Jan 13, 2006

War and Peace: Sergei Bondarchuk's Epic 1967 Film Revisited

Left: a 1993 photo of the late Sergei Bondarchuk, Russian film director

The differences between the various film versions of War and Peace are no clearer than in the first few minutes of the Bondarchuk version, as Count Pierre Bezukhov and Prince Andre Bolkonsky take a short walk after Anna Pavlovna’s party; the two men ambled along the Volga, and the Kremlin itself served as a backdrop. This brought an element of realism to the film that the other versions lacked; the BBC version was filmed in Yugoslavia and Britain, while the American Vidor version -featuring Henry Fonda and Audrey Hepburn - was filmed in Italy.

The Bondarchuk eclipsed the BBC version in its battle scenes. Perhaps most impressive of these were the battles leading up to Austerlitz; whereas the BBC version showed lines of soldiers five deep and 20 long, Bondarchuk used thousands of film extras to create immense infantry columns that mirrored the actual forces of Napoleon and Kutuzov. Cavalry charges involved many hundreds of men and horses, creating a thunderous roar as they approached; modern viewers have likely forgotten the terror that an advancing cavalry unit meant to an infantryman. Bondarchuk recreated entire fields of operation spanning miles of terrain, giving the viewer a sense of being on the actual battlefield, and one of the battle scenes ran nearly 45 minutes in length. The director recorded competing battle songs of the French, Russians, and Austrians and mixed in the sounds of war in the tumultuous vista surrounding the battle of Austerlitz, and this sonic cacophony reinforced the chaos of a heated battle. In the scene where Pierre travels to the front at Borodino, the audience gets an uncompromising view of the horrors of war: bodies strewed everywhere, men cowering as munitions explode nearby, and fires blazing for miles in any direction.

Far superior also was the scene in which Bondarchuk recreated Count Rostov’s injury and escape from the French infantry. The hussar unit assembled by Bondarchuk must have numbered three hundred men and horses, and he made innovative use of a camera attached to a charging cavalry horse. As Rostov fell from his horse, the camera began to blur, much like the view that would have been experienced by the stunned hussar as he approached the ground. The retreating Russian troops of Kutuzov trudged through ankle-deep mud and picked their way through shell craters and raging fires; in the BBC version, uniforms rarely seemed to become sullied, and the war scenes seemed stilted and choreographed.

Bondarchuk also spared no expense in recreating the elegant balls that were the hallmark of Muscovite society. In the BBC version, dance sequences were well choreographed, but consisted at most of three dozen actors. This was not the case in Bondarchuk’s vision of the aristocratic balls; perhaps three hundred actors participated in the elaborate ball in which Prince Andrei first asked Natasha to dance. The assembled throng of performers twirled like perfectly synchronized leaves falling from a forest of oaks to the waltzes arranged by Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov; like leaves wafting on a late autumn breeze, the aristocratic guests remained oblivious to the fate that awaited them in the season ahead.

The wolf hunt scene with Nikolai and Natasha was also much more realistic in the Bondarchuk film. Filmed across a vast expanse of field and forest, Bondarchuk’s recreation of the tracking of the wolf also featured a grisly vignette of a Russian wolfhound fighting its lupine counterpart. By contrast, the BBC version seemed contrived and without the brutal authenticity that Bondarchuk achieved, and looked as though it were filmed on a back lot of the BBC with footage from a wildlife show.

There are moments in the Bondarchuk film that are simply brilliant, and that show the director to have a keen eye for cinematography. As the narrator announced the 12 June 1812 invasion of Russia by Napoleon – described as “an event that took place totally opposed to human nature and human reason” – an aerial camera slowly moved away from the earthly hell of battle. The smoke and circling armies created an image reminiscent of a hurricane; like the dreaded tropical storm, Bondarchuk depicted war as a powerful force seemingly beyond the ability of individual people to affect. Swirling and ebbing, the smoky battle gradually raged eastward, as though it were a potent storm headed for Smolensk and Moscow.

Bondarchuk also admirably highlighted many of the themes so important to Tolstoy. Unlike the BBC version, in which the role of the scheming Bonaparte was so prominent that David Swift could have been billed as a co-star, Bondarchuk’s film keeps Napoleon in a near-cameo role. This is in keeping with Tolstoy’s belief that individual men – no matter how great – had little effect on the outcome of events, and that the actions of a higher power drove the course of history:

The period of the campaign of 1812 from the battle of Borodino to the expulsion of the French, proved that the winning of a battle does not produce a conquest and is not even an invariable indication of conquest; it proved that the force which decides the fate of peoples lies not in the conquerors, nor even in armies and battles, but in something else.

While several characters in the BBC film stand out as exemplary – in particular, Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Count Pierre Bolkonsky – the Bondarchuk version is by far the better cinematic experience. Released in 1967 after a seven-year production at a cost of $100 million, the film would total nearly $1 billion to produce today; the version made available to American audiences was trimmed from 507 to 363 minutes. Bondarchuk actually created four films in one, with seamless transitions between the four parts: “Andrei Bolkonsky,” “Natasha Rostova,” “1812,” and “Pierre Bezukhov.” While some scenes occasionally bog down with some dated, quasi-psychedelic camera work, the film delivers powerful reminders of the hellishness of war.

I made the mistake of assuming that all versions of Bondarchuk’s film were equivalent, and unwittingly selected the edition marketed by Kultur Films. This version is dubbed over into English, and the viewer misses the experience of hearing the splendor of hearing the Russian language. In addition, the quality of the print from which the Kultur VHS was mass produced was of somewhat diminished quality, and there are problems with lighting and contrast throughout. The Kultur version is also the shorter of the two, with over 100 minutes of Bondarchuk’s original edited out. Most distracting was the aspect ratio in the transition from theater screen format to the cropped format of American television sets, as titles of the various sections were chopped off. This was most notable in the “1812” segment, where only “1-8-1” made it on the screen.

Despite these technical flaws, and the dubbed version, I found myself replaying many parts of the Bondarchuk film to revisit some of the more extraordinary scenes. During the BBC version, I found that I could walk away for a moment and miss only some dialogue, but during the viewing of the Bondarchuk film I was afraid to leave my seat for fear of missing something important. Bondarchuk’s experimental techniques, such as his innovative uses of aerial cameras, kept me riveted to my television set, and caused me afterward to scour eBay for a DVD of the version recently reissued by the Russian Cinema Council (Ruscico). This film is most deserving of the sobriquet of “grand epic,” and is worthy of inclusion into a university curriculum on European or Russian studies.


Hooda Thunkit said...


Grand epic indeed!

So, did you ever find the DVD re-release that you were looking for?

Great write-up, BTW ;-)

historymike said...

Thanks, Hooda.

Yes, I did get the DVD version, and it has been cleaned up quite a bit.

I did enjoy the novel by Tolstoy, and it's not nearly as long as the reputation it has received. It does help, I would say, to watch a film version first; the Russian patonyms and nicknames can get confusing.