Blu-ray Review: War and Peace | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Saturday, June 6th, 2020  

War and Peace

Studio: The Criterion Collection

Aug 30, 2019 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

To call Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace an epic film is a vast understatement of the sheer imagination and passionate professionalism that was poured into every aspect of the production. Released in four parts from 1965 to 1967, the work is more akin to a feature-length tetralogy than a singular film, with a combined runtime of just over seven hours. Released as the most expensive film produced in the complete history of the Soviet Union, the film was a hotbed of controversy between critics and audiences worldwide. However, it didn’t stop the film from becoming a sensation at international box offices, and receiving awards en masse. War and Peace has subsequently gone down in history as the most magnificent adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s classic, and a film highly emblematic of the social transformations taking place in the Soviet Union; a time later known as the Khrushchev Thaw.

After the success of King Vidor’s 1956 American-Italian version of War and Peace in the Soviet Union, the Ministry of Culture published an open letter, declaring that a Russian-produced adaptation was “a matter of honor for the Soviet cinema industry” and their aim was to outdo the Americans in epic filmmaking. While many prominent filmmakers lobbied for the position helming this mammoth production, the Ministry would award the chair to Bondarchuk, who had directed his debut feature Fate of a Man in 1959 (after establishing his career as a rising actor in the late 1940s), and had won the very first awarded Grand Prize at the Moscow International Film Festival. There have been numerous rumors as to why such a young director was chosen over other premier Soviet filmmakers, including a convoluted conspiracy that his appointment was concocted by the enemies of Stalinist director Ivan Pyryev, but it soon became Bondarchuk’s ticket into international prominence nevertheless.

Set during the French invasion of Russia, the story covers five aristocratic families of Tsarist Russia. Each part of the film series is focused on specific members of each of these families, with numerous subplots and philosophical musings prevalent in the original work either dramatically truncated or completely abandoned. From the melodramatic turmoil of noble society, to the trauma of battlefield experience, each of the four parts weaves a complicated spider’s web of connections and collusions between characters and settings, though most of the narrative follows the exploits and tragedies surrounding Pierre Bezukhov (Bondarchuk), the illegitimate son of a noble, and Natasha Rostova (Lyudmila Savelyeva), a young heiress. All of these events and interactions eventually become highly emblematic of the massive sociocultural shift that defined Russia during the tumult of the new Napoleonic era, as well as the contemporary transition from the Khrushchev Thaw to the Brezhnev Stagnation, in which the film was made.

As aformentioned, to call War and Peace an epic film vastly undersells the scale and vision present in this work, a film which took over seven years from development to screen to complete. But what is even more impressive about this fact is the countless conflicts, challenges, and tragedies that befell the production from almost minute one. From the Soviet-produced Shostka film, on which the movie was shot, being of “horrible quality,” and leading numerous scenes to be filmed several times due to defective stock, to Bondarchuk suffering several major heart attacks, even culminating in a few instances where he was pronounced legally dead. Battle sequences involving hundreds to thousands of extras, and literal tonnes of props, costumes, and explosives made each take all the more daunting and expensive - but the end result is nothing short of spectacular.

Where King Vidor’s earlier version had captured the upper class melodrama with classic Hollywood finesse, Bondarchuk presents the history, majesty, and travesty of the age (and the novel) with such a thoughtful resonance and emotional understanding that fairly few historical dramas have ever managed to equal. For all of the defects in the film and equipment, cinematographers Anatoly Petritsky, Yu-Lan Chen, and Alexander Shelenkov managed to make a film visually splendid and wholly innovative, not only for Soviet cinema, but also on the international stage (though Petritsky became the sole director of photography after arguments between Bondarchuk, Chen and Shelenkov lead to the pair departing the project). The sets are constructed meticulously to resemble the accurate appearance of the Russian aristocracy, borrowing many of its set pieces directly from actual historical museums - some of which were nearly cleared out to be used in the movie.

The cast flits between the psychologically-charged acting native to Russia, to typical blockbuster melodrama, and sometimes it works, other times it does not - though this may be a matter of personal taste rather than an acknowledgement or dismissal of skill. While numerous critics at the time lambasted Bondarchuk’s involvement as the film’s lead, I cannot say that this criticism held up under scrutiny; I believed each cast member was their assigned character, even if the acting didn’t always mesh or flow together. However, regardless of my handful of minor gripes with the movie, I must say that War and Peace is as groundbreaking and awe-inspiring as it ever was, and consistently reaffirms its status as a world-class epic. And the great team over at Criterion seems to share this sentiment, as their new Blu-ray release of this film series is not only absoltuely gorgeous, but stacked with numerous supplemental features allowing further understanding and context surrounding the film to come to light.

The film’s new 2K digital restoration is equipped with a 5.1 audio soundtrack and crisp English subtitles. We’re given newly recorded interviews with Petritsky, and Bondarchuk’s son Fedor (another filmmaker), which are buttressed by a pair of documentaries on the making of the film, and a 1967 television show featuring Savelyeva and Bondarchuk. The short subject Bondarchuk’s “War and Peace”: Literary Classic to Soviet Cinematic Epic, which provides deeper cultural and historical context for the production, is provided and hosted by historian Denise Youngblood. The release is rounded out by the Janus Films re-release trailer, and a phenomenal essay included in the case by the indomitable film critic Ella Taylor (printed on the reverse side of a small theatrical poster). Overall, the release is as slick and stacked with goodies as only Criterion seems to deliver, and certainly will not disappoint fans of any stripe.

War and Peace has long existed in the annals of the epic film pantheon, and this release only serves the purpose of quashing those who believe that its fame is undeserving.



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