The first thing that struck me about the Soviet adaptation of Tolstoy’s work was that the writer and director, Sergei Bondarchuk, understood the book. Two things happen in the opening minutes that screamed to me that he knew exactly what Tolstoy was trying to do. Our first shots are of microscopic things, and he dissolves into views of plants, dissolving again and again pulling further back until we’re seeing things from a camera strapped to what seems to be the back of an airplane that is in perpetual ascent. The movie is showing us that the smallest pieces go together to form the larger picture of Russia. It’s a visual representation of the basic thematic thrust of the book. The second thing is a voiceover (that gets repeated at the very end of the seven-hour film) that says that when evil men band together, good men must do the same thing, which is a more explicit rendering of that basic idea.
As I said in my review of the 1956 version by King Vidor, fidelity to a source is neither a vice nor a virtue in terms of an adaptation’s qualities as a work of art, but it can be helpful in talking about a film’s strengths and weaknesses. One of the things I talked about in that review was the event of Natasha’s attempt at infidelity when she tries to run away with Anatole while still nominally engaged to Prince Andrei. In the Vidor version, the event was dramatized so quickly as to make Natasha feel like a flighty airhead more than anything else. Here, though, in Bondarchuk’s 7-hour rendition, there’s more than enough room to give the scenario its due.
The movie as a whole is broken into four parts. Each was released individually upon its original release, though the production was one affair that lasted years. Three of the parts are named after the three main characters (the third of four is titled “1812”). The second is named after Natasha Rostov and almost the entire 100 minutes is dedicated to the story of her romance with Andrei and its collapse. Natasha gets engaged by the thirty-minute mark, but she’s not introduced to Anatole until about the 60-minute mark. That’s a solid 30 minutes where we see Natasha steadily descend from cheerfully joyous to isolated and alone. It’s not a direct descent. There are moments of happiness and joy, but they’re colored by the fact that her beloved is nowhere near her. The time is dedicated to her emotional state and its degradation so that when she meets the charming and handsome Anatole, we can completely understand how she would end up casting off her promise to her prince (a literal one). Her separation from Andrei has dug into her to the point that she would be susceptible to the charms of another man. Her innocence and youth then lend themselves naturally to the idea that she would fall madly for Anatole.
And that’s really the story of the biggest emotional moments in the film. They’re given the kind of time and attention necessary to sell them fully to the audience. However, these moments aren’t always just people talking in rooms. There’s also a liberal use of spectacle through the entire film, and it’s tied to either the emotional moments or the “war” part of the title.
My favorite bit of spectacle in the film is actually tied rather intimately to the emotional element. There are several huge set pieces in the film. There are three massive battles and several large balls, but it’s the burning of Moscow that grabs me the most. Apparently planned for months, the sequence treads into horror film territory at the human side of the destruction tearing through Moscow. We see images of wailing women, drunk French soldiers, flames eating up large sections of a large canvas, and Pierre at the center of it. Much like his witness of the Battle of Borodino, Pierre is a small and insignificant element in a larger event. He can’t affect the outcome in any way even when he tries. His witness of the destruction of the Mother of Cities affects him deeply. He’s already made the large turn from Napoleon apologist at the beginning to wanting to assassinate the French Emperor, but the burning breaks him. He can’t fight. He gets captured and doesn’t fight, only offering meek pleas for his life. It’s one of the most beautiful and affecting displays of pure destruction done almost entirely practically I’ve ever seen.
The Soviet Union made this in response to Vidor’s version, and they went all out to make it as large as possible. They let the rumor fly that they spent $100 million in 1960s valued currency to make the film, though that’s not actually true. The real amount was closer to $10 million, which was still a giant sum at the time, and it shows. Bondarchuk had wide latitude to use the Soviet military where he needed, and the battles of Austerlitz and Borodino are mind-boggling in their scale. We’ve become used to impossible sights done through computer imagery, but to see as many as 12,000 men in full dress across the real field of Borodino on horses, with muskets, smoke, and explosions is literally amazing. He also got use out of several large pre-Revolution mansions that he used for exteriors and ball scenes. Natasha’s first ball where she is introduced to society as well as Prince Andrei is absolutely ravishing in its size, the motion of the camera through and over the space, and the incredible wealth on display.
Made during Nikita Khrushchev’s cultural thaw after Stalin’s death, the film is an act of nationalism more than anything else, but it’s surprisingly open to the culture of pre-Revolutionary Russia. Russian Orthodoxy is presented with respect. The aristocracy gets the same amount of criticism that Tolstoy leveled at them and no more.
The three central performances are all very good. Vyacheslav Tikhonov plays Prince Andrei coolly with strong reserved emotions very well. Bondarchuk himself played Pierre, and he’s a rather perfect fit (if perhaps a bit old). The jewel of the film, though, over all the spectacle and intelligent adaptation, is Ludmila Savelyeva as Natasha. A former ballet dancer discovered for this role at nineteen, Savelyeva has magnificently large blue eyes that emote marvelously. Her joys and emotional destruction are incredibly portrayed. The second part dedicated to Natasha is the best individual part of the whole film and it’s in no small part because of Savelyeva’s magnificent performance. Her dance in the cabin is probably my favorite moment in the film.
Still, the movie is a step short of great, though it is chock full of greatness. I’m really glad that I came across the random advice to read the book before watching the film because there are chunks of this film where I would have been lost. There are secondary characters who get introduced, barely seen, and then come back later for important moments much later in the film without much explanation. Anatole is a great example of this. He’s gone from the movie at the end of part 2 and shows up in part 4 without introduction, but his presence causes an emotional reaction in Andrei that we’re supposed to share. If you didn’t already know that Andrei and Anatole met after the Battle of Borodino, it has to have been difficult to identify who this person was who was having such an affect on Andrei. The movie also uses a lot of voice over. I think the voice over ranges from nicely poetic to simply descriptive, and there’s simply too much of it. The descriptive elements usually are used to describe emotional states (like Pierre’s after his rescue from French captivity) that are well covered by performance.
The movie’s so very good, though. It’s seven hours of assured, daring filmmaking that uses just about every trick possible. From long takes, to quickly cut montages, to optical composites, to sets, to locations, to costumes, to black and white photography, to completely convincing miniatures, the movie throws everything at the screen in order to tell this story. It’s a technical achievement of the highest order and a narrative achievement that largely succeeds.
Netflix Rating: 5/5
Quality Rating: 3.5/4