Wellness through War and Peace

By Alex Adams

Bondarchuk’s War and Peace is now available through HBO Max.

On the March 25 Wellness Day, a couple friends and I decided to watch War and Peace. The definitive War and Peace adaptation. The 431-minute long, four-part, 1967 Sergei Bondarchuk War and Peace film.  

          Sergei Bondarchuk, a relatively new figure in the Soviet film industry at the time, was given no orders other than “to make it better than the American-Italian film” (a reference to King Vidor’s 1956 version starring Audrey Hepburn and Henry Fonda).[1] There were no limits. The chairman of the State Planning committee of the RSFSR helped supply uniforms—and by helping to supply uniforms I mean forcing several dozen factories to produce 10s of thousands of period-accurate uniforms. In addition, the Red Army was used as extras. The filming of the biggest battle of the movie, The Battle of Borodino, which is the first time the Napoleonic army did not decisively win a battle, took 3 months to film and involved 15,000 soldiers (the actual battle in 1812 took one day and involved approximately 300,000 combatants).

Frenchmen were flown in to play Frenchmen, art was flown in from museums (58 of them!), a wooden city was erected just to be burned down.[2] Estimates for the total cost range from 7.8 million to 27 million rubles, equivalent to 202 million – 700 million USD today, when adjusted for inflation. Low estimates would make this film one of the most expensive film of the 20th century, while high estimates would make it almost twice as expensive as thenext most expensive film ever made to this day.[3] The costs are impossible to know for sure, because soldiers and factories weren’t paid by the filmmakers, but by the Soviet Government. But if international cost is to say anything, the tickets to watch the film in the US were $7.50 in 1972, the equivalent of $56.52 today, just to be able to watch one of the four parts.[4]

But enough of the history. How good was the movie? And how does it compare to Tolstoy’s novel? Fortunately, I’ve read the book, so I can let you know.

Part 1 : Andrei Bolkonsky

The film starts with a quote from Tolstoy, and then we fly through expansive, slow moving landscapes, matched with auspicious orchestral and operatic singing during the opening credits. After the credits, we are immediately dropped into the microscopic detail of an aristocratic party—from the beginning, we are shown the contrasts [or is it the similarities?] between the grand and the small. To Tolstoy, all of life is connected seamlessly, and Bondarchuk wants us to feel it.

The pinnacle of this part is the ending of Part I (Part 1 is split into 2 sections), in which a slow zoom out reveals the scale of the chaos of the battle of Austerlitz, with hundreds of horses stampeding in circles as clouds of gun-created smoke make seeing friend from foe almost impossible.

Part 2: Natasha Rostova

          This part is the only part of the movie that doesn’t feature a major battle. Instead, it features massive balls and aristocratic politicking, focused largely around Natasha Rostova and what “true Russianness” means.

          Seeing the balls come off the page and onto the big screen was impressive. To see rather than read about how good of a dancer Natasha (the actress, Lyudmila Saveleva was a ballerina) was and how lavish the ballroom looked was a showcase in not only great set design, but also great camerawork—the medium of film, rather than writing, is fully embraced.  

          The effeminate Alexander I, seen rather than described, is supposed to appear weak behind a façade of splendor. The split-screen between a Moscow party at the Rostov’s house, full of color, gaiety, and Russian, contrasts with St. Petersburg’s social scene, one that’s pale, quiet, and French.

          For me, the highlight of this part was the ominous ending, starting with a comet and an announcement that it is now 1812, followed by 2 minutes of a seemingly endless march of thousands of French soldiers, on their way toward Russia. 

Part 3: The Year 1812

          This part is all about the Battle of Borodino, and it reveals how serious the war has become for Russia, as younger and younger soldiers fill the battlefield, and massive numbers of soldiers are maimed. In a way authentic to Tolstoy, General Kutuzov is contrasted with Napoleon, a man of faith and patience versus the supposed “Great Man,” who thinks he controls the outcome from the backline. To demonstrate this difference, we see Napoleon offered lunch, and he refuses, too focused on trying to control a battle way beyond the scope of one man. In contrast, Kutuzov is found eating a whole chicken without utensils while overlooking the war, as he knows this battle will be won not by strategy nor tactics, but rather by the Russian will to defend their homeland.

