War and Peace (1966): A Defining Epic of Cinema (Criterion Blu-ray)


The Film:

One cannot even begin to imagine what a daunting task it would be to take on an adaptation of an epic tome like Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” To do any justice at all to the novel, which is considered by many to be the greatest work of Russian literature of all time, would take total and absolute commitment on a scale that can scarcely be dreamed of. Despite the difficulties, that didn’t stop some directors from trying to bring it to the big screen, including King Vidor, whose 1956 version starring Audrey Hepburn and Henry Fonda clocked in at about three and a half hours. However, it was just five years later that director Sergei Bondarchuk, with the complete cooperation of the Soviet government and military, set out to give the world an adaptation unlike had ever been seen before, one that would truly redefine what the word “epic” means.

To give a detailed synopses of what “War and Peace” is about would no doubt take at least a couple of pages, so suffice it to say that the novel and film follows three main characters: Pierre Bezukhov (Sergei Bondarchuk), Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (Vyacheslav Tikhonov), and Natasha Rostova (Lyudmila Saveleva). Set against the backdrop of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia at the beginning of the 19th century, these characters mingle with each other, form friendships and deep relationships, while dealing with the devastating effects of the French invasion. To put it simply, it’s a story of human drama set within the context of massive historical impact.

To discuss Sergei Bondarchuk’s “War and Peace” is really to discuss the immense scope of the complete seven-hour film. Split into four parts, it covers character introductions and laying the framework for the story to come, the budding romance between Andrei and Natasha (and the complications therein), Pierre’s driftings into and around the various events that unfold, and, of course, Napoleon’s invasion, capped off by the Battle of Borodino and the brief occupation of Moscow. In 1966, there had never been anything like it (I suppose Sir David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” from 1962 is a somewhat apt comparison, but still smaller in terms of scale), and it’s quite fair to say that we’ll never see anything quite like it ever again.

At first, the film was rumored to cost about $100 million dollars, but it was later discovered to have cost only about $10 million, while another rumor claimed that the film used about 120,000 extras, though this was later debunked by Bondarchuk himself, who claims he only had 12,000. Can you hardly blame anyone for believing these numbers? The battle scenes are simply the biggest ever put on film, and are even more insanely impressive when you realize that it’s all really happening. Everything you see on screen is actually occurring. No CGI. No trickery. These are actual members of the Soviet military, adorned in period-specific uniforms, reenacting the battles the way they supposedly happened, and the result is nothing short of spellbinding, riveting, and jaw-dropping.

Then there’s the human side of the equation. The three main characters are people we really come to care about over these seven hours. As mentioned, Pierre, played marvelously by director Sergei Bondarchuk himself, kind of drifts in and out of the story, helping Natasha in her time of need, while witnessing the terrible Battle of Borodino first-hand. Natasha is a sweet young girl who succumbs to temptation during her year-long wait to marry the Prince, turning her whole life upside down. Prince Andrei, a military man from the start, tries to find love, but his duty always seems to pull him away, especially during the national turmoil caused by the invading French army. All three of them are the driving force of the story, and the main reason the film continues to have a strong emotional thread running through it (thanks in no small part to the excellent performances), which is vitally important for such a grand tale that spans for seven hours.

As for the film itself, is there really any negative criticism to be had? Unfortunately there is a just a little. Part 2, which focuses on Natasha, does stray quite a bit into melodramatic territory, and does drag just a little in doing so. However, it’s easily forgiven as it’s meant to be a rather grand romance, so overdoing it a little in this department was no doubt expected. What’s not as forgivable is Part 4, which is something of a muddled mess. By this point, the French have been victorious and begin to occupy a mostly-deserted Moscow. The strange thing is, later on in this part, the French are suddenly fleeing the country and are defeated. Obviously students of history know exactly why Napoleon’s invasion of Russia failed, but the film offers no such explanation, and this is on top of having main characters go from being in peril to being perfectly safe, again with no explanation. In this sense, it feels as though there is a missing real (or at least a few scenes that would explain these gaps), and indeed there are conflicting reports about there being an eight-hour version of the film, but this being a Criterion release, one must assume that it’s the most complete version of the film available, so as to why these gaps are here remains unexplained.

Even with the bizarre flaws of Part 4, Sergei Bondarchuk’s “War and Peace” remains a monumental achievement that demands to be seen. This is the kind of film where you simply sit back and drink in the opulence with your eyes, while allowing your mind to wrap itself around the complicated lives of the characters, ergo causing you to lose yourself in its epic grandeur. It took five years to make, exacting a great toll on everyone involved (Bondarchuk suffered two heart attacks during production), but the result is truly something to behold. The incredible sets, the gorgeous costumes, the stunning camerawork and effects, the performances, the direction, the score… it all combines into a film that has to be seen to be believed. Indeed, we shall never see its like again.

Video/Audio:

“War and Peace” comes to Blu-ray at long last in a stunningly gorgeous 2K digital restoration, utilizing the 2.35:1 aspect ratio of the original 35mm prints. This being a Criterion release, you know full-well that it’s going to be the best possible copy that you will ever see, and this restoration of Bondarchuk’s epic is certainly no exception. Every frame of this lush period piece has been beautifully cleaned up, allowing you to take in the breathtaking costumes, sets, and the all-around remarkable scope of the film in a transfer that likely compares to when the film was first released over 50 years ago. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is equally incredible, brilliantly restoring the original Russian dialogue, the multitude of sound effects (obviously most noticeable during the battle sequences), and Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov’s gorgeous score to tremendous effect. Overall, this is the exact treatment this ambitious epic deserved, the highest standard of care that will allow subsequent generations to enjoy it for many years to come.

Special Features:

Woina I Mir (49 Minutes): A vintage German documentary from 1966 that explores the making of the film.

Anatoly Petritsky (14 Minutes): A fascinating interview with the film’s cinematographer in which he reminisces about how he was given the project and about shooting the film.

Fedor Bondarchuk (7 Minutes): A short interview in which Sergei Bondarchuk’s son discusses his father’s work, with a particular emphasis on the difficulties of making “War and Peace.”

Les Sovietiques (27 Minutes): A French program that profiles actress Ludmila Savelyeva, who portrays Natasha Rostova.

Cold War Classic (47 Minutes): An excellent featurette in which historian Denise J. Youngblood discusses Tolstoy’s novel, the film, and their places in history.

Making War and Peace (31 Minutes): An intriguing vintage featurette that goes behind the scenes of the making of Bondarchuk’s epic.

Conclusion:

Sergei Bondarchuk’s “War and Peace” is one of the defining epics of cinema. With no expense spared, it is quite possibly the most opulent and grand film you will ever see, with every element, from the beautiful costumes and sets to the fully-realized and splendidly-portrayed characters, shining through. The Criterion Blu-ray is a marvel, featuring a gorgeous transfer of the film and hours of fascinating extras detailing the making of this incredible saga. If you’re a fan of Tolstoy’s novel, or quite simply a fan of cinema, you owe it to yourself to feast your eyes on Bondarchuk’s magnum opus.

Score: 4/5

Available on Criterion Blu-ray and DVD starting tomorrow.

Follow me on Twitter @BeckFilmCritic.