One of the most massively ambitious epics in the history of cinema, Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace, opens today at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater in a dazzling new restoration. Never before released in the U.S. in its full seven-hour cut, this adaptation of Tolstoy’s classic novel was conceived at the height of the Cold War as a means of one-upping Hollywood’s most lavish spectacles. The Soviet authorities granted Bondarchuk an enormous budget, lent him thousands of soldiers to use as extras, and ordered the directors of museums across the USSR to let him borrow whatever historical artifacts he needed for the production. The shoot lasted four years, and the final result went on to win the Academy Award for best foreign-language film in 1969.
Critics past and present have sung the movie’s praises. Roger Ebert was awed by Bondarchuk’s achievement, declaring, “you are never, ever, going to see anything to equal it,” but, even more importantly, praising the way the film balances “the spectacular, the human, and the intellectual.” Revisiting War and Peace now at Slant, Keith Watson describes it as “less a straightforward adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel than a symphonic representation of its themes—its sense of drama, portent, and grandeur.”