1965, 1966, 1967

War and Peace [Voyna I Mir] (1965, Sergey Bondarchuk)

This is an epic, 7 and a half hour adaptation of War and Peace, sort of on the scale of The Human Condition, but not nearly as long and far more ambitious. Apparently made in response to the Hollywood version, this film (or series of films) mostly realizes the promise of Peak TV decades earlier (as with The Human Condition), successfully adapting Great Literature to the screen in a fairly complete form. It is also the most avant garde epic narrative film I’ve ever seen. (By leaps and bounds)

Note: It was originally released as four separate films in the USSR, over 3 years. At one point I believe it was screened in the West as two movies. The DVDs I watched it on broke it up into 3 parts. (Weirdly, the first disc contained the first USSR film, the second the second, and the third disc the last two, but disc one included an “End of Part 1” part way through the film.) I’ve decided to treat it as one movie because it’s one story, based on one book, etc.

Full disclosure: I really didn’t like War and Peace when I read it and I’ve mostly forgotten it by now. But disliking the novel likely played a part in my reaction to the film(s).

Even at well over 400 minutes, the entire novel is not captured. (A TV series may have done it.) There are subplots (and, I believe, characters) that are dropped or minimized. I can see that as a criticism but I don’t feel that way, in part because I didn’t love the novel.

This is, in terms of filmmaking technique and ambition, one of the most impressive films I’ve ever seen. There are two things that make it this impressive, the scale and the myriad of techniques used.

The scale is extraordinarily immense. Apparently Bondarchuk had the full power of the Soviet state at his back which helps explain how a film like this could have been made. There are numerous aerial shots, some of which are astounding. (There is at least one helicopter shot or perhaps two, I think, which is something for a film made in the early ’60s.)

And then there are the battle scenes. Though they are often hard to follow from a tactical or strategic level – battle scene filmmaking has improved drastically in the last 50 years – they are huge. It’s impossible to convey how huge they are. Neither Griffith nor DeMille can compare. I’ve never seen anything like them. If you have only ever seen CGI crowds of thousands, you owe it yourself to watch these insane shots of literally thousands of people.

But, for me, the true marvel of this film, and the reason it’s close to essential viewing despite its length and its flaws, is how mixed and avant garde the technique is. Bondarchuk uses

  • handheld cameras
  • the aerial shots I mentioned above
  • a shot where the camera seems to fly along on a cable (like you’d see for a 21st century sports broadcast!)
  • weird angles
  • different film speeds
  • different filters and B&W (the film is nearly entirely in colour)
  • different focuses
  • POV
  • split screen
  • different lighting techniques
  • dissolve
  • double exposure
  • super long takes (including a few of the most impressive shots in film history)
  • jump cuts
  • rapid edits
  • tons of disembodied dialogue
  • stills
  • and likely much more I’ve forgotten.

And he doesn’t just do it occasionally, but constantly. It is, hands down, the most avant garde epic film I’ve ever seen, and it’s not even close. I really can’t think of another film that was this aggressively technique-driven while also focusing on narrative, certainly nothing of this epic length. If I liked the movie more, I’d put it on my list of the greatest films ever made almost entirely because of this brazen and effective use of so many film techniques. (For example, the way Natasha experiences balls is handled magnificently. It’s a lesson in how to use film techniques to convey feeling.)

Oh and the colour is gorgeous in the remaster and many shots are just stunningly pretty. (Though the remastered audio hasn’t faired so well, which is sad because the audio is also important.)

However, the movie is a bit of a slog at times, particularly during part 2 and in the denouement, and there are some things that don’t work for me. Though it doesn’t cover every moment of the book (as far as I can remember), it feels as though they linger too long on some inconsequential moments, including every time the characters are singing or dancing. I do think it could have even been shorter or slightly more comprehensive, or both.

The score is typical of a score from the USSR – it is hilariously over-the-top at times and is sometimes used as a substitute for acting (i.e. the music is trying to show us the actor’s inner life because the actor isn’t great at it). It’s rare you forget the score exists, which isn’t a compliment.

I don’t know if audiences were charmed by Savelyeva when the film(s) came out but, to me, she is probably the biggest casting issue. She is, um, fine, I guess. But she’s supposed to be this wholly captivating person, regardless of her looks, and I never felt that way. She’s one of the three most important cast members, and arguably the most given how gaga the men are all supposed to be for her. Some actors ooze charisma and she just doesn’t. If the film weren’t so technically impressive, Id’s say this was a fatal flaw. (Audrey Hepburn players the character in the Hollywood version and, though I have never seen that one, I imagine she was a lot better in this role. Jenn suggested Savelyeva was cast because she was “an Audrey Hepburn type,” albeit Russian, and I completely agree.)

Some people are put off by the actors’ ages changing throughout the movie but honestly I didn’t care. This thing likely couldn’t have been made in less time so, for me, this impressive a feat is going to have little issues like that.

Some also claim that this is a piece of Soviet propaganda. I find that kind of mystifying though I obviously wasn’t alive or living in the USSR in the 1960s. Sure, it was funded by the state and fully endorsed by the Party but this is a story primarily of aristocrats, and one that highlights the importance of orthodox christianity in Russian life. I’m not denying there are undertones, or that you can read it as propaganda, but to view this film as primarily a work of Soviet propaganda seems to deny much of the film. If anything, the propaganda is pro-Russian, not particularly Soviet. (Yeah, there are a few scenes that feel inserted to make the film pro-working class, but the movie is over seven hours long.)

It’s more that the story – the story itself, the way it is told in terms of pacing – the score and some casting decisions that are the biggest issues for me. Additionally, for all their scale (perhaps due to it) the battles are often kind of incomprehensible. (Though “the largest battle ever filmed” is a little less confusing than the battles in the first part.)

9/10 because of the immensity of technical accomplishment but I cannot give it full marks because it’s bloated, it’s poorly paced and I really think they erred with their lead actress. Still, one of the most impressive attempts to film a “great novel” I’ve ever seen.

PS: I’ve never been a fan of Tolstoy but if he wrote “Whenever judgement is passed, injustice reigns” then I like him more than I thought.

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