It has been more than thirty years since I read Tolstoy’s great novel War and Peace. I recently heard Pepe Escobar on a podcast describing his viewing of the Soviet era film in one sitting in a movie theater format in Moscow (I say one sitting because it was released in four parts, in total about eight hours long) that inspired me to watch the War and Peace film series.
According to Wikipedia, War and Peace “is a 1966–1967 Soviet epic war drama film co-written and directed by Sergei Bondarchuk, adapted from Leo Tolstoy‘s 1869 novel. Released in four installments throughout 1966 and 1967, the film starred Bondarchuk in the leading role of Pierre Bezukhov, alongside Vyacheslav Tikhonov and Ludmila Savelyeva, who depicted Prince Andrei Bolkonsky and Natasha Rostova.
“The film was produced by the Mosfilm studios between 1961 and 1967, with considerable support from the Soviet authorities and the Soviet Army which provided hundreds of horses and over ten thousand soldiers as extras. At a cost of 8.29 million Rbls – equal to US$ 9.21 million at 1967 rates, or $60–70 million in 2019, accounting for rouble inflation – it was the most expensive film made in the Soviet Union. Upon its release, it became a success with audiences, selling approximately 135 million tickets in the USSR. War and Peace also won the Grand Prix in the Moscow International Film Festival, the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Since its release, the film has often been considered the grandest epic film ever made, with many asserting its monumental production to be unrepeatable and unique in film history.”
The battle scenes are epic, but I think they still look staged beyond even what an early 19th century battle would look like. I did enjoy the vast variety of impressive uniforms and the multitude trudging through the mud. A scene I liked was Napoleon standing “short” among the explosions during the battle of Borodino like the classic Robert Duval scene in Apocalypse Now.
Most of the commentary I have seen about this film concerns the “war” scenes. But the “peace” scenes are also impressive. The dancing at the balls is like the magic of a Bolshoi ballet. The interiors and exteriors of the houses of the nobles and the Russian landscape are splendid.
Of course war and peace are extremely poignant topics today. The film captures some of the human drama of this great story. For example, Prince Andrei’s speech to Pierre before the battle of Borodino reflected how the Russian hates the French much like an Ukrainian hates a Russian today. The emotional anguish of young Natasha when she is prevented from eloping with a malevolent seducer and the confused angst of old Prince Bolkonsky trying to remember what he must do illustrated universal humanity.
The film generally followed the novel as much as I could remember from thirty years ago. But very interesting to me was that I did not sense a hint of Soviet propaganda. For example, the scene where thousands of extras, probably all Soviet soldiers, reverently approached a church icon before the battle of Borodino had a sense of true christian reverence. Compare that to the typical Hollywood film today burdened frame-by-frame with woke ideology.
From the dawning of my political awareness I thought of the Soviet Union as the evil empire, and I still do. But I have come to realize that every human institution, even every human being, is more complicated. Regarding Soviet cinema, I had heard of Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin, but I had never seen it. Anyway, a mutiny must be Soviet propaganda. My sense of Soviet era cinema changed when I became aware of the highly complex and poetic films of Andrei Tarkovsky. I later wrote about the horrific Come and See, a shocking anti-war film. So now I realize even that heavy totalitarian atmosphere could produce great art.
The film War and Peace won many awards including the foreign Academy Award at the height of the cold war, actually in 1968 being very hot in Vietnam. Today a similar award to a Russian film would brand the Academy voters as Putin’s puppets.
In the end the Russian General Kutuzov takes pity on the refuse of French soldiers, finally defeated by the vast expanse of Russia and winter. However, he then says, “But after all, who asked them to come here? It serves the bastards right! To have their mugs in shit.” Will there be a similar epitaph for the soldiers of the American empire?