War and Peace: Saint Petersburg Fiddles, Moscow Burns

In July 1998, while attending the Moscow International Film Festival, I was shown around the cavernous lot of Mosfilm, the official studio through which the bulk of Soviet cinema was filtered. Unlike the festival, which was finding its capitalist feet with a blast of Hollywood-style glitz, Mosfilm was a ghost town. As my host, the studio’s newly appointed head, Karen Shakhnazarov, explained sadly, less than a decade after the fall of the Soviet Union, state funding for films had all but collapsed. He told me that the studio’s output had shrunk from a robust four hundred films a year in the eighties—when government money was still pouring into approved artistic projects, as it had been since Nikita Khrushchev’s post-Stalinist thaw of the early sixties—to a paltry four. 

One notable recipient of the Kremlin’s lavishness during the studio’s glory days was an ambitious adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, released in four parts in 1966 and ’67 and directed by Sergei Bondarchuk, a young Turk who had made only one other film, a 1959 adaptation of Mikhail Sholokhov’s short story “The Fate of a Man.” Extravagantly resourced and shot in 70 mm, this eight-hour epic was planned to mark the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Borodino, a major event in Tolstoy’s novel. 

It was also hoped that Bondarchuk’s version would represent a Cold War cultural victory over the United States by outshining King Vidor’s 1956 War and Peace, a splashy Hollywood release starring Audrey Hepburn as Natasha Rostova and a quaintly miscast Henry Fonda as the portly, decidedly unheroic key figure, Pierre Bezukhov. A box-office flop in the U.S., Vidor’s film had played to large audiences in the Soviet Union. Newcomer though he was, and with a penchant for bold experimentation, Bondarchuk was also the kind of traditional Russian nationalist the Soviet leadership was looking for to upstage Vidor. “Why is it that this novel, the pride of Russian national character, was adapted in America?” Bondarchuk wrote to friends in 1961. “It’s a disgrace to the entire world!” Released to audiences at home in four parts, his War and Peace doesn’t lack for Soviet-style nationalism. As far as state-sponsored prestige pictures go, though, it’s a magnificent specimen of the breed, and one that keeps imaginative faith with Tolstoy’s evolving humanism and ecstatic spiritual inquiry.

I saw War and Peace for the first time in 1970, in a drafty movie theater during a year’s sojourn in Scotland, where, as a freshly minted university graduate, I was working at a job that didn’t come close to filling my days or my mind. Hooked on the melodrama of all things Russian, I had just filled a cold, wet Glasgow winter reading Tolstoy’s massive 1869 opus. So I was delighted when my boyfriend came home waving tickets to the Soviet War and Peace. We must have seen the butchered version of Bondarchuk’s film, hideously dubbed and cut for Western audiences. But to this child of a quiet London suburb where (so I thought) nothing ever happened, a film that asked, “How shall we live?” and answered on the broadest, deepest of canvases came as the antidote to my post-university ennui and indirection. Bondarchuk’s War and Peace offered glitzy balls and epic battles; a love triangle, albeit one more dreamy than steamy; a two-family saga that flayed imperial Russia’s heedless superrich while redeeming several of its spoiled scions; spiritual agony and ecstasy by the gallon resolving into equanimity.

Since my visit to Moscow, Mosfilm, though still state-owned, has rebounded with funding from commercial venues and other ventures, such as film festivals and YouTube releases of classics from before and during the Soviet era. Among them, after a slew of inferior resurrections, is a proud new War and Peace, restored at full length in 2K resolution and with the endorsement of Russian president Vladimir Putin, who wants (according to Denise J. Youngblood, author of the lively book Bondarchuk’s “War and Peace”: Literary Classic to Soviet Cinematic Epic) to “restore a proper patriotic culture” to the motherland.

