Thursday, February 14, 2013

#20 - War and Peace (1968)

BACK-STORY:  Would you believe one of the longest novels was made into one of the longest movies?  Sergei Bondarchuk’s version of Tolstoy’s novel is 431 minutes long, divided into four parts, and took six years to finish.  There are 300 speaking characters.  It was the most expensive Soviet film ever made.  The Soviet government funded the film as a matter of national honor after the King Vidor version released in 1956 achieved some critical acclaim.  The Soviet Army provided technical advisers and thousands of extras.  Over 40 museums loaned historical artifacts.  60 Napoleonic era cannons were cast for the film.  Bondarchuk took advantage of the Khrushchev Thaw to craft a new style Soviet film.  The movie was a big success and won Best Foreign Film at both the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards.  It is the longest film to win an Oscar.

OPENING:  A camera pans over a countryside with sounds of battle in the background.  A narrator tells us that because corrupt people unite, honest people must also.  The year is 1805 and we are in St. Petersburg at an upper class “soiree”.  There is discussion of the “anti-Christ” Napoleon.  The camera moves around as we peep in at various converstaions.  A woman named Lisa is complaining about her husband deserting her to go off to war.  “Why can’t men live without wars?” 

Natasha, not long to be a wall flower
SUMMARY:  Okay, how much do you want to know?  Don’t worry, this will not be four times as long as my usual summary.  Basically the movie is the story of a love triangle.  Pierre (Bondrachuk) is the illegitimate son of a wealthy count who is a social outcast and is looking for purpose in his life.  His best friend Andrei (Vyacheslav Tikhanov) is the son of a famous general who is unhappy with his loving, but shallow wife.  He leaves her behind to become an aide-de-camp for General Kutusov in the lead up to the Battle of Austerlitz.  Natasha (Lubmila Savelyeva) is the flirtatious daughter of the Rostovs.  The Rostovs live in Moscow and enjoy life and hosting parties.  Their lives will intertwine in the events leading up to Napoleon’s occupation of Moscow.

                When Pierre’s father dies he inherits the estate and now is high in society.  He gives up his days of debauchery with military types like the dangerous Dolokhov (Oleg Yefremov).  He marries a woman named Helene (Irina Skobtseva – Bondarchuk’s wife) because dude’s gotta marry, right?  Meanwhile, Andrei drops his pregnant wife off at his tough-love father’s home before he goes to war.  His dad tells him to come back with his shield or on it.

                The Russian army marches to join Gen. Mack’s Austrian army.  As the ranks march by, the camera picks up eachs soldier talk.  “Singers to the front!”  The army lustily belts out a folk tune.  Gen. Mack himself informs Kutusov to not bother joining him.  "I have no army".  Gen. Bagration (with Andrei tagging along hunting for glory) fights a rearguard action at Schongrabern.  Smoke clears to reveal French columns approaching.  A Russian column marches to meet them.  Drums beat.  “Left, left.”  Marching feet.  Now here comes the cavalry.  Natasha’s brother Nicolai is part of it.  POV.  He’s down.  We hear his thoughts.  I’m going to die.  Not if I run.  Camera follows him through foliage.  (It's a little silly.)  It’s now the artillery’s turn (the cannons recoil!).  Tushin’s battery holds out to the last.  Hellish aftermath of a losing battle.

Kutusov spectates

                Next comes the Battle of Austerlitz.  The Czar orders Kutuzov to begin the attack prematurely.  Amateur!  The cavalry charge results in numerous riderless horses leaving the battlefield (are you telling me noone was just wounded?)  Andrei leads a counterattack carrying a flag and is wounded.  He awakes with Napoleon gazing on him.  “That’s a beautiful death” says the Little Corporal.  A bird’s eye view shows the cavalry forces circling like a maelstrom.  Get it?
"That's a beautiful death"

                Pierre is being cuckolded by Dolokhov.  He challenges him to a duel.  What an incredible scene!  Andrei’s wife dies giving birth and before he can beg forgiveness for being such a huge jerk.  However, he meets the vivacious Natasha at a grand ball.  The cinematography is masterful.  The camera flows through and around the crowd (the cameramen were on roller skates).  Sometimes the shot is blocked by people in the crowd.  Down in front!  Andrei proposes, but gives Natasha a year to think about it.  Big mistake.

