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War and Peace

War and Peace (Bondarchuk, 1967)

For all the possibilities opened by computer-generated imagery, itís hard not to feel as if weíve lost something along the way. When blockbuster cinema regularly conjures images of world-or-universe defining stakes, scale starts to lose all meaning. I think back to seeing Avengers: Endgame in theatres and, despite enjoying most of the film preceding the climax, finding myself totally unmoved when it produced that splash page image of all the heroes joining forces, as flat and shapeless composition as Iíve seen in these things. (Rarely have I felt so out of step with the reaction of the surrounding audience, so I realize Iím in the minority on this one.) Thereís a certain thrill in seeing something physically real on a giant scale that a CG facsimile just canít replicate. For recent movies I can think of that feel truly grandiose, Iíd have to go back to Peter Jacksonís Lord of the Rings trilogy, and even then shortcuts were used in the way of special effects and stand-ins.

In this respect, Sergey Bondarchukís War and Peace represents some kind of pinnacle of this lost art, a work that feels truly colossal in ways few films have approached. One way to grasp the filmís scale is in terms of hard numbers. It runs a total of seven hours (released initially in four different parts). At the time of production, it cost reportedly $100 million, estimated by the New York Times to be $700 million in modern times when adjusted for inflation. The cast totaled approximately 120,000, many of whom were extras supplied by the Soviet Army. Thousands of costumes, sixty cannons and 120 wagons were made, and over forty museums donated artifacts to the production. This would all be moot were the movie a mess, but the production is a masterwork of controlled chaos. The sheer scale of the battles is captured with clarity by the expected crane and helicopter shots, but Bondarchukís style is spontaneous and constantly evolving. Handheld camerawork hurtles us through the combat, while the liberal use of filters, splitscreens, superimpositions and jagged editing give the proceedings a heightened, hallucinatory quality. Thereís an exhilarating documentary quality to seeing anything of this scale, but the stylistic abandon with which the proceedings are captured render them almost a fever dream. Thereís a tendency to treat important novels like homework (Iím sure everyone has at least one example from their high school English class), and truth be told, I havenít actually read War and Peace (because itís like 1200 pages, c'mon), but Bondarchuk injects a spontaneity into his adaptation that should lay those fears to rest.

Bondarchuk produces some truly remarkable images, like a sequence where the composition of shot of a battlefield full of soldiers morphs real time as clouds of gunsmoke erupt with orchestral precision. Given the scale and scope of the movie, itís hard not to compare it with that famous American epic Gone with the Wind, and War and Peace contains certain moments that feel like direct responses to some of the formerís most memorable images and scenes, outdoing the burning of Atlanta and the landscape full of wounded soldiers with even more vivid, forceful images. In the face of the sheer size of the spectacle, the human element can seem underwhelming at first, and that seems intentional in the first part, Andrei Bolkonsky, where a joke about an illiterate messenger seems completely limp after a horrific battle. Itís in the second part, Natasha Rostova, where the human element comes into focus, carried by a trio of lead characters, a fallible but good hearted noble played by Bondarchuk himself, an innocent young woman played by ballerina Ludmila Savelyeva, who is lit and shot to look as achingly beautiful as possible, and a prince played by Vyacheslav Tikhonov who goes off to war against the invading Napoleonic army. (On a side note, the actors resemble Thomas Mitchell, Anna Karina and Christopher Plummer, respectively. Should your attention happen to drift, as is possible during a great yet somewhat unwieldy seven-hour epic, you can amuse yourself by pretending theyíre in the movie.)

Bondarchukís character is deployed as an audience surrogate during the third part, The Year 1812 (where he views the excitement and madness of the truly astounding battle scene firsthand), and develops a capacity for every day heroism in the fourth and final part, Pierre Bezukhov. As such, his arc is most closely tied to the filmís nationalist viewpoint, but because Bondarchuk understands human weakness (in this character and others, like the half-blind general who mistakes his pyrrhic victory for a real one), itís also the most moving in the film. If anything, Bondarchuk, despite allegedly being an enthusiastic party supporter, renders the nationalistic fervour transparent, like when he slaps on a patriotic coda to the carnage at Borodino and immediately follows it with a retreat from Moscow. This moment is further subverted when he applied Napoleonís stentorian narration over the sight of a weakened French army retreating in the thick of winter. Napoleon himself is more of a figurehead in this movie than a real character, and is denied any real interiority, yet I suspect Bondarchuk identified with him at least a little. Near the end of the battle at Borodino, thereís an image of Napoleon sitting down on a chair not unlike one used by a director during filming as he observes a vast formation of his men moving across the landscape, and in this moment he comes as much a stand-in for Bondarchuk as the character the director actually played.