Tolstoy wrote his sprawling novel, set during and just after the Napoleonic Wars but inspired by the Decembrist uprising of 1825, in six years. Bondarchuk took nearly as long to make the film, meanwhile suffering two heart attacks, one of which (reportedly experienced while watching Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1964 I Am Cuba) almost killed him. No wonder: adapting War and Peace for the screen presents enormous challenges, and the director also plays the central character, Pierre Bezukhov, whose odyssey from unhappy wastrel to moral and philosophical seer drew heavily on Tolstoy’s own evolution from womanizing gambler to enlightened social reformer and champion of Russians outside his own aristocratic class. 

The difficulty of this particular adaptation arises not just from the dilemma of how to find a visual language for the inner crises that plague the trio at the novel’s heart—Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, Pierre Bezukhov, and Natasha Rostova. The novel’s length, its multitude of characters (the film has three hundred speaking parts), its mushrooming subplots and digressions into philosophy, politics, and religion, famously moved Henry James to dismiss it as a “large loose baggy monster.” That it is—as well as a flawed masterpiece that both emulated and broke with the structural forms of the nineteenth-century Western novel. Like Charles Dickens, whom he read avidly, Tolstoy was a precise and intimate observer of the physical and psychological details that reveal the essence of character. His battle scenes lend themselves readily to an epic war movie, and Bondarchuk made one with enough creative flair to echo the novelist’s bold venturing across genre lines, as he oscillates between the public and the domestic.

For Bondarchuk, landscape and weather offered a mercurial register—foreboding, ecstatic, terrifying—of Tolstoy’s inner and outer shifts.”

For Bondarchuk, landscape and weather offered a mercurial register—foreboding, ecstatic, terrifying—of Tolstoy’s inner and outer shifts. War and Peace opens the first of its four chapters, Andrei Bolkonsky, with a slow pan across a peaceful vista of sunlit green fields. We hear birdsong, followed by the distant pop of a cannon and the lone scream of a soldier, a muted hint of the scenes of carnage that will paint the canvas of Napoleon’s invasion and their impact on two aristocratic Saint Petersburg families, the rigidly dour Bolkonskys and the earthy, free-spirited Rostovs.

For now, though, the camera lifts us up into the clouds—for the first of many ethereal views of the human folly unfolding below—then sets us down in a Saint Petersburg salon, where a lavish soiree is in full swing. Here the pace slows almost to a tableau, with the idle rich moving languidly about a palatial home as they exchange ill-informed chatter about Russia’s impending effort, with Austria and England, to stem the Napoleonic tide. The radical disjunction between these two mutually isolated environments—one fiddles while the other burns—will repeat throughout the movie, inexorably narrowing the gulf between the chaos of war and the mindless partying of the aristocracy via the stories of the two friends at the saga’s heart and the quicksilver child-woman they both love. 

At the soiree, we meet Andrei (Vyacheslav Tikhonov) and Bondarchuk’s Pierre, two young nobles who jointly embody the complexities of Tolstoy’s literary temperament. Each voices his discontents: the rugged but congenitally glum Andrei, with his unhappy marriage to a pregnant young wife, Lise (Anastasia Vertinskaya), and his contempt for his libertine peers; tubby Pierre, the illegitimate but favored son of the dying Count Bezukhov, his doubts about the wisdom of taking on Napoleon. While Andrei prepares to go to the front as adjutant to General Kutuzov (a marvelous Boris Zakhava), the hoary old commander in charge of military operations, Pierre goes along listlessly with the debauched revelry of the officer class. He’s no playboy, however, and when his father’s death, in a somber, candlelit scene straight out of Sergei Eisenstein’s period films, makes Pierre rich overnight, he allows himself to be married off to Hélène (played by Bondarchuk’s wife, Irina Skobtseva), a vacuously coquettish beauty who soon lands him in a ludicrous duel, played out as farce, with her putative lover. 

Following Andrei to the Battle of Austerlitz, where Napoleon’s forces laid waste to the Russo-Austrian ones, Bondarchuk stages the first of the film’s three epic battles. We see cocky infantry marching through villages, high on delusion and the adulation of peasants. Gazing at the world with a disdain that barely masks his profound malaise, Tikhonov’s Andrei makes a hunky romantic lead. But he is less a character than a representation of Tolstoy’s inquiry into the tenuousness of heroism, and the tension between a soldier’s lust for glory and disillusion with the futility of war. In the ensuing fog of combat, Andrei lies wounded, and we hear him in voice-over inwardly preparing himself for an expected death.

