“War and Peace” – The Greatest Movie I’ve Ever Seen
I love a good long movie. And this blog is about the longest movie I’ve ever seen. It is also universally agreed by filmmakers and critics to be the greatest movie ever made—War and Peace. It clocks runs over 6-hours and is my favorite movie of all time. Leo Tolstoy’s epic 1,100 page novel is also my favorite book.
What I love so much about Leo Tolstoy’s novel and Sergei Bondarchuk’s masterful film is that it completely changed my life and my views on life and people. Before War and Peace I saw the world and people in monochrome, good-bad, black-white. After seeing this film I discovered how there are actually very few true villains and that almost everybody has their own good virtues as well as their flaws and imperfections.
War and Peace has an imposing title and an imposing length of over 1,100 pages. I’d always thought it was lofty, intellectual and dense. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It’s a page-turner with rich, vivid characters and human dramas of love, hope, desire, and the massive upheaval of lives being uprooted by invasion and war.
The novel has many, many characters, but the principle characters are Count Pierre Bezukhov, Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky, Natasha Rostov. Of all of these, the spine of War and Peace is Pierre Bezukhov (played in the film by Sergei Bondarchuk, who also co-wrote and directed the film), the beloved but illegitimate son of Count Bezukhov, who on his deathbed adopts Pierre, giving him full society status and making him the heir to his fortune. People would think this would make Pierre happy, but he is ill-prepared for responsibility. Pierre is a truly good person, but he is clumsy and awkward. His best and only true friend is Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky, a military officer, a family man, brave, handsome, everything that Pierre is not. Pierre has just been given everything by his dying father, but the one thing that he cannot attain, nor can even attempt, is the love of Natasha Rostov, who is only fifteen at the beginning of the story in 1805, and many years too young for Pierre or any man, but Natasha is the true love of Pierre’s life. Over the course of the book and the film, which culminates in Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Russia in 1805, and then miserable retreat through the cruel winter of 1812-1813, during which Pierre becomes a prisoner of the French and witnesses their cruelty as occupiers, Pierre comes to experience life and great hardship, yet he never loses his soul and what is truly strong about him, that he is a good person, and that the true loves in life are and will always remain his mother country of Russia and Natasha Rostov, the embodiment of the Russian woman.
Tolstoy’s novel opens with a high society party in St. Petersburg in 1805. Normally, this would put me off. What could happen in this setting that I could relate to? Nothing could be farther from the truth. At this party the main character Pierre Bezukhov gets carried away in a discussion of Napolean, who is his hero at the outset of the story. A society party is hardly the place for such a discussion and Pierre knows better, despite this he cannot his youthful zeal and cannot stop himself. How many times I’ve found myself in this sort of situation in a social setting I’m too embarrassed to count.
Then on the next page a guest interrupts a group to tell a funny story, then looses his way and forgets how to end it. Everyone around him tries to cover for his embarrassment with gentile laughter and delicately change the subject. Haven’t we all experienced this before?
I relate just these opening pages from the book to exemplify that the characters and situations that Leo Tolstoy described are human, universal, timeless and accessible.
This is not the unwatchable Audrey Hepburn-Henry Fonda 1956 soap opera, but is the gargantuan Russian film financed by Mosfilm and the government of the U.S.S.R. in the ‘60s as a display of national pride. That said, no one should dare say that this is in any way Communist propaganda. Leo Tolstoy’s novel War and Peace, first published in 1869, is revered by the Russian people as a national treasure. The novel and it’s characters are so well known that when actor-director-writer Sergei Bondarchuk embarked on the project he vowed that he would not detract one iota from the Tolstoy masterpiece and virtually every line of dialogue in the film was taken directly from the book.
It was filmed from 1962-67 at a cost of $100 million dollars in 1960’s value. Today it would cost well over a billion. The actress Lyudmila Saveleva, who plays Natasha Rostov, actually ages from 15 to 20 by the end of the film, growing into the age of the character in the story, which spans from 1805 to 1812.
An extensive details on the making of the film is available at War and Peace on Wikipedia.
It’s also significant to note that there are two very different versions of War and Peace. Both are quite different and both are also quite brilliant.
I was first introduced to the American-released version that I saw in the summer of 1972, at the age of 16, when it aired on ABC-TV as a mini-series over four nights. I was curious and found myself riveted. Afterwards, I bought the book and started reading, which took me a year.
Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace was released in 4 parts from March 1966 through November 1967 and totaled 431-minutes.
In the U.S., the Walter Reade Organization and Continental Releasing acquired the film, re-edited and dubbed it and released it simultaneously in 2-parts that totaled 373-minutes.
The English-dubbed U.S. version contains the finest dubbing I’ve ever seen. Even Roger Ebert in his review at the time of the film’s release commented that he normally was opposed to dubbing, but he was won over because it was the best dubbing of a movie that he’d ever seen. He felt the dubbing helped the American audience to get more deeply involved in the story, which is quite expansive and has so many different characters, to not have to worry about keeping up with reading subtitles and can just sit back and take in the story. In fact, I believe that the sound of the American actors who dubbed voices in English are far richer than the actual voices of the Russian actors.
The U.S. version was significantly re-edited for release and has one of the best opens of any film I’ve ever seen. Music was re-used in different sections to heighten the drama. The closing credits of the American version are entirely different. However, contrary to most “Americanizations” of a foreign film, the Walter Reade Organization re-editing and dubbing was done with so much care and attention to detail the I regard the Sergei Bondarchuk-U.S.S.R. version and the Walter Reade Organization-U.S. version as being both uniquely different and equal masterpieces. I feel this so strongly that I wish the Criterion Collection would restore and release a Blu-Ray and DVD of the U.S. version in wide screen, which I was lucky enough to see at the Tivoli Theater, a St. Louis art house cinema, years after first seeing it on TV.
The 1969 U.S. version that I saw on TV was released on VHS in 4×3 and not wide screen. This Oscar-winning version has never been made available on LaserDisc, DVD or Blu-Ray. I recently purchased an unused, never-before-played VHS from Amazon. I know, it’s 2012 and I’m buying VHS! In some places the video is too bright and there are also a few wrinkles, but overall, it was an amazingly good tape.
I also have the Russian Russico DVD with the restored and subtitled Russian wide screen film—and it looks fabulous!
Pop disk one in of each version and just watch for five minutes. The U.S. dubbed version was re-edited The open of the Russian version is also brilliant.
It also demands an understanding of the Russian mindset that the land, the Motherland, is sacred and alive.
Bondarchuk’s Russian version opens with a prologue of shots of Borodino, a hallowed battleground from Napolean’s invasion of Russia, as it looked in the 1960s, then explodes into an opening credit sequence filmed from a plane flying out of huge clouds over the Russian landscape against a sweeping score. This is significant because the land plays a key role in this epic film. In addition to all the characters and their stories and the pageant of history and battles that play out in the film, some containing shots with 30,000 soldiers in full Napoleonic era uniforms, it must be understood that to the Russian people the land of Russia, the very soil, is sacred. The rivers, the trees, the grass, the hills are all viewed as life giving and gifts from God. That is why the fierceness of the Russian people to defend it spares no sacrifice. It’s worth noting that Mother Nature has also always been Mother Russia’s greatest defense—that is why Russia’s enemies invade in the spring and summer and are vanquished by her merciless winters.
War and Peace won best film awards wherever it played. It also won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1969 and is the only film in that category to ever win the Oscar for being presented only in an English-dubbed version. It was not until 2008 that the Russian version ever played in the U.S. for a weekend in L.A.