The movies now give us an “epic” nearly every week of the year. Digital technology, corporate budgets and the public’s own, current thirst for shallow escapism have paved the way for visions both ludicrous and wondrous. Chiseled, tattooed ruffians bestrode kraken-like monsters in Aquaman, cyborgs levitate from futuristic cities buried in trash in Alita: Battle Angel. But what do these films have to say? As we wallow in popcorn excess, Janus Films restores and re-releases the grandest, deepest epic of all, Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace. Made in 1967, it shames everything, and I mean absolutely everything, playing at the ArcLight today. Slated for a June release on DVD and Blu-Ray by the Criterion Collection, it is touring various arthouse spots and must be seen on a proper, wide canvas. Your humble correspondent was lucky enough to catch such a screening at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica. It will grace the Egyptian in Hollywood on April 27.
If the average Marvel movie runs about 2 hours and 22 minutes, Bondarchuk’s sweeping rendition of Leo Tolstoy’s immortal novel clocks in at about 7 hours. It was a product of the Cold War, when political rivalry made for leaps in artistic ambition. In 1956 King Vidor directed an American adaptation of War and Peace starring the very un-Tolstoyan cast of Audrey Hepburn, Henry Fonda and Mel Ferrer. It was produced by Italian guru Dino De Laurentiis, a cutthroat known for his devotion to the gods of commercialism. Not content with letting American capitalists water down a national epic, the Soviets decided to do their own cinematic rendition, bigger and better. Chosen by culture minister Yekaterina Furtseva, Bondarchuk began production in 1961 with the biggest budget ever commissioned for a Soviet movie (8.29 million rubles). James Cameron would salivate at the details of Bondarchuk’s shoot. 40 museums across the USSR loaned authentic 19thcentury relics, including furniture and chandeliers, thousands of Red Army soldiers were put to work as extras to re-create the Napoleonic battles of the era. Soviet film luminaries were cast in key roles, including ballerina Ludmila Savelyeva as Natasha. Somehow Bondarchuk still had enough chutzpah left to cast himself as the lead character of Pierre Bezukhov.
Of course all this would be but mere waste if the film turned out to be a dud. Instead it is an unsurpassed miracle, not even the most maddened visions of American cinema like Apocalypse Now come close to its scope. It could have easily been a Russian Heaven’s Gate, instead it is the greatest vision of Tolstoy ever rendered on the screen, and one of the few films that could be said to encompass life itself.
So on a Sunday afternoon I walked into the Aero, accompanied by a group of friends including a mentor and film instructor, an aspiring Armenian director, a 6-foot cowboy I have had the honor of co-writing and shooting our own mad vision in the desert with, and an actress turned producer with whom I’ve also been writing a bloody tale of Mayan warlords. I had seen this War and Peace about eight years ago, on the subpar DVD edition which lacks even the proper aspect ratio. Nothing prepared me for the blast of color, light and sound that overtook the theater. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that Bondarchuk directed this film as if he his life depended on it. In a 70mm frame width, the film opens in the heavens, overlooking the Russian plains, Tolstoy is quoted eloquently and the music by Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov erupts with the force of a choral symphony.
The master Tolstoy himself is said by scholars to have not considered War and Peace to be a novel per se, but more a collection of stories, even vignettes. Before renouncing fiction, he considered his narrative masterpiece to be Anna Karenina. Few books ever dare match the scope of Tolstoy’s vision of 19th century Russia amid the Napoleonic Wars and the lingering aftershocks of the French Revolution. Only perhaps Vasily Grossman’s epic revolving around the Battle of Stalingrad, Life and Fate, comes close, or William T. Vollmann’s majestic Europe Central. Fittingly, no other cinema epic comes close to encompassing what is attained in Bondarchuk’s achievement. He never managed to surpass it, and his follow-up attempt at grandiosity, 1970’s Waterloo, though gorgeous, is a pale shadow. He would continue applying his eye to revolutionary history, including the story of radical journalist John Reed. At around the same time Warren Beatty immortalized Reed’s story in his own epic, Reds, Bondarchuk captured it with a bit more zest in Red Bells.
