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War and Peace on screen

I’m 15 years old and I have just thrown up in the lavatory at the movie theater. Shaking too hard to reach the paper towels, I need to hide out there for the entire intermission of the third installment of Sergei Bondarchuk’s epic 1967 film adaptation of War and Peace. In its uncut version, the film is almost 9 hours long, requiring four separate screenings of almost 3 hours each, shown on two consecutive weekends of two nights each.

This is the first war film I have ever seen depicting in vivid colour and graphic close-ups, the chaos and brutality of the battlefield. I had grown up on Hollywood’s war with The Great Escape and Von Ryan’s Express. Despite the passage of almost 50 years, Bondarchuk’s “Battle of Borodino” episode still holds every record it broke in war film production. According to The Guinness Book of World Records, 12,000 men and 800 horses were used, the total cast of extras reaching 15,000. The aerial swooping cameras, swerving and dipping drone-like over interminable killing fields, were a cinematic innovation in 1968. The only thing comparable in my young viewing experience (and in the references of the film critics) was the camera pan over the Georgia-sun-baked and blood-soaked plaza, overlaid with miles of wounded begging for water and tugging at Scarlett O’Hara’s apron as she sought for the doctor to attend her cousin’s childbirth. But Gone with the Wind, in best Hollywood style, spared its pre-World War II audience: the camera panned backwards and away from the too painful vision of the wounded men as recognizable individuals, the bloody rags were minimally gory and moans were muted. Bondarchuk’s aerial investigation dove in for close-ups of every death and bloody encounter, forcing the audience to see each combat story in graphic detail, as Homer’s Iliad demands of its audience with every spear-thrust through the eye. We must recognize the destruction of a human being in every death, one after another through the chaos of hundreds and thousands killing and being killed, relentlessly, endlessly, ceaselessly. In the entire sequence, there is barely any dialogue. The Bondarchuk “Battle of Borodino” installment in its uncut version lasted 84 minutes, the equivalent of a feature length film.

In its spectacular display of the Red Army and the Red Cavalry, the episode was interpreted as one enormous cannon salvo fired at the height of the Cold War to vaunt the USSR’s military prowess. “It was a disgrace,” Bondarchuk complained, that “our national masterpiece” existed on film only in the Hollywood version by King Vidor. Highly acclaimed at the time, the 1956 American-Italian production was a valiant Cinema Luxe attempt, but necessarily did a hatchet job on the story lines to compress them into movie-house format. The low production values of the 1972 20-episode BBC adaptation, with a strangely Dostoevskian Anthony Hopkins as Pierre, lacked the budget for spectacular visuals.

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Film still from Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace, 1967.

CGI and other technological breakthroughs have advanced possibilities for the small screen, facilitating some of the stunning effects of the current BBC production, but its cinematographers remain deeply indebted to the Bondarchuk version, from Prince Andrei’s whirling gnarled oak tree to the aerial camera work on the battlefields. In the 1960s, making great masterpieces “relevant” was the industry mandate; currently, making them accessible to contemporary audiences is the BBC gold standard. Andrew Davies, once described as the “serial sexer-up” of costume drama, is true to form here in taking screen time to render explicit what was only a brief rumour of incest, or going full frontal in an effort to shock and recruit his audience. So in terms of sex and death, this most recent adaptation delivers. But does it get Tolstoy right?

Bondarchuk demanded of his film collective that, “first and foremost, we must enter into Tolstoy’s world,” “we must become Tolstoy’s comrades.” At the same time, the demands of Socialist Realism meant that Bondarchuk had to make Prince Andrei “our contemporary”– the New Soviet Hero. Although the filmmaker had more freedom during the Thaw and under Brezhnev than he might have done five years before, he still necessarily suppressed most of Tolstoy’s philosophical reflections on war and peasant uprisings. As a result, his scenario skimmed over Nikolai Rostov’s rescue of the mourning Princess Maria from rebellious peasants — a risky narrative in a culture that preferred to celebrate Tolstoy as the father of the Revolution.

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Nikolai Rostov as played by Jack Lowden in the BBC adaptation 2016.

The new BBC production arguably achieves something very strong by allowing Nikolai and Maria’s story to unfold completely. Usually submarined in film and television adaptations because his story “does not advance the action,” Nikolai Rostov has nonetheless been proposed by leading critics to be the real hero of War and Peace.

Readers of the work will appreciate what Davies has done to stage Tolstoy’s imagined version of his parents’ romance. These episodes have at last received a sustained cinematographic treatment in a beautifully filmed series of understated scenes played with simplicity and power. There is no one like Tolstoy for revealing the inner monologue of a man and a woman in a romantic encounter. The author tells us Nikolai and Maria are drawn to each other precisely because their every word and action instinctively displays restraint and sensitivity. Translating this kind of understatement to the screen is a challenge for the director and the players. And to Davies’ credit, Tolstoy’s theme of fate and individual freedom manifests here as well: never has Nikolai asserted his autonomy more forcefully than in resisting his mother’s pressure to marry an heiress, yet nowhere else in his narrative does apparently random chance effect such a momentous change in a character’s trajectory.

Davies has given us much to appreciate in his fidelity to Tolstoy’s portrayal of Nikolai Rostov, and the delicacy of his scenes with Princess Maria reminds us that, just as the visual spectacle of war could barely comprehend the meaning of each individual soldier’s death, so a dramatic scenario can only depict the surfaces of the characters’ inner world. Beyond the ballrooms and battlefield spectacles with their iconic scenes of Andrei’s ‘brave death’, it is the inner world of Nikolai Rostov that tells us most about the soldier’s experience of war. We must turn to Tolstoy’s writing for that. Fortunately, there should be plenty of time to read this great literary masterpiece through before the next adaptation makes it to the big screen.

Featured image: Still from Sergei Bondarchuk’s 1967 film of War and Peace.

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