Returning instead from the front in a funk, and reeling from Lise’s untimely death, Andrei catches sight of Natasha frolicking in the woods, and is instantly smitten. It is here that Bondarchuk introduces, running gracefully from room to room at a lavish dance thrown by her jovial father (Viktor Stanitsyn), the charming sylph who will become a complicating link between Andrei and Pierre. Tolstoy drew on his wife and his sister-in-law to create Natasha, played in the film by the ballerina Ludmila Savelyeva. An unknown, cast by Bondarchuk at age nineteen in part because “she was like a clean white sheet of paper,” Savelyeva was surely also chosen for her waifish resemblance to Audrey Hepburn, whose performance in the Vidor War and Peace had delighted audiences in the Soviet Union. Despite having to contend with Tolstoy’s attenuated idea of the “good woman,” the inexperienced actor sustains a radiantly vibrant presence as she evolves from captivating child to fecund wife and earth mother.

Part 2 of War and Peace, named for Natasha, is framed by her yearlong betrothal to Andrei, which is derailed by a foolish dalliance on her part. The chapter is dominated by two magnificently choreographed set pieces that lay out clashing visions of Russian character. The film opens with Natasha’s first ball, an all-stops-out staging that shows off the stupendous wealth of a Saint Petersburg high society anachronistically modeled on the French aristocracy. Bondarchuk sent four cameramen on roller skates with handheld cameras to fluidly bob and weave amid the more than five hundred dancers, flanked by liveried footmen. All in white, Natasha waltzes through the worshipful crowd in the arms of Andrei, who was egged on to ask her to dance by a solicitous, if palpably envious, Pierre. 

That elite class is rebuked, if not repudiated, in two sequences at the hunting lodge of Natasha’s uncle, deep in a wintry countryside. Here, the young woman, counting the days until she can marry her prince, establishes herself both as an accomplished mistress of the hunt and an instinctive interpreter of Russian folk dance, to the smiling admiration of assembled servants in traditional dress. Today’s moviegoer might chortle at this ingenuously rustic sequence, but it serves as a charming footnote to the visceral hunt scenes that precede it, some of them audaciously shot from the point of view of a beautiful, yellow-eyed wolf before we see it run to ground, then trussed and helpless on a hunter’s horse. Tolstoy, himself an avid hunter, would surely have delighted as much in the physicality of these scenes as in their insistence on the earthiness of the Russian soul.

One can only marvel at the technical virtuosity of the special effects, mounted with aerial and crane shots, split screens, dissolves, and slow pans across hundreds of corpses strewn bent and twisted on the battlefield.”


Such simple joys prove fleeting, as the action moves to a broader canvas with a wide shot of soldiers swarming onto the field at Borodino, site of Napoleon’s infamous 1812 rout of the Imperial Russian Army that nevertheless—in Tolstoy’s contested reading, at least—would help turn the tide in Russia’s favor. No less balletic than a Saint Petersburg ball, the Borodino battle sequences form the pyrotechnic jewel in the crown of Bondarchuk’s War and Peace. By official order, the director was provided with military planes, fifteen thousand soldiers, and the free run of museum collections for props, along with an estimated 120,000 extras, twenty-three tons of explosives, and ten thousand smoke grenades. One can only marvel at the technical virtuosity of the special effects, mounted with aerial and crane shots, split screens, dissolves, and slow pans across hundreds of corpses strewn bent and twisted on the battlefield. The battle—which forms the long centerpiece of the third part (The Year 1812), intercut with swerves to Moscow and a still-oblivious Saint Petersburg—is crammed with indelible images: a crowd of naked grunts running joyfully to bathe in a lake; a soldier looking down at his own severed leg; old, fat, half-blind General Kutuzov brandishing a half-eaten chicken leg as he waves off a timid officer bearing tidings of defeat; a spinning cannonball that falls at Prince Andrei’s feet, threatening to seal his fate; the close-up faces of the brave, loyal, ordinary men who occupied an increasing share of Tolstoy’s compassion via his hapless witness, Pierre Bezukhov.

