War and Peace on the big screen

Like almost every literate person on the planet, I never read War and Peace. But I’ve now seen Sergey Bondarchuk’s massive film version.

Last Saturday, Russia took over the Castro. The large theater was packed to the gills with people wanting to see this massive, rarely projected epic.

But is this film version of War and Peace (there are several others) one seven-hour movie or four films of moderate length. Even IMDb isn’t sure, listing the picture as one movie completed in 1966, and also as four separate movies:

The Castro showed it as one movie with three intermissions. And yet we had to sit through four opening credit sequences.

War and Peace is not only long; it’s huge, and really requires a large screen (the Castro screen was just about right). It’s easily the most spectacular epic I’ve ever seen. It’s filled with huge crowds, dressed in spectacular costumes, filling massive sets. Director Sergey Bondarchuk shows us sparkling balls, large dinners, and sumptuous parties. But most of all, he shows us massive, horrifying battle scenes.

The title could more accurately be called War, War, War and a Little Bit of Peace. In Part I, the main male characters head west to protect Austria from Napoleon’s armies. In parts III and IV, a few years later, Napoleon attacks mother Russia, and the battle to save the beloved country becomes much more dire.

But Bondarchuk does more than amaze you with visuals. He shows battle as a terrible chaos, where you don’t know who is who (except for the main characters) and death can come at any time. And yet, I couldn’t help wondering why the military hats had silly things sticking up into the air.

Only Part II focuses primarily on peace…or to be more accurate, romance. Young and innocent Natasha (a beautiful and talented Lyudmila Saveleva) looks for love but can’t quite find the happiness she seeks. And the film’s central character, Pierre Bezukhov (played by the director), is caught in a very bad marriage.

Along with directing this massive production and playing a lead role, Bondarchuk found time to develop new ways to tell a story visually – with the help of his three cinematographers, of course. During battle scenes, the camera flies seemingly into the stratosphere, or moves through a building with unbelievable speed.

The imaginative camerawork isn’t confined to the war scenes. Bondarchuk finds new and effective ways to visually isolate the timid Natasha at her first ball. Then a handsome man takes her hand for a dance, and the lighting, costumes, and choreography come together to create the feeling of a dream come true.

Wonderful as it is, War and Peace is not a perfect film. There’s too much narration, especially when the off-camera voice tells us what a character is thinking. It’s occasionally slow and boring; but that probably can’t be helped in a seven-hour movie.

Altogether, I give this version of War and Peace an A-.

The film was shot in Sovscope 70, the Soviet Union’s version of Todd-AO and Super Panavision 70, and intended to the shown in 70mm. The Castro screened Janus Films’ new digital restoration off of a DCP. Most of it looked just wonderful. A few scenes were overly grainy; I don’t know why.

You have another chance to see War and Peace on the big screen – although not as big a screen as the Castro’s. The BAMPFA will screen the epic as four separate films next month:

  • Part I: Saturday, June 1, 4:30; Sunday, June 2, 2:30
  • Part II: Saturday, June 1, 8:00; Sunday, June 2, 6:30
  • Part III: Wednesday, June 5, 7:00; Saturday, June 8, 5:30
  • Part IV: Thursday, June 6, 7:00; Saturday, June 8, 7:30

The film will be released on Blu-ray on June 25. But like 2001
and Lawrence of Arabia, it really belongs on the big screen.