Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Sergei Bondarchuk's WAR AND PEACE (1968)

Sergei Bondarchuk's seven hour retelling of Tolstoy's WAR AND PEACE is how cinema should be: an all-engulfing total experience. Filmed with a budget that would be unthinkable today over five years in authentic locations, the movie simply feels real. Young Natasha Rostov ages before our eyes. When an abductor tries to tempt her away he is chased off through six foot high snow in the Russian winter. A royal ball sees real couples dancing the polonaise properly in a real palace. But where the film really benefits is in the battle scenes where Red Army units don histroric uniforms and essentially re-enact sequences. And by re-enact, I mean literally fire canon, mount cavalry charges and get thrown from horses. The smoke is intense, the feeling of organised mayhem overwhelming and when horses throw men they genuinely look spooked by the sound of the canon. The injury count must have been very high, and the movie certainly would not pass the animal cruelty lobby's critical eye.

And, of course, the film benefits from having time to breathe. This is not to say that the novel is not abridged. Prince Bolkonsky and Count Bezukhov's adventures with Napoleon get heavily reduced, which is rather sad. But the adaptation does succeed in picking out the major storylines and giving them enough room to develop. So, for instance, the scene where Natasha and Nikolai go hunting with their Uncle is shown in full - recreating an old-fashioned hunting scene which would not exist today. It is a glorious luxury. Or imagine the fact that the Battle of Borodino gets a full ninety minutes in Part Three! Fans of military history will be in heaven.

In broad terms, the movie focuses on battles and love stories rather than side-plots and political intrigue. (Plot spoilers follow so those familiar with the text can see what has been excised.) Part One sees the dashing Prince Bolkonsky - already bored with his pretty wife - leave Russia for the Battle of Austerlitz - where Napoleon routs the Austro-Russian alliance. His friend Pierre Bezukhov is transformed from a drunken illegitimate son to a Count and foolishly marries a beautiful but unfaithful woman. His friendship with the Rostov family, and their little daughter Natasha increases. In Part Two, a widowed Prince Bolkonsky falls in love with an older Natasha and embarks upon a long engagement before returning to the front. She is seduced by Bezukhov's brother-in-law in an act of revenge and is shamed in Bolkonsky's eyes. Pierre is sympathetic. Thus ends four hours of cinema! In part three, we see Pierre at the bloody Battle of Borodino and in part four, the storylines are rationalised.

(Spoilers over) Cinematically, apart from the epic scope of the film, it benefits from an outstanding cast, and ridiculously high quality production values. The battle scenes are shot with a real understanding of military history. However, the film rather presupposes that the audience know the story. Everything is very subtle - glances and whispers - rather than Hollywood spoon-feeding. If you are unfamiliar with the text you should probably watch the Hollywood version first! Jorim was rather lost - the motives for the malicious seduction of Natasha were, for example, lost on him. The other confusion arises from the rare but annoying bit of Soviet propoganda. This occurs after the Battle of Borodino where a marginal French victory is turned into a victory for the Soviet fatherland! Five minutes failure in seven hours, though, is perhaps excusable.

The filming style is beautiful - and you should really try and see this on the big screen if it comes your way. However, the cinematographer' strength is also his weakness. The camera is ever fluid, wandering through balls and soirees like an author noticing little occurences here and there. It brings a feeling of immediacy and intimacy. However, sometimes, the camera movements are simply too rough, too quick and disorienting - as though the cameraman lacked the right equipment.

Overall, though, this is truly epic, total cinema. No other film will ever quite match up to it. It becomes the benchmark - more than Citizen Kane, Dr Strangelove or any other pantheon film. An outstanding achievement.

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