"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."
Tolstoy – War and Peace, book 9, chapter 1
"Oh, it's all done on computers nowadays."
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...
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.
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.
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.
it's all set in Russia way back in the past. Not really
much for a contemporary western audience, is there?
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.
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?
bit like Gone With the Wind, then. Oh,
you liked that one...?
this one's in Russian...
it IS set is Russia... oh, if this really is a problem
there's an English language dub you can listen to.
hours long! How can anyone watch anything six and a half
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?
big battles, that's one thing Hollywood always does best.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
Manor-Houses in the Early 19th Century is
an essay on just the subject of the title.
for actors Irina Skobtseva, Ludmila Ktorov, Anatoly Ktorov,
Antonina Shuranova and Vyasheslav Tikhonov.
Liberation Movement in Russia is a textual
feature that explains the evolution of this movement.
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.
Filmographies for actors Oleg
Tabakov, Vladislav Strzhelchik, Anastasia Vertinskaya and
composer Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov.
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.
Set Sketches – part 2 is similar to the feature
on disc 2.
Kutuzov is a biography of the Russian military
Classicism provides a detailed overview of
this artistic style.
Filmographies for actors Oleg
Yefremov, Angelina Stepanova, Boris Smirnov, Nikolai Rybnikov,
Eduard Martsevich, Alexander Lebedev and Vassily Lanovoy.
Set Sketches – part 3 is as before.
Style is a textual explanation of the this
style of art and architecture.
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.
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.
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.
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.
a section titled Sergei Bondarchuk there are five archive documentaries relating to the film.
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.
Tolstoy (6:24) is a short, stately piece on
the author, driven largely by voiceover and music.
Tolstoy – War and Peace (8:15) details the
creation of Tolstoy's literary masterpiece and evolves into
a heartfelt propaganda piece in its name.
Tolostoy – Chronicle (7:00) is very much in
the style of the previous two pieces and details more on
Tolstoy's life and work.
Photo Album features nine production
photographs, shown as large thumbnails that can be expanded
to full (wide) screen by selecting them.
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:
1 – 140 minutes
Part 2 – 93 minutes
Part 3 – 77 minutes
Part 4 – 92 minutes
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.
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.