deep dives

The Fascinating Story Behind Sergei Bondarchuk’s 1968 Epic War and Peace

Photo: Continental Distributing

An epic as huge as Russia itself, Sergei Bondarchuk’s adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace remains to this day the most ambitious film you’ll ever see. And you can, indeed, finally see it. Though it was a critical and financial hit upon its U.S. release in 1968 — winning a Best Foreign Film Oscar, among many other prizes — the movie has been hard to view properly in its entirety for decades. It opens today at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in a beautiful new restoration that will make its way around the country before an eventual release on the Criterion Collection. It’s an all-timer, one of those experiences you won’t soon forget. Try to catch it on a big screen if it comes anywhere near you.

The film is 421 minutes long, playing in four parts (which is how it was released in the Soviet Union at the time, parceled out across three years), though I would also recommend watching all of it as close together as you can. That’s the best way to appreciate the movie’s radical shifts of perspective, its constant interplay of intimacy with grandeur, philosophy and spectacle. One of Bondarchuk’s aims was to tell Tolstoy’s story — which the director obviously still had to streamline, since the novel is more than a thousand pages long — without sacrificing any of its interiority, or humanity. The temptation and pressure were great to focus mainly on the big events, such as the battles of the Napoleonic era, the French invasion of Russia, and the burning of Moscow.

But Tolstoy’s godlike perspective could contain, at once, the innermost ruminations of a beleaguered soldier, or a brooding nobleman, or a nervous young girl, as well as the impossible complexity of troop maneuvers and combat heroics and grand historical tragedy. To lose any of these elements is to lose what makes Tolstoy Tolstoy. Bondarchuk certainly does the spectacle justice — boy, does he — but the extended run time and his background as an actor ensure that War and Peace ultimately remains a film about people. The novel’s multicharacter structure, following a small group of noble Russian families in the early years of the 19th century, becomes a tale centered largely around three individuals — the awkward, hesitant intellectual Pierre Bezukhov (played by Bondarchuk himself); the dashingly conflicted Andrei Bolkonsky (played by the amazing Vyacheslav Tikhonov, who was an old classmate and colleague of the director’s but was nevertheless treated mercilessly by him); and the impulsive Natasha Rostova (played by Lyudmila Saveleva, a 19-year-old ballerina at the time), who has to age over the course of the film into a woman who’s experienced her share of heartbreak and mental anguish.

That focus thankfully does not come at the expense of breadth. The picture is both a historical narrative as well as an anguished fever dream told in many voices — from the solemn whisperings of an omniscient narrator, to the nocturnal wanderings of a mad, aging prince, to the existential wonderings of an officer in the midst of the fighting … to, at one point, the inner thoughts of a wolf cornered during a hunt. Even Napoleon himself gets a few thoughts in there. All the while, the camera drifts through smoking battlefields, glittering ballrooms, and gathering clouds.

Because of shifting exchange rates and inexact data, War and Peace’s final price tag has never been fully determined; estimates have ranged from anywhere between $200 million to $700 million in today’s dollars. As Denise J. Youngblood notes in her book Bondarchuk’s War and Peace: Literary Classic to Soviet Cinematic Epic, this is also partly because the film, a prestige project financed by the Soviet government, effectively had an unlimited budget. The shoot went on for five and a half years, with occasional interruptions caused by brutal winters, camera crews quitting in rage, actors threatening to quit in rage, takes ruined by unstable local film stock, and even the director suffering a heart attack.

While the cast and crew were paid relatively meager salaries, entire divisions of Russian troops worked on the shoot at no cost to the production. The number of extras used has generally been put at 120,000, though Bondarchuk in later years claimed it was just 12,000. State archives and museums — 58 of them, to be exact — were opened up for the art directors, costumers, and prop masters. (It took six months alone to return all these uniforms, paintings, fabrics, and silverware at the end of production.) Youngblood also notes that “thousands of ordinary citizens sent personal period items for use in the film.” Getting this movie made properly was a matter of national pride.

There had been previous adaptations of War and Peace made in the waning days of Czarist Russia — the first in 1912, just two years after Tolstoy’s death — but none as massive as this. In fact, it was the 1956 release of King Vidor’s sprawling American version of War and Peace, starring Henry Fonda and Audrey Hepburn, which inspired the USSR’s attempt. Vidor’s production was a big hit with Soviet audiences, attracting 31.4 million viewers. But it also outraged filmmakers and officials who felt that an American adaptation of Russia’s greatest national epic could not be allowed to be the definitive version of Tolstoy’s novel. The Central Committee was deluged with letters denouncing the Americans and calling for a Soviet effort in response. “Why is it that this novel, the pride of Russian national character, was adapted in America and released in their cinema halls?” Bondarchuk himself wrote. “And we ourselves are not able to adapt it? It’s a disgrace to the entire world!”

