Home > Film, Reviews > Film Review: Voyna i Mir (War and Peace) (1967)

Film Review: Voyna i Mir (War and Peace) (1967)

Voyna i Mir (War and Peace) (1967; Directed by Sergei Bondarchuk)

Sergei Bondarchuk’s 7+-hour adaptation of the greatest novel ever written anywhere could only have been made in the Soviet Union in the ’60s. Hollywood never would have had the resources, nor the patience, nor the locations, nor the utterly excessive budget, nor the complete lack of moral scruples to pull it off.

I said, "Bow down", not "Lie down", peasant!

The film is, truly, the epic to end all epics. Its sets and costumes are more sumptuous than a hundred Merchant-Ivory period pieces. Its romance more bosom-heaving and tragic than Austen’s and Shakespeare’s oeuvres entire. Its spectacular, emotive battles feature as many bodies as any comparable wars in The Lord of the Rings (and that’s the Red Army, which wasn’t created entirely on a computer in suburban Wellington). To top it off, the fever-dream burning of Moscow makes the conflagration in Atlanta in Gone with the Wind look quaint and almost comic in comparison.

If Bondarchuk had merely recreated Tolstoy’s expansive scale and sweeping drama, well, that still would have been pretty darned impressive. But unlike King Vidor’s smoothed-over, Cliff Notes-style 1956 Hollywood version (starring a miscast Henry Fonda and an absurdly perfectly cast Audrey Hepburn), Bondarchuk’s film preserves and interprets Tolstoy’s myriad epiphanies, everyday joys, and poetic observations on human existence in lovely and moving visual moments. The endless sky at Austerlitz, Prince Andrei and the oak, Pierre and the comet, Pierre and his father’s hand. Anyone who knows the book understands that the battles and romantic intrigues are all well and good, but those moments when Tolstoy scratches at the sublime with his quill are what really make this novel the greatest ever written. And Bondarchuk is astute enough to let them make his movie, too.

Russia, man. What a dump.

Make his movie though they will, it must be said that it is not made perfectly. Even at this ridiculous and uncommercial running time, far too much is cut from Tolstoy’s narrative. Nikolai Rostov suffers particularly, and is never really accorded an equal position to the central triangle of Andrei, Natasha, and Pierre, even though I, for one, feel Tolstoy very much intended to place him in such a position. But then many of the subplots and even the main plots are not fully or even partially resolved, either. And though he has the good sense to include, almost verbatim, the wrenching final meeting between Old Prince Bolkonsky and his daughter Maria, he unforgivably omits the final words that the Prince shares with her, perhaps the most intimate, heartbreaking, and powerful in the novel.

But these are the mere nitpicks of a passionate fan of Tolstoy’s masterpiece. Which, admittedly, Bondarchuk’s astounding and overwhelming achievement comes closer to translating faithfully to screen than any other film ever has or ever will.


Categories: Film, Reviews

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