927. Voyna i mir / War and Peace (1968, Sergei Bondarchuk) - Part I

screened Friday June 22 on Ruscico DVD in Weehawken NJ TSPDT #801 IMDb


I'm going to divert from my normal tripartite reviewing format because this eight-hour monster seems to call for a different approach. At this time I'm still not sure how I'll cover the entire film. My approach for now is to keep it simple, by offering a few thoughts I had from before and after my screening of the first disc of the 4 disc Ruscico set.

Four thoughts going into the screening:

1 - I haven't read Tolstoy's novel so I bring nothing to the table in terms of comparing source material to screen. I understand that this is the most extensive effort to date to cinematically enact as much of Tolstoy's novel as possible. But of course, no matter how faithful Bondarchuk may try to adapt the novel, the result must be judged first and foremost as a work of cinema. So it's fine with me that I can't refer to the novel to make my assessments. Let the film stand on its own terms.

2 - I have seen King Vidor's 1956 adaptation with Henry Fonda and Audrey Hepburn - it was also part of the Shooting Down Pictures project, ranked on the TSPDT 1000 at #586 - that's ahead of the Bondarchuk! But frankly my memories of it are rather dull, though I remember enjoying Vidor's 3 1/2 hour version (still less than half the total runtime of the Bondarchuk) mostly as a matter of spectacle - and Hepburn.

3 - I confess to being somewhat influenced by the reviews of Jonathan Rosenbaum and Dave Kehr as found in the Chicago Reader Brief Reviews Database. Rosenbaum's review : "Even at 415 minutes (over an hour shorter than the Soviet release) this rarely suggests the vision behind Tolstoy's set pieces or populist polemics; his feeling for incidental detail is more evident in (non-Tolstoyan) films like The Leopard and The Magnificent Ambersons. This is a landmark in the history of commerce and post-Stalinist Russia, but not cinema. If you'd like to merely sample it, try parts one and three." Dave Kehr, in his review of the Vidor version, refers to the Russian version as "dull, muddy." Reading their comments put some apprehension into the prospect of spending eight hours with this work.

4 - Neither the facts of the cost of this production (with inflation taken into account, this is the most expensive feature ever made) nor its intimidating length do much to impress me. In this regard I am probably not of the same mind as the film's audience at the time of its release, who, by some of the reviews and accounts I've gleaned, were more or less dumbstruck by this unprecedented achievement in epic filmmaking. To be honest, I can't recall the last time an epic film or big budget blockbuster really blew me away. (It might have been when I rewatched Warren Beatty's Reds a year or two ago). Despite a weakness for Lawrence of Arabia, I'm a staunch subscriber to Manny Farber's distinction between White Elephant Art and Termite Art, and most of these epics strike me as the former.

Five thoughts after screening Part I:

1 - My wariness of the film manifested itself early on with resistance to anything that felt pompous, pretentious or ostentatious, like the fanfare that opens the credits (though I think I recall someone on IMDb Classic Film once saying something to the effect of "hell yes why not play some loud pretentious music, this is f-in War and Peace we're watching!" The introduction of characters I found dull and expository despite Bondarchuk's best efforts to do it in a lively setting. It could be that I was reacting more to the dull monochrome color palette of the RusCiCo disk I was watching - there doesn't seem to be much visual restoration work done to the print, while the audio track was conspicuously crisp.

2 - Bondarchuk's style is all over the map. Generally expressive (to a fault?), along the lines of Kenneth Branagh's Henry V or Much Ado About Nothing, only even more exuberant. Lots of handheld which is mind-boggling given it was shot on 70mm. He'll use canted angles to describe drunken revelry, then cut to the most vanilla dolly shots to capture a ballroom dance in a stately way, or an interior dialogue sequence with deep staging to keep things interesting - though I'm not sure if his blocking helps emphasize expository points. This death scene below feels like it's lifted from Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible. The issue of Bondarchuk's style - whether there is a method and artistry to his eclecticism - may merit closer inspection.

3 - Actors are likeable enough - none of them really stand out with "star" charisma - the girl who plays Natasha might but she hasn't had quite enough moments to shine just yet. Bondarchuk is okay as Pierre the man with an evolving crisis of conscience. That their charisma doesn't upstage their characters actually does serve the overall big picture fatalist worldview of the story, once you settle into it (for me it took close to an hour).

4 - The film really announces itself with the first battle scene, which takes place an hour into the film. Incredibly, jaw-droppingly choreographed - everything Spielberg did in Saving Private Ryan was pretty much already done in this film, just without the ample gore to make it more "authentic". The second battle scene, if anything, is even better, with its intense combat gravitating towards Prince Andrei's tragic fate giving way to an astounding God's eye view of the battle.

5 - And just what does it mean that Bondarchuk seems to get his major rocks off staging these gargantuan battle scenes? What exactly does that say in regards to how he sees war? The film can't help but glamorize those moments; they are clearly the most inspired cinematically, which brings in ideological contradictions when, by the end of disc one, characters are openly lamenting the madness and suffering of war. Too many war movies try to have it both ways, apparently including the most expensive of them all.

More to come... I'll either revisit Disc One a different way, or just move on to Disc Two...