In hindsight one has to wonder if Bondarchuk ever really thought he could match War and Peace. It is special because in its grand, rococo production design, wide canvas shots and absorbing music, it focuses primarily on the intimate emotions and passions of its characters. These are people swept in the tides of history, with every aspect of their personal lives shaken by a world-changing moment. Every character in this film represents a little of each of us, our follies and attempts at bravery. I have always felt the most kinship with Pierre Bezukhov, the plump, clumsy intellectual who at the beginning is an admirer of Napoleon, seeing him as a great agent for revolutionary change in a Europe stifled by monarchs. He argues in aristocratic balls with the Russian elite, who have no desire to see tradition overturned. He parties hard, like an early Romantic, and marries unwisely to a woman of privilege who cheats on him with some snarky military man. But once the French conqueror enters Russia everything about his world is turned even more upside down. Then there is Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (Vyacheslav Tikhonov), who at Battle of Austerlitz nearly dies, Napoleon towering over him in one of the film’s great shots admiring such a glorious death. Andrei is always the face of royal handsomeness in every adaptation, but that’s the point, he remains as fragile as us all. He returns home to face heartbreak and then love when he meets Natasha.
It is Natasha, played luminously by Ludmila Savelyeva, who is the true heart and soul of Tolstoy’s novel and Bondarchuk’s film. Introduced as young, beautiful innocence, life then begins its process of hard lessons when she must wait to marry Andrei per his father’s demands and in the meantime she is seduced by the lying Anatol Kuragin (Vasiliy Lanovoy). Shamed, broken, Natasha personifies our process of growing up. Amid all this human folly, Pierre somehow still retains a sense of goodness, and when Natasha tells him all is over for her, he cannot help but confess that he loves her. It is one of the cinema’s most sincere declarations, “If I were somebody else, somebody who was good-looking, intelligent, and the best of men, and if I were free, I would be right now at your feet asking for your hand and your love.” There is a potent sincerity there lacking in most the of the schlock we consume these days. Bondarchuk closes the scene with radiant magnificence, as Pierre rides home, looking up into the heavens as the Great Comet of 1811 glistens in the night sky, a portent of the coming cataclysm of 1812 when Napoleon truly brings his war to Russia. And is this not now a generation seeking signs in the stars for what will befall us? My favorite scene involving Natasha is when she visits her uncle in a rural area, when he plays a traditional peasant melody she breaks into a natural dance. The narration wonders how a girl raised in silk could know how to move to such music, but it is because it is in her very marrow as a Russian. Fittingly, the historian Orlando Figes named his great study of Russian culture, Natasha’s Dance.
These characters hope, fear and love within a canvas of breathtaking power. Individual scenes are masterpieces of framing, crowd control and the potential of editing. In the scene where Andre and Natasha dance together in a famous ball scene, the music and editing build to a hypnotic crescendo, using an almost hallucinatory technique. Massive troops march singing folk melodies, hunting scenes with the upper class are editing with a rather timeless, 1960s use of jump cuts. Yet it is all overtaken by the titanic scale of the battle scenes. Bondarchuk’s moments of war and carnage place the viewer in time vortex, leaving no doubt this is what it felt or looked like when Napoleon’s troops clashed with its enemies. The thunder of the canons, the towering flames, the horses cut down and the bodies strewn across the floor are conveyed with a cinematic force as to compel awe. And there is Vladislav Strzhelchik as Napoleon Bonaparte, overlooking the spectacle from a mountain, full of ego and limitless ambition. It should be remembered this film was made by a generation with fresh memories of World War II, when another would-be emperor, of a fascist variety, made his own bloody attempt to conquer the limitless Russian frontier.
In its vision of fire and fury, romance and heroism, War and Peace conveys some quite simple ideas and conclusions. To be good rises above any political ideology, and what banners we follow today can easily be corrupted by human folly tomorrow. If Pierre worships Napoleon, he soon discovers it is a more powerful calling to love Natasha. Through love the most radical acts are made. Compared to this, recent Hollywood “epics” are stale and shallow, even the better ones. Walking out of the Aero, one felt more alive after the experience, feeling a sudden and new appreciation for the comfort of an evening breeze, or the good fortune of a decent meal. That is when we know we have come in contact with great art, when it reaches deep within.