                It is now 1812 and Napoleon’s Grande Armee invades Russia.  Kutuzov is back in command and Andrei commands a regiment.  Here comes the Battle of Borodino!  Pierre shows up at the site dressed as a dandy.  He visits Andrei and tells him that he thinks the left flank is too weak!  Thanks, armchair general.  Andrei guarantees victory because the Russians want it more.

                The battle lasts 33 minutes of screen time.  Most of our time is spent with Pierre who hooks up with an artillery unit in a redoubt.  The cannons are firing in two directions.  WTF, but makes for some great tracking shots.  Andrei’s regiment is being held in reserve and stoically takes losses as they sit and wait.  Cavalry attacks massed artillery.  Crescendo of violence.  Overhead view of squares.  Buildings on fire.  Andrei is wounded by a shell and has his leg amputated.  Pierre gets his green coat dirty.

                It’s a moral victory, but Napoleon marches into Moscow.  Pierre has not joined Natasha’s family and the rest of the evacuees.  Suddenly, the city is aflame and Pierre is in the middle of it.  Soot is flying like a blizzard.  Chaos.  Drunkenness.  Looting.  Pierre is arrested as an arsonist.  The music gets increasingly bizarre to match the vibe.  For no apparent reason Pierre is spared execution.  He is taken along when the French retreat.

CLOSING:  The Grand Armee disintegrates.  Somehow Pierre escapes and returns to a rebuilding Moscow.  He is reunited with Natasha.


Acting =  B-
Action =  7/10
Accuracy =  B 
Plot =  B
Realism =  B

Overall =  A-

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?  They’ll like the peace parts and their man will like the war parts.  Something for everyone.  Natasha is a great character and the romance aspects are strong.

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:    Tolstoy got into a lot discussion about how historically accurate the novel was.  He argued that the “artist” deserves some latitude in historical fiction.  Besides, he added, even historians make choices on what to emphasize in their non-fiction.  With that said, the movie conforms closely to the book and the book is accurate enough considering Tolstoy did not intend it to be a history lesson.  His main characters are fictional and he places them in historical events.  However, the film and book are giving a personal view of the events, not a view from command.

                The main focus historically is the battles and Tolstoy does not try to give the big picture.  To tell the truth, historians are still debating exactly what happened in the three battles.  The first, the Battle of Schongraben, is simplified in the film, but it gets the essentials right.  Bagration was ordered by Kutusov to fight a delaying action.  The battle did take place at night and was chaotic.  Several French assaults were beaten off in six hours of fighting before Bagration made an orderly withdrawal.  It is unclear whether the Tushin battery incident was based on fact.

                At Austerlitz, the film is accurate in showing Czar Alexander ordering Kutusov to advance when he was not prepared.  What the film does not make clear is the fact that the Russians were being ordered to leave the strategically dominant Pratzen Heights.  The huge cavalry action did take place, but it was towards the end of the battle not the beginning.  The French did empty a lot of Russian saddles, but not all of them.

                Borodino opened with a cavalry attack.  Maybe Tolstoy got them confused.  The Russians had left their left flank underdeveloped, as Pierre correctly pointed out.  The action at the Raevsky Redoubt is handled well.  The Russians had 19 twelve-pounders there.  Apparently, it did have to defend itself from attacks from both sides.  The movie does give a correct impression of the high level of losses on both sides.

                As far as the burning of Moscow, Tolstoy and the film imply it was accidental whereas historians believe it was the ultimate example of the Russian scorched earth policy.

CRITIQUE:  “War and Peace” is a remarkable work of cinema.  Parts of it are amazing and the credit goes to Bondarchuk who pulled out all the stops in making it.  The variety of techniques that are used make it a must for any film class.  There are off-center shots, fades, POVs (including a wolf’s – hell, we hear the wolf’s thoughts!) , double exposures, split screen,  hand-held (on roller skates), and more.  There is even a surreal dream sequence based on Bondarchuk’s experience from being “dead” for four minutes after a heart attack.  When he depicts the meeting of Napoleon and Alexander at Tilsit he even throws in a three screen look in homage to the classic “Napoleon”.  The balls are shot literally from within the crowds.  There are lots of outdoor scenes that are shot through and of foliage (which reminded me of Malick’s “The Thin Red Line”).  The only fault I have with the cinematography is it seems as the story gets weaker, the “bells and whistles”  increase in compensation.  Also, some of the cinematic flourishes get tedious at times.  For example, the things waved in front of the camera during the ball scenes.

