Niall Anderson looks at Sergei Bondarchuk’s epic 1967 recreation of War and Peace, which is showing at London’s Renoir cinema on 7 October at 10am.
Like the novel it adapts, the single most extraordinary thing about Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace is that anybody had the nerve, skill and patience to bring it off. Granted, Bondarchuk had a technically unlimited budget and the full coercive weight of the Soviet Ministry of Culture behind him (he could, and did, call in 15,000 mounted cavalry to restage the Battle of Borodino), but the politics of the film’s production don’t get close to explaining the surreal attention to detail of the resulting film – nor the fervour with which it tries to animate even the smallest of Tolstoy’s fancies.
Take, for instance, the bear. Readers of the novel will recall that one strand of the plot begins with a policeman being strapped to the back of a bear and thrown into the Neva River as part of a bohemian jape. It would have been easy for the film to just refer to this incident in passing, or to do away with the bear altogether (surely a drenched copper proves the point, whatever he’s strapped to). This is not Bondarchuk’s way. Tolstoy wrote that there was a bear, so there must be a bear. And indeed there he is, unremarked at a dining table during a loud party: one extra among a hundred.
A scene like this could easily be dismissed as a stunt, or – maybe worse – as evidence of a slightly crazed literalism. But there are too many such stunts across the film’s seven-and-a-half hours for that word to carry the necessary weight, and the literalism comes to seem like a shrewd recognition that an epic is really just the magnification of the intimate. So it was in Tolstoy’s hands, anyway, and Bondarchuk seems to have realised that to compromise on the small details would have been to compromise the whole Tolstoyan vision – and his own.
Bondarchuk’s War and Peace wasn’t the first film adaptation. Vladimir Gardin had made a silent version in 1915 (in between adaptations of Anna Karenina and The Kreutzer Sonata). More recently, there had been a very successful Italian-American co-production directed by King Vidor and starring Henry Fonda and Audrey Hepburn. This film’s profile seems to have been a direct spur for the Soviet Union to produce its own – as it were, official – version.
To begin with, the forty-year-old Bondarchuk wasn’t in the frame to make War and Peace: he had only just completed his first film as director, Destiny of a Man, and was best known as an actor. Indeed, he claims never to have put himself in the frame at all, with his candidacy based on an anonymous recommendation to the Ministry of Culture. Whatever the truth of this, Bondarchuk seems to have got the nod because he was the least contentious choice – the one most likely to be grateful to the authorities for the opportunity, the one least likely to cause trouble, and the only one whose appointment wouldn’t actively anger the rest of the shortlist.
Bondarchuk co-wrote the screenplay with playwright Vasily Solovyov. From the novel’s teeming cast they concentrated on three main characters: man of action Andrei Bolkonsky, man of spirit Pierre Bezukhov, and the woman they both complicatedly love, the impulsive Natasha Rostova. All three are affected by the massing of Napoleon’s forces on Russia’s borders: Andrei as a soldier, Natasha as a countess whose lands are threatened, and Pierre because, well, because Pierre is the kind of intellectual who can’t help fretting when his highest ideals are threatened by brute reality. Almost everything else in the novel is sanded off, and almost every other major character restricted to a scene or two: these three alone are tasked with taking the story through its full sixteen-year span.
Does the reduction work? With a few serious reservations, yes it does. The first reservation is that supporting characters are used only insofar as they have a bearing on the plot: you’ve never seen a woman shuffled offstage as quickly as Pierre’s first wife. The second reservation is that Tolstoy’s theories of history are compressed into a few sonorous voiceovers calculated to avoid giving offence to Soviet censors. This may seem like a purist’s objection (few readers of War and Peace would put Tolstoy’s theorising top of its list of attractions), but the high-minded anguish of the film’s characters simply makes less sense without this background.
The final and most serious reservation is that Natasha lacks an independent life in Bondarchuk’s version: she is too obviously the spiritual terminus of the two male heroes. The liveliness and spontaneity she has in the novel are carefully curbed in the film, rather missing Tolstoy’s point that free women like Natasha mostly attract men who like to dominate and destroy.
Yet despite all this, Bondarchuk’s War and Peace hangs together. Its dutiful moments are few, or (as with the appearance of the bear) so unexpectedly strange as to take the viewer willingly along. The film’s preposterous length, so onerous at about the third hour, seems entirely fitting by the eighth. And its sheer scale and technical daring have an unforced cinematic novelty that still stuns. Want a cannonball-eye-view of a massed battlefield? Want a single shot of a thousand horses charging towards you? You genuinely won’t see it in any other film. Bondarchuk’s War and Peace doesn’t come close to eclipsing its source, but it climbs far enough out of its shadow to stand as its own work of art. Given the scale of the task, there can’t really be higher praise.