criticism to for the direction their later films took.

Co-cinematographer Anatoly Petritsky (30:03) also discusses working on the film and provides some interesting background into the procurement of men and horses and the filming of some of the more eye-catching shots. He also states that home video is no way to see a film that belongs only in the cinema.

Actress Irina Skobtseva (4:51), who plays Pierre's wife Hélène, is not interviewed as such, but recorded delivering a speech about director Sergei Bondarchuk and working on the film at what looks very much like a posthumous tribute or a memorial event.

Actor Vasili Lanovoy (9:04), talks about his early encounters with Tolstoy and Russian literature, landing the role of Anatole Kuragin in the film, the reaction to the film on its release, and even recalls a couple of anecdotes about the filming.

Given a section of its own is the Interview with Karen Shakhnazarov (18:53), filmmaker and General Director of Mosfilm Studios. He recalls his first viewing of the film, the restoration process and the poor condition of the only remaining original film prints, his last conversation with Sergei Bondarchuk and Bondarchuk's talent both as a director and an organiser of large scale productions.

In a section titled Sergei Bondarchuk there are five archive documentaries relating to the film.

The first is Sergei Bondarchuk (14:20), a short documentary on the director, presumably made some years ago for Russian TV, that mixes interview with footage of the director at home and at work, extracts from the film and archive footage from screenings.

Making the Film (14:32) is a documentary made to coincide with the release of War and Peace that kicks off at the Moscow premiere and then hops back into the making of the film itself, the best bits being the on-set footage illustrating how some of the more remarkable footage was achieved. There's a delightful mixture of the high and low tech here, with the complexity of an automatic camera mounted on a huge crane nicely balanced by sweeping ballroom shots obtained by dragging the cameraman around on roller skates. Narrated, I believe, by Bondarchuk himself, this is a fascinating and worthwhile inclusion, and in surprisingly good shape.

Leo Tolstoy (6:24) is a short, stately piece on the author, driven largely by voiceover and music.

Leo Tolstoy – War and Peace (8:15) details the creation of Tolstoy's literary masterpiece and evolves into a heartfelt propaganda piece in its name.

Leo Tolostoy – Chronicle (7:00) is very much in the style of the previous two pieces and details more on Tolstoy's life and work.

Finally Photo Album features nine production photographs, shown as large thumbnails that can be expanded to full (wide) screen by selecting them.

summary

One thing I do need to establish clearly here is the overall running time of the restored film, which has been repeatedly miscounted, including by Artificial Eye's pre-release publicity, as being 8 hours. It is not, and though there are rumours of a 507 minute director's cut, it seems extremely unlikely that this will ever surface now. For the record the running times of the four films are as follows:

Part 1 – 140 minutes
Part 2 – 93 minutes
Part 3 – 77 minutes
Part 4 – 92 minutes

If you whip your calculator out you'll find that totals 402 minutes, the length of the original Russian release. A quick bit of division will give you an overall running time of 6 hours 42 minutes, so do not be misled into thinking that this is somehow a cut-down version – too many web commentators simply cannot do their sums.

It's a real crime that most of us, myself included, have never seen this film on a cinema screen. Whatever size your TV, DVD is a compromise, but I still wholeheartedly encourage you get your hands on this DVD set nonetheless. Even if the print condition is imperfect, this is still of the of great works of cinema that is guaranteed to leave all but the most cynical stunned at the vision, ambition and achievement of Bondarchuk and his team. £50 may seem a bit steep for a single movie, but given that you effectively have four feature-length films here and a disc full of extras, it still represents damned good value (especially as you'll have little trouble knocking at least a tenner off of that price on-line). Christmas is coming, so it's time to treat yourself. Very highly recommended.

War and Peace
Collector's Edition

USSR 1968
402 mins
director
Sergei Bondarchuk
starring
Sergei Bondarchuk
Lyudmila Savelyeva
Gennadi Ivanov
Antonina Shuranova
Vyacheslav Tikhonov
Irina Gubanova

DVD details
region 2 .
video
2.32:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 mono
Dolby 5.1 surround
languages
Russian
English
French
subtitles
English
French
Japanese
Hebrew
Swedish
Chinese
Greek
Dutch
Portuguese
German
Spanish
Italian
Arabic
extras
Filmographies
Historical essays
Set Sketches
Biographies
Interview with composer Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov
Interview with director Prachya Pinkaew
Interview with cinematographer Anatoly Petritsky
Interview with actress Irina Skobtseva
Interview with actor Vasili Lanovoy
Interview with Mosfilm director Karen Shakhnazarov
Documentary on director Sergei Bondarchuk
Making-of documentary
Leo Tolstoy documentaries
Photo album
distributor
Artificial Eye
release date
13 November 2006
review posted
12 November 2006

See all of Slarek's reviews