War and Peace Review

The Film
Sergei Bondarchuk's epic War and Peace takes Tolstoy's novel and simplifies the story into the tale of two friends through the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. The historical backdrop is one of Napoleon taking over the world and eventually trying to conquer Russia. The film retains some of the novel's central concerns but emphasises the decadence of the characters and gives the tale a proto Revolutionary spin:

"Since corrupt people unite among themselves to constitute a force, honest people must do the same. It is as simple as that"

Prince Andrei Bolkonosky is married and his wife is awaiting a child. He lusts for military glory and wants to join the army whilst his friend Pierre Bezukhoz could continue his drunken carousing or settle down into civilian life. Bezukhoz inherits his illegitimate father's fortune and settles down with an ill chosen wife whilst Bolkonosky finds himself in the midst of the battle of Austerlitz ducking bombs and certain defeat. The Prince survives and his wife dies in labour. Bezukhov meets an eager young woman, Natasha, who he helps to enter society and who falls in love with the widowed Prince. They agree to marry within a year and Natasha is tested by the whims of Pierre's wife and finally seduced by his brother in law. The Prince calls the engagement off but Pierre consoles Natasha, hiding his own feelings of love. The Prince throws himself into his soldiering. At the battle of Borudino, the Russian and French armies fight tooth and nail and both are severely depleted. Unable to stop Napoleon, the Russian troops retreat and Napoleon enters a deserted Moscow as winter hits. Pierre witnesses the desecration and looting, and he learns that his friend is wounded. The Prince reconciles with Natasha and Napoleon is forced out of Moscow to ignominious defeat. Pierre welcomes the return of the Russia he loves and embraces his hope of true love.

It would be tempting to compare this film adaptation to western epics like Gone With The Wind but that would do Bondarchuk a disservice on three grounds. Firstly, Gone With The Wind was a pulp novel unlike the literary sacred cow of Tolstoys. Secondly, although Selznicks production was epic, Bondarchuks is even more ambitious. Finally, Bondarchuk delivers a film that does justice to the source but is also supremely satisfying in its use of cinematic style and verve. Bondarchuk is not content to deliver a slavish love poem to Tolstoy, but he also delivers a film of tremendous technical ability and intelligence. The brio of some of War and Peace is breathtaking, in the battles of 1812 there is one sequence of tracking shots which goes almost without stop through about 15 different scenes, and in the ballroom sequences in the second episode the sheer size and sweep of the choreography matches the far different choreography of the huge battle scenes. Bondarchuks film is also at home in the more personal scenes, the second episode which concentrates on Natasha and her growing up is as transfixing and involving as the parts which deal with the cataclysm of war. The film making throughout is very skilled and unorthodox - Bondarchuk uses askew set-ups in emotionally darker moments, and is daring in his dream sequences. Mixage is regularly used to show images of peace and conflict in paradox, and the black humour of war gives way to its horror so that the viewer won't start to celebrate the magnificently orchestrated battles.

Bondarchuk also stars in the film as Pierre, and his character is very much an observer in contrast to the active participant of the Prince. In the end Pierre learns to embrace happiness rather than sit on the outside of life, and the call to arms that is quoted above is as much a patriotic intent as an acknowledgement that life needs to be lived. This is a summary of 7 hours plus of passionate cinema which has mixed pathos and meaning but I should not forget that there is also wit and joy. When the Russians finally say goodbye to the invading French the leader of the troops, Kutuzov, says that he sees them as men too and they will be allowed to leave but "after all who asked them to come here, it serves them right to have their mugs in shit"!

War and Peace is an incredibly rich and rewarding experience which will absorb patient viewers. Outstanding production values, imaginative direction and strong human interest are on show though the whole experience. Like many a poem to a directors homeland it won't be wholly accurate to history or the literature, but it is a tremendous set of films that serious film buffs should seek out.

The Discs
This release seems like a wholesale port of the existing Russian set with the same menus and extras. The print of the films is fully restored by Mosfilm so that all of the 403 minute duration is included after previous edited versions. This means that the audio in the English dub does jump in and out of English and Russian and I would advise watching the film using either of the Russian tracks. The video has not be restored completely and at times the difficulties with the print are obvious. It is very dark at times and print damage and grain are apparent, the later films are much better in terms of visual quality but overall this is not perfect. This seems to be because of the existing materials rather than the transfer which is good if not ultra sharp. I did not notice any of the macro-blocking that my colleague Noel tells me is on the R1 release. Further restoration may be worth waiting for but the restoration here is to be applauded. The print is anamorphic and in 2.30:1 while the original aspect ratio was 2.20:1. The restoration to the sound is well done although when the music swells it does occasionally distort. The English subtitles cover Russian dialogue but rarely translate the French dialogue in the film, generally they are perfectly legible and make sense.

As this is a port of the Russian disc, the extras are from Russian sources. The English translation of the written extras is fine if a little hi falutin, there are interesting pieces on the historical characters involved and the culture of the time. The interviews involve the film's composer and memories of some of the surviving cast. There is some archive stuff on Bondarchuk where he comes over as a passionate and meticulous man and a complete Russophile. There is also an interview with head of Mosfilm about the restoration. The lack of any Western views on the film is disappointing.

As a port of the existing Russian 5 disc set there is little to be said about this set that can't be predicted. The extras are exclusively Russian and the subtitles are not as English friendly as you'd like. The set though is a feast for fans of the film and worth a rent by any serious world cinema buff.

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