I‘ve mentioned in the past that I’ve tried a number of times to read Tolstoy’s War and Peace, but, as much as I loved Anna Karenina and many of Tolstoy’s stories and novellas, I’ve simply been unable to sink into his most famous work. When The Criterion Collection announced that they were releasing Sergei Bondarchuk’s seven-hour adaptation I thought, oh, I’ll try to read the book again so I’m prepared for the film. I tried; I failed . . . again. I’m happy to announce, though, that I had no such problems with the film adaptation, which I felt drawn into and easy to watch, despite its epic length.
While the entire adaptation is long, it is broken up into four distinct films, which were released on March 14, 1966; July 20, 1966; July 21, 1967; and November 4, 1967. You can take your time with this film. I was rewarded immensely over the course of several evenings, always looking forward to continuing on while not feeling that sitting through it for hours on end was a requirement.
There are three principal characters in this world: Andrei Bolkonsky, Natasha Rostova, and Pierre Bezukhov. The first film introduces each character: Andrei is going to war, leaving behind his young, pregnant wife.
We see Bolkonsky (played by Vyacheslav Tikhonov) at war later, an officer who is seems to be only partially present.
Bondarchuk shows us some of what he may be thinking about, utilizing a split screen to underscore the violent, energetic world going on in Bolkonsky’s mind at an otherwise quiet late hour of the day.
We also meet Pierre Bezukhov, a much softer man who suddenly finds he has inherited his father’s wealth, a bit of a surprise since he was illegitimate. Bezukhov was played by Sergei Bondarchuk himself, who must have been absolutely spend when this massive undertaking was complete. Bezukhov unexpectedly finds himself one of the most desirable bachelors in Russia, though the women seeking him do not respect him. The men don’t either, which eventually leads him to an uncomfortable duel that makes him wonder if his honor is worth protecting.
The third principle character is Natasha Rostova (played by Ludmila Savelyeva). She is young, naive, and a bit flighty in the first film. But, since the story spans from 1805 (when she is 13) up to and beyond the burning of Moscow in 1812, we see Natasha grow up in a confusing world, an object of desire, idealized but uncertain.
There is a lot of internal struggle amidst these characters. And, of course, there is also the war.
That still highlights a few of the reasons I think this film is a masterpiece. First, it is a beautiful, long shot that highlights the scope Bondarchuk was after. That is not CGI. Second, as the camera lifts into the sky, we realize that the men and horses below are running around in circles within circles. It almost looks more like a game or a ritual than an actual battle. This film, I came to understand and love, is not in any way an attempt to convey any kind of objective reality.
What I found was a surprisingly visceral, internal film. Through unique, experimental use of sound, editing, camera movement, voice over, Bondarchuk’s film feels much more like an intense dream than a conventional historical epic, and I think it’s the better for it. It’s here that the film soars. Bondarchuk spends time inside the characters’ head, presenting an external world that is often warped by their emotions. Furthermore, and most surprising to me, Bondarchuk often has character speaking in voice-over; even side characters, when we pass by them on a tracking shot, will shout something that doesn’t seem connected to their throats but are, rather, quite disembodied. At first I thought this was a limitation on technology. Perhaps it was, but given all of the other techniques Bondarchuk uses I’m not so sure . . . the film takes pains at all times to be a subjective portrayal of the world. Having some of the dialogue more like echo in the void works beautifully.
There are other alienating techniques. Every once in a while, the film becomes blurry; there’s a moment when a character walks by in a jerky, quick jaunt, the film deliberately sped up and looking as if it is being hand-cranked by an overly exuberant projectionist; there’s even a moment when the film rewinds. There are not technical errors. They are artistic ways of disassociating us from any objective reality going on around the characters and taking us inside their minds. The world becomes a dream; the dreams often becomes a nightmare.