But the patriotic nature of the enterprise did not, as one might have feared, result in a dimensionless piece of warlike propaganda. The Ukrainian-born Bondarchuk, an acclaimed actor who was only making his second feature as a director, was not a member of the Communist party, and he benefited from a new era of relative openness in Soviet culture that had begun not long after Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953. Starting in the mid-1950s, the so-called “thaw” affected all levels of society and culture, and it had a major impact on film as well. From the late 1950s and through the 1960s, Soviet cinema enjoyed a renaissance on par with the 1920s glory days of Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov. It was in this atmosphere that Bondarchuk was chosen to direct War and Peace, over Stalin-era favorites such as former Mosfilm studio chief Ivan Pyryev.

This period of freedom might also be why War and Peace, despite being one of the most grandiose epics of all time, is so stunningly inventive, flying from idea to idea, technique to technique, with the energy of a film student and the confidence of an old master. It’s as if the director and his crew felt at liberty to try just about anything that came into their heads — and, amazingly, most of their crackpot schemes worked. The combat scenes are justly celebrated, with thousands and thousands of extras constantly in motion and formation, the landscape bursting with tightly coordinated cannon fusillades and thundering cavalry charges. The camera never seems to stop — one moment, it’s whip-panning at ground level among the faces of soldiers, the next it’s rising up into the skies to take in the immense patterns of troop movements.

Bondarchuk’s crew used extremely long, swiftly swiveling cranes and remote-control cameras to achieve rapid changes in perspective. The camera was often put on helicopters and planes and sent to shoot the battlefield from among the clouds. You can see, in this contemporaneous documentary, some of the makeshift trickery they employed — putting the cameraman on a dolly, then letting him step off it and walk through the trenches, then hoisting him on a crane, all in the course of a single shot. (Some of these are techniques Martin Scorsese would later perfect on pictures like Raging Bull — only the Soviets did it pre-Steadicam, while shooting on a dodgy, Soviet-made 70mm film stock that reportedly had mosquitoes stuck in the emulsion.)

They also put the camera on zip lines and let it rip through vast stretches of battlefield, careening through clusters of fighting soldiers and exploding artillery and massive towers of flame; the cables burned out after three or four takes. This method was also used on a celebrated shot during one of the film’s pivotal ball sequences, as the camera hurls through a huge, crowded ballroom with a perspective that suggests both the all-encompassing vision of a godlike being and the relentless forward charge of history. (For other shots during the ball sequences, cameramen strapped on roller skates in order to spin around the dancers while keeping focus on their faces.)

During the climactic fire of Moscow, Bondarchuk’s crew built a huge wooden set, and then torched it in sections until there was nothing left. The verisimilitude of these scenes is staggering. As the characters — in particular Bondarchuk himself, playing the grieving Pierre Bezukhov — run, wander, and scream through the burning city, those are clearly real flames surrounding them, and real gusts of black ash choking them. Needless to say, most of these shots had to be done in one take.

In their headstrong determination to show us things we’ve never seen before, Bondarchuk and his crew never seem to be after pure, how-did-they-do-that bedazzlement, but rather a sense of life lived as it was then. The greatest set pieces give us newfound perspective. Early in the film, the czar’s entrance at a ball is depicted through a tracking shot that takes in the hordes of partygoers squeezing together and craning their necks to get a good look at the monarch; they then quickly split apart and politely curtsy whenever he actually passes by them. The bottlenecking becomes an intricate mazurka, and both the grace and surprise of this moment conveys a sense of what it must have felt like to be in the presence of a supposed divinely ordained monarch. (The film is, by the way, conflicted in its depiction of Alexander I; he is often greeted as a hero by those around him, and he does after all manage to defeat Napoleon — but he’s also occasionally portrayed as petty and out of touch.) Later, as news of the French invasion spreads through another ballroom, we see the officers present start to gather and slip out of the crowd. The coordination of the movements here has a terrifying beauty; many of these men are going to their deaths.

Of course, War and Peace was also intended, on some level, to showcase Russian endurance and might during a treacherous part of the conflict between the superpowers. The arms race and the space race had already begun in earnest some years before Bondarchuk went into production, and the so-called thaw was still fragile and ever-changing. Despite the openness, this era also included some of the most terrifying events of the Cold War — particularly the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and the Cuban Missile Crisis, the latter of which occurred while the cameras were rolling on War and Peace. Premier Nikita Khrushchev, largely credited with inaugurating the thaw, had been removed from power and replaced by the hardline Leonid Brezhnev by the time War and Peace came out in theaters. Although the period of cultural openness and cinematic experimentation would last a couple more years, Bondarchuk’s work had begun filming in a Soviet Union that was quite different from the one in which it would open.

Perhaps that’s why, after an extremely successful initial reception for Parts One and Two, the domestic box-office receipts for Parts Three and Four were somewhat disappointing. Oddly enough, the West seemed to appreciate the movie a bit more at the time. Over the ensuing decades, its reputation has risen and fallen and risen again. Bondarchuk himself never quite achieved anything nearly as glorious; his subsequent international production of Waterloo was considered a massive flop. War and Peace’s size, as well as the fact that its film elements were not well preserved, have always made it a tough picture to watch properly. That’s why this current opportunity should not be missed. I have never seen anything that comes close to matching it in scope.

The Wild Story Behind Sergei Bondarchuk’s Epic War and Peace