Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

War and Peace

(Война и мир, USSR, 1968)

First I have to say something that has nothing to do with the movie itself. This is the most sloppily produced DVD I’ve ever watched. It is a mixture of subtitled and dubbed, and the really weird thing is that it seems to have been decided entirely at random. Even within one scene, a character will start out speaking Russian with subtitles, and suddenly switch to speaking English! Even more annoying, there are a lot of lines of Russian dialog that are not translated at all. For a short while some characters are having conversations in French, and there are no subtitles. Now, I really, really don’t like dubbed films. I’ll go further. I hate dubbed films. I will not watch them unless there is just no alternative. I want to see a film just as it was released in its home country, with English subtitles (since that’s the only language I speak). The only slight praise I can give the bunglers who produced this cinematic abortion is that the lip-synching is pretty good.

The main reason for the movie’s existence was the feeling of … well, I guess you could call it irritation over the very large, very expensive 1956 Dino De Laurentiis, Carlo Ponti, King Vidor, Henry Fonda, Audrey Hepburn version. At 208 minutes, it was a formidable production. It cost a staggering $6,000,000. And the Party felt that Война и мир should be a Russian production, a Soviet production. So they turned it into four movies over six years, a total of 431 minutes. That’ll show those running-dog capitalists!

The picture was produced by the Mosfilm studios between 1961 and 1967, and was fabulously expensive to film. The list of superlatives is very long … and the information somewhat contradictory. It is said that 120,000 extras were used. Others say it was a lot less. I have no trouble believing that at least 100,000 were used, and many thousands of horses, and skilled riders for the massed cavalry charges. (From the many catastrophic falls, I assume a lot of horses died.) The creation of hats and uniforms and rifles alone is staggering to contemplate.

There is more conflict as to the budget. Some say it was as low as $67,000,000. Some say it was more like $100,000,000, the first movie to cross that threshold, and it was the record holder until Terminator II came along. Even others claim it cost $750,000,000, or even a billion, which is probably an exaggeration. They employed what must have been a significant portion of the Red Army as soldiers.

What I think it is safe to say is that we will never see its like again. Sure, you can easily have a computer generate upwards of a million individual characters these days, but in real life? Never gonna happen.

Of course, an enormous budget and a cast of tens of thousands do not a masterpiece make, as can be seen from Cleopatra in 1963 and any number of CGI garbage superhero movies these days. But in this case they got their money’s worth, putting every ruble of that money up there on the screen (except for one thing, which I’ll get to) and producing a visual and storytelling tour de force, probably the best adaptation of Tolstoy’s classic we will ever see. Technically, it was ahead of its time, and especially in the case of Soviet cinema, in its use of hand-held cameras, crane and helicopter shots, and many other things. There were four separate battles filmed, each one bigger than the one before, including recreations of the Battle of Austerlitz, where Napoleon shocked the Russian-Austrian coalition, and the Battle of Borodino. I have seldom felt as transported into the horror of the battlefield, even in these days of photo-real CGI, as in these scenes. You may think you have seen the most intense battle scene ever filmed, but if you haven’t seen this movie, I guarantee that you have not. Borodino starts out intense, gets more and more stunningly amazing until you are sure it couldn’t possibly get any more horrifying, and then it gets more horrifying. And still more.

The interior sets were lavish, furnished with the contents of museums. It’s easy to see what the Bolsheviks were so upset about, a century later. Such enormous wealth is just obscene to contemplate, knowing the life the Russian peasants led.

The director, Sergei Fedorovich Bondarchuk, co-starred as Pierre, a character I’ve never been able to really admire, he’s such a fuck-up. He’s a sweet, decent man, but he is usually way out of his league, showing up at Borodino in his foppish white top hat. Ludmilla Mikhaylovna Savelyeva (still alive, I’m happy to say) is Natasha Rostova, who is even more difficult for me to like, being the drama-queen Russian version of Scarlett O’Hara. Vyacheslav Vasilyevich Tikhonov is Andrei Bolkonsky.

Okay, where did they not get their money’s worth? They were going to buy 70MM film stock from Kodak, where every sensible cinematographer bought their film in 1961. But the Party apparatchiks found this unacceptable. They insisted the film be shot on Glorious Soviet Celluloid. Result: The film stock was so horrendously crappy, so utterly useless, that they sometimes had to re-shoot up to forty takes until they got something usable! Imagine the frustration: “Okay, first assistant director. Call all 100,000 extras back to their places, re-set all the explosions, repair the landscape, bury the dead horses … and we’ll do it all again tomorrow because we’re losing our light!”