Part 4: Pierre Bezukhov

          This part is probably the most complete movie within the series—it could stand on its own and still be great. Napoleon enters Moscow, and we see Pierre, one of the main protagonists, in French occupied territory. This is possibly the most cinematic part of the series, with numerous experimental film techniques interspersed—most notably, a massive photomontage features prominently, an art style that was considered too avant-garde and bourgeois for much of Soviet history.

          This part also contains the most overt, revisionist changes. After victory, Kutuzov gives a speech talking about the humanity of the French, only to be followed by an idea that they should be harshly punished for their actions. Following this, he rides, to the cheers of soldiers, through a set of lowered French flags, paralleling the 1945 Moscow Victory Parade, in which Nazi flags were lowered as Soviet soldiers marched through (Leonid Brezhnev had revived the Victory Day parade in 1965 so the scene had contemporary resonance). The final scene of the movie, in sharp contrast to the final scene of the book, is built up with great precision in order to end in a true crescendo, as we see flashbacks to some of the most important scenes, eventually returning to where we began, a flyover of massive landscapes, still untouched by French hands, with a quote by Tolstoy about the simplicity of happiness, virtue, and the connectedness of man.

Overall

          There is nothing to complain about the acting, filmography, writing, scenery, or costumes. There were no cut corners.

          The only complaint I have is that Pierre wasn’t as large, youthful, or intimidating as he was portrayed in the book and how his exploits would make him seem. This was unavoidable, as the director, Sergei Bondarchuk, insisted on playing the part: in Tolstoy’s novel, Pierre first appears as a young man, just finished with his studies, while Bondarchuk was in his mid-40s at the time of filming.

          The revisionist aspects of the film are kept to a near minimum, which is to be highly lauded, especially since Bondarchuk, who made the film during the final years of the Khrushchev era and first released it during the beginning of the Brezhnev era, needed to please the government.

          Part 2 and the romantic scenes were not extremely interesting to me, but they are no less well done than other Masterpiece dramas such as The Crown or Downtown Abbey—it is just not my cup of tea.

          In the end, I found myself disliking Pierre just as much as I did when I read the book—which is good! It means most others will like him just as much as they do when they read the book. The passion and the tears were all there, in the movie and out of it.

          The most inauthentic piece of the movie was a lack of 5-minute monologues, in which the narrator would tell us what Tolstoy wanted us to know—instead, Bondarchuk decided to cut almost all of these extended pedagogical moments in exchange for some of the most beautiful cinematographic scenes ever recorded.

          This is most definitely the best film adaptation of a book I’ve ever seen, and it’s one of the best movies, on its own merits, that I’ve seen too. First released in 1966, this movie has aged better than most made just 5-10 years ago, and I think, just like the book, it may always stay relevant.

Alex Adams is a senior majoring in History and Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies. An undergraduate fellow at the Havighurst Center, Alex has also worked as our student employee the last two years.


[1] Анастасия Гнединская, “Товарищ Кутузов, что-то стало холодать!” Mk.ru, September 2011, https://www.mk.ru/culture/2011/09/20/625328-tovarisch-kutuzov-chtoto-stalo-holodat.html.

[2] Bilge Ebiri, “The Fascinating Story Behind Sergei Bondarchuk’s 1968 Epic War and Peace,” Vulture, February 2019, https://www.vulture.com/2019/02/the-wild-story-behind-sergei-bondarchuks-epic-war-and-peace.html.

[3] Charles Stockdale and John Harrington, “From ‘Transformers’ to ‘Avatar,’ These are the 50 Most Expensive Movies Ever Made,” USA Today, July 2018, https://www.usatoday.com/story/life/movies/2018/07/06/transformers-avatar-50-most-expensive-movies-ever-made/762931002/.

[4] Charles Bramesco, “One of Film’s Greatest Epics is a 7-hour Adaptation of War and Peace. Really. Vox, February 2019, https://www.vox.com/culture/2019/2/15/18223285/war-and-peace-sergei-bondarchuk-adaptation-1966.

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