Sunday, January 18, 2009

War and Peace



You'd expect a big book about a couple of big topics to be a sodding great big film. And so it is, in the hands of Sergei Bondarchuk. I was lucky enough to see this recently over three evenings. War and Peace (Voyna i Mir) (1967) took seven years to make, takes seven hours to watch, and broke records for numbers of extras (120,000) and cost to make. It's been estimated that if it were to be made today, it would cost close to $1 billion. All this sounds very impressive, but this is not just some bloated epic.

The cast is unknown to me: Vyacheslav Tikhonov very handsome and embittered as Prince Andrei, Lyudmila Savelyeva practically cornering the market on wide-eyed girlishness as Natasha, and the director Bondarchuk himself as the clumsy yet noble Pierre. The entire cast is magnificent. The 120,000 extras (mainly evident in the battle scenes) make today's use of CGI look appalling. Battle scenes were filmed on the exact locations, using the original plans and records of those fights. The sweeping shots of explosions and soldiers across the rolling plains are as real as it gets, and the effect is thrilling. The more intimate "Peace" scenes are gorgeous. The only quibble artistically would have to be the hair and makeup - of the actresses especially. The beehived dos, the eyeliner, blue shadow and pink lipstick is magnificently laughable, but that is a small problem when the entire achievement of War and Peace is so powerful.

Bondarchuk and his cinematographers indulge their romantic and artistic sensibilities to the extreme, with moving effect. Sweeping cinematography becomes surreal in moments as a character gazes upon a beloved oak tree, a meadow, or the sky - indeed nature is a character in itself here, the beauty of it, the resilience and fragility, and this was by far the aspect of this film that gripped me the most. Other wonderful moments of surprising camera tricks include a scene when Natasha, threatened with the possbility of remaining a wall flower at her first ball, gazes across the room of dancers, and the screen swims with her unshed tears. The film is movingly indulgent, not just a tool of the Soviet regime, but also a deeply felt expression of love and hope and longing and surely Bondarchuk is to be thanked for this. He held nothing back, even as he suffered two heart attacks during the years the film took to make.
For more fascinating trivia, read here.

Amazon has a bunch of versions available. I saw a six-hour version, but I believe this seven-hour DVD set is the one to get.

7 comments:

Bill Stankus said...

1967? I wonder how widely it was distributed? In '67, at least on the West Coast, youth was being restless and the San Francisco scene was in full swing. I can't imagine anyone having the patience for a 7 hour film unless they were totally stoned.

Protege said...

It sure sounds like a movie I would enjoy. I could relate to the regime it was made under and just like you, find it alluring due the same fact.;)

Betsy said...

I've never seen it...sounds like a good long movie for a snowed-in weekend!

Dave Coulter said...

Hmm. Yet another mountain to climb - someday ;)

Blog Princess G said...

Bill: I read somewhere that it was released in New York at the very least. I think back in the day (67) people probably took more time to do things... can't see it going down well now. If there's not a Twitter version, would anyone watch? ;)

Protege: If you ever see it, I'd love to know what you think, especially with your special insight.

Betsy: And we've had a few of those weekends for sure!

Dave: Adding it to the list? ;)

Marie said...

Hey...I didn't know about this one. I watched the 1972 BBC version with a practically teenage Anthony Hopkins, which took some getting used to but which was not, in the end, completely horrible.

Can't wait to see this one...

Blog Princess G said...

My English relatives told me about the Anthony Hopkins version and what a wonderful Pierre he was. That's one I want to see, along with the Hollywood version, along with reading the book. Sigh... not enough time.