Not since Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha did I witness a scene of war so utterly filled with despair and destruction. This production, that brims with Soviet willpower to show Hollywood what-for, is for once genuinely deserving of the moniker ‘epic’.
Adapting Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace is a flight of folly. Director Bondarchuk tackles the impossible job by splitting it up into four parts, combining for a grand total of seven hours of film. Even then the story is ill-served. I was happy to have already read the novel, otherwise I don’t think I would’ve understood much of what was going on in the lustrous ballrooms of Moscow and St. Petersburg. The film seems to acknowledge the nonsense of a direct translation and foregoes its complex web of relationships in favor of a dreamy set of vignettes.
We are privy to fateful meetings of lovers, mighty clashes between the Russian and French armies, tense family feuds. The scenes seem disconnected, strung together only by the narration of Pierre Bezukhov, who is the centerpiece of this adaptation. Pierre is played by Bondarchuk himself, but it’s no fluff role. The director plays him as a doubting doormat of a gentleman, fumbling his way through history. His expression as a beaten dog is perfect.
But the real star of Voyna i Mir is the Russian landscape and the loving way the camera swoops over it. The trees, the fields, the splendiferous skies! It’s just breathtaking, and that’s before the thundering machines of war come into play. As a modern audience, we are jaded with seeing endless, digitally copy-pasted armies marching to a green screen front, so it’s a pleasure to note the real thing still produces the same thrills as it must have done decades ago. One can easily imagine the industrial and cultural might of the Soviet Union rallying behind this production; calling in its thousands of extras and outfitting them with period-appropriate costumes. These films reportedly cost a staggering 100 million dollars, which would be an average blockbuster budget now, but was in the 1960s unthinkable.
This seven hour epic is a strange and overwhelming experience. It experiments with style (as Russian cinema is prone to do) and with music. Dissonant bells clash with army ditties to communicate the heinous aspect of war. Ultimately, the choice not to go for a literal translation was a wise one. Tolstoy’s ideas are done more justice to than would’ve been the case had we been buried with plot. The tale of Napoleon’s fateful excursion into the east and how it affected Russian high society might be too slow and ponderous for people today, and hard to follow if you don’t know the source material. Yet one thing is certain: that shot of the whirlpool of horses drawing impossibly high into the sky to reveal a landscape exploding with smoke and corpses is a kick you’ll never get from modern cinema. That’s what ‘real’ buys you.