The genius of this sequence lies not just in its epic scale but in the way Bondarchuk commutes between ritual pomp and bloody chaos, glory and futility intertwined in a war that, a sonorous voice-over intones, runs “counter to human reason and human nature.” Toward the end, on one hill stands Napoleon (Vladislav Strzhelchik), a spectral, impassive automaton, driven only by lust for power and indifferent to the massive suffering he has inflicted on the enemy and on his own army. On the other stands Kutuzov, emblematic of war’s irrational incoherence as he alternately babbles like a buffoon and plays the wily sage, plotting to strike back at Napoleon merely by waiting him out.  

Inevitably, perhaps, War and Peace will be remembered for the bravura battlefield set pieces enabled by Bondarchuk’s boldly experimental flair and resources that, proportionally speaking, would dwarf those allotted to many blockbusters today. But he also deftly applies silence (interrupted only by ambient noise—a ticking clock, the bark of a dog, or the chirp of crickets), in both the action and the domestic drama, to heighten the sense of terror: devastation in the former, and private anguish in the latter. 

The sacking and burning of Moscow that dominates the fourth part (Pierre Bezukhov) of War and Peace took ten months of planning (burning structures don’t lend themselves to retakes), with six cameras deployed on the ground and more in helicopters above. It is here that Bezukhov comes into his own, not just as a mouthpiece for Tolstoy’s grand humanism but also as a flesh-and-blood man, flawed and bumbling, for sure, but minutely observant like his creator, and capable of change and complex reflection. 

Critics complained that Bondarchuk, in his forties during the production, was too old to play Bezukhov, who is in his twenties when we meet him. But the director’s bearlike girth and lumbering gait, his bespectacled moon face and perpetual air of blinking befuddlement, prove a great fit for Bezukhov’s role as a kind of holy fool whose awakening conscience and compassion carry us through the cataclysmic changes brought about in his country and in the people he loves. Stumbling from scenes of carnage at Borodino to a Moscow set ablaze by its own fleeing citizens, Pierre, his face and ridiculous white top hat spattered with mud and blood, careens through the chaotic melee of fighters, fire, and explosions. 

In the final chapter of War and Peace, Bezukhov bears appalled witness again, this time dressed as a peasant, to the sacking of Moscow by Napoleon’s troops. His attempts to save civilians land him in captivity, where the kindly nobleman acquires the same respect for the courage, loyalty, and generosity of the common man that moved Tolstoy to educate and free his own serfs. With Pierre to guide us, the portentous voice-over that often clogs the action is hardly necessary. All the inner life we need shows in Bondarchuk’s minute facial changes, from bewilderment to anger to sorrow and pity and, finally, to serenity as he arrives at a new understanding of the world and his place in it. 

Pierre may lack physical courage, but he enlarges into a Tolstoyan hero when, hungry and ragged in a shell of a building, he suddenly erupts into raucous laughter. A lowly soldier has taught him the meaning of life in the will of God, a deity remade into a true egalitarian whose will is found in all people and things. One doesn’t have to be a believer to stand in awe of the physical grandeur, the spiritual inquiry, or the ecstatic hope for human happiness of Tolstoy’s vision. We just have to be willing to give ourselves over, like Pierre, to becoming joyful specks in a vast universe filled with wonder and terror, over which we have no control. 

Bondarchuk died in 1994 of heart disease, having been dismissed by many of his peers as a party hack. Let him now rest easy in his grave: War and Peace, which won an Academy Award for best foreign-language film in 1969, now has the restoration it deserves. For all its moments of bombast and revisionist history—Bondarchuk rightly held himself accountable to Tolstoy, not Henry James, and to literature, not history—I found this flawed epic, in all its monumental too-muchness, its embrace of the moral life and of human happiness as worthy of discussion, every bit as thrilling the second time around.