                The acting is average.  Lubmila Savelyeva is the stand-out as Natasha.  She captures the mercurial nature of the young woman perfectly.  The rest of the cast is adequate, but not outstanding.  No one embarrasses themselves, even Bondarchuk.

                The plot is based on one of the greatest novels ever written and is faithful to the book.  Thankfully, the movie leaves out some periphery characters and a lot of Tolstoy’s philosophizing.  I read the chapters about the Battle of Borodino and the movie does a great job recreating the novel.  It is interesting to note that the film omits most of the book’s coverage of Napoleon.   The movie not only summarizes the book so you do not have to read it, but is a good historical and cultural experience.  Bondarchuk includes the balls and the wolf hunt for local color.  The religiousity of the Russian people is highlighted.  In general, the film is very strong in depicting upper class life in Russia at the time.  It is less firm in recreating  military aspects.  The strategy and tactics are either too unclear or too simplistic.  The “fog of war” could be applied to the recreations of the battles.  Perhaps this was Bondarchuk’s goal.  The staging of the battle scenes is amazing, however.  The Battle of Borodino is certainly one of the greatest cinematic  battles.

                One theme is the effects of war on civilians, especially wives.  A corollary to that is war’s effect on the environment.  There are shots of beautiful countryside that pan over to a ravaged countryside.  Of course, the movie means to be anti-war and it is, but not as overtly as you would think.  At one point, Andrei swears off war but returns and seeks glory.  His death is meant to overshadow this and return emphasis to the theme.  Pierre also cannot resist the lure of combat.  Tolstoy may be hard on the generals, but he lauds the Russian soldiers that saved his country.

                The film is not perfect.  There are some plot flaws.  The Natasha elopement was implausible.  Andrei swings from warrior to pacifist back to warrior.  Why does Helene become evil?  Why isn’t Pierre executed along with the other arsonists? (Probably so he can travel with the bedraggled Grand Armee and then return home.)  Not too bad for a movie that is 431 minutes.

CONCLUSION:  If you don’t want to read a book that is 1351 pages long, this production of “War and Peace” will do the trick.  Not only will you get a summary of the remarkable novel, but you will see one of the outstanding cinematic achievements in history.  I am so glad that this blog project forced me to buy the DVD set and watch the film.  And I have to admit that even though I have been a fan of military history since a teen, I never had any intention of reading the book or watching a 431 minute movie based on it.  I still don’t plan on reading the book, but the chapters that I read about the Battle of Borodino were entertaining.  I wonder if you could find an edited version entitled “War Without Peace” on the Internet.  Just the cool chapters.  None of the mushy stuff.

                Does the movie belong at #20?  That is debateable because it is unclear whether it should have been considered.  The panel of experts responsible for Military History Magazine’s 100 Greatest War Movies list obviously precluded made-for-TV movies and miniseries, so there were limits on what films they considered.  “War and Peace” is unique among the 100 chosen because it is actually a theatrical miniseries.  I would not have included it, but if you allow it in the door, it certainly belongs in the top twenty.


  1. Certainly one I'd like to watch sooner or later although it is very long. There are different versions, as far as I know, maybe others were better in the acting department. Still, this sounds like an impressive movie and I have a feeling it's worthy of a place among the Top 100.

  2. I don't know about my 100 Best. I have to think hard about whether I would classify it as a movie. If so, why not Band of Brothers, etc.

    I have the BBC miniseries in my Netflix queue and Anthony Hopkins stars as Pierre. However, the King Vidor movie has a miscast Henry Fonda! I guess this version is somewhere in the middle, acting wise.

  3. I did read the book. I took a literature class devoted entirely to War And Peace in college. The BBC version pales compared to the other two.

    The King Vidor version isn't so bad, but the Bondarchuk version is the grandest. We saw it in a repertory theater in the last week of our class. A fifteen minute intermission at the 90 minute mark, and one full hour intermission in the middle with another fifteen minute break at the other 90 minute mark of part two. In all, an eight hour ordeal. Too bad Borodino comes at the end, my ass was killing me by then.

    I highly recommend the book (which was ripped off shamelesly by Herman Wouk btw for his Winds of War). It is steeped in military culture. As for Tolstoy not wanting to write a history lesson, I don't buy it. There are long introductory passages of Kutuzov lecturing on the cause and effects of history.

  4. I would have loved to have seen it under those circumstances. I had not made the connection with Wouk's book.


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