A four-chapter, nearly eight-hour rendition of Tolstoy’s Napoleonic-era opus, War and Peace represents more than a prestige mega-production: This is the barbaric yawp of the Soviet film industry circa 1968, an entertainment A-bomb test announcing to the world: “Here is what we are capable of.”
This MosFilm restoration is as close as we’re likely to get to the original 70mm Sovscope pageant, whose production history is a tale of singular largesse used to guarantee Greatness: The assembled cast and crew compared in population to Green Bay, Wisconsin; the Kremlin was anxious enough for a decisive blow in the cinematic-spectacle race to put a Red Army detachment under star-director Sergei Bondarchuk’s command, with factories mobilized to costume them as Imperial Cossacks and hussars; a fleet of airborne vessels was employed to capture Sputnik’s-eye views of the warred-over countryside. The resulting showpiece is the Battle of Borodino, an unprecedented concert of cinematograph, man, beast, and pyrotechnics. Bondarchuk has no head for geography—armies’ positions are a muddle—but you can’t help thrilling over the densely orchestrated scrolling shots that tour the carnage, or the camera’s bayonette-skimming zipline plunge. And that isn’t even the finale: The bottomless-budget decadence (the Soviets proclaimed the price tag at $100 million—adjusted for inflation, that’s about $700 million today) only flames out with a show-stopper burning of Moscow.
Far from the front lines, Bondarchuk’s camera platoon applies its virtuosity to the country estates and pastel ballrooms that serve as display cases for the film’s Natasha (teen ballerina Ludmila Savelyeva, who has two charming dances). The novel’s domestic drama is judiciously streamlined—subplots pared off, characters demoted to the background (or, in the case of Czar Alexander I, demythologized into a podgy-faced twit)—but there’s still an impulse to get everything in. Such fidelity hampers the story’s ability to play in specifically cinematic terms: hence the over-reliance on voice-over to draw things together. But of course it’s magnificently presumptuous—and fearless—to even attempt to transfer Tolstoy’s historical-psychological scope, intact, to another medium: It’s as hubristic as invading Russia. Should you doze during one of the film’s lulls, you might just hear the dour ghost of Tarkovsky warning against adapting masterpieces: “Only someone who is actually indifferent both to fine prose and the cinema can conceive the